How a Ukrainian-born solicitor in Manchester is helping refugees fleeing the Russian invasion

Iryna O’Reilly, a Ukraine-born solicitor in Manchester, is helping refugees fleeing the war navigate the UK asylum process.
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A Ukrainian-born solicitor who works in Manchester has spoken about how she is using her legal expertise to help refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine navigate the UK asylum process.

Iryna O’Reilly has lived in England for more than 20 years and works for Barings Law and spoke about her horror and grief at seeing the country she grew up in destroyed and her need to help those trying to escape the war.

She also described how members of her own family had been forced to flee from their homes due to the conflict and how language barriers are one of the biggest problems Ukrainian people face in seeking asylum in the UK.

Iryna shared her story with ManchesterWorld as we mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine ordered by president Vladimir Putin.

How has Iryna O’Reilly been helping refugees fleeing the invasion of Ukraine?

Iryna will be offering her services for free to people fleeing the country who are now looking to process asylum applications for leave to remain in the UK.

She has been living in England for more than two decades, getting her law degree from The University of Manchester in 2010 and going on to become a solicitor.

Iryna said she felt it was her duty to do what she could for people fleeing the Russian aggression in Ukraine and also drew on her own negative experiences of the asylum system, when she had to turn down a job in 2016 as she needed a spouse visa to start the role and it was not processed in time.

She said: “The personal struggles I faced while building my life and career in the UK have shaped who I am as a person and solicitor. A year on, and we must not look back at the war with acceptance. It’s shaken Ukraine politically, economically, and on a humanitarian level and I know the challenges many Ukrainians have been facing.

“With thousands of people displaced, families losing their loved ones or having to flee the war zone, I personally feel that it is my duty as a Ukrainian to assist those in need especially with legal paperwork which many will find difficult in a foreign language.

War damage in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine. Photo: AFP via Getty Images War damage in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
War damage in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

“As a Ukrainian-speaking solicitor practicing in a progressive law firm, I feel that Barings can have an immensely positive impact on many Ukrainian lives by offering them help and assistance as they rebuild.

“Sometimes, there is very little one can do, but I do feel that by helping the refugees in the legal process, Barings can make a huge difference to the course of many of Ukrainian people’s destiny.”

Iryna says language issues are one of the most significant obstacles Ukrainian people seeking to escape from the war face if they wish to rebuild their lives in the UK.

She said: “One of the biggest challenges for Ukrainians fleeing the war and seeking asylum, is overcoming the language barrier. Even for an English-speaking citizen, it can be difficult to navigate the legal paperwork required. So for someone who doesn’t have that advantage, it can be a huge challenge.”

How has Iryna been affected by the first year of the war in Ukraine?

Iryna spoke of the devastating impact of watching the country of her birth be subjected to such a brutal assault by Russian forces and the destruction of Ukraine over the first year of the invasion. She also described how her own family still living in the country have not escaped being caught up in the fighting.

Iryna said: “It’s heart-wrenching watching the news to see places I used to go absolutely destroyed. My family had to flee Ukraine last year and have not been able to return back home. My 10-year-old goddaughter and her family had to escape to a neighbouring village and hide in a cellar while sirens were going off.

“As the news of the numerous missile attacks broke out in February 2022 on the national news in the UK, it was difficult to believe that the country where I spent my childhood was subjected to these acts of terror.

“I have not been able to visit Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and I do not think I can comprehensively describe the fear, the suffering and anguish of those affected.

“Children, the elderly and most vulnerable have been living in the most appalling conditions. I cannot begin to imagine the psychological trauma and scars that the young generation will be left with even once the war ends.

A man walks through a neighbourhood destroyed by the Russians on the outskirts of Kharkiv in UkraineA man walks through a neighbourhood destroyed by the Russians on the outskirts of Kharkiv in Ukraine
A man walks through a neighbourhood destroyed by the Russians on the outskirts of Kharkiv in Ukraine

“The things that these children had witnessed, something that no child should be subjected to, are irreversible. The very least we can do is to remove them from the immediate physical and psychological threat.”

Iryna also spoke about how she became involved with the Ukrainian community in Manchester’s efforts to support the country and its people and said her hope for the second year of the war in Ukraine is for all Russian armed forces to leave the country so Ukraine can begin rebuilding.

She said: “At the beginning of the war, I took an active part in protests against the war, which were held in Manchester. My mother and I helped the Ukrainian Club, Dnipro, which is based in Cheetham Hill, with donations of essential hygiene products and medication.

“Ukraine is a democratic European country which gained its independence from Russia following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. After 30 years of independence for Russia to put its claim on Ukrainian land is simply despicable and beyond any comprehension.

“I am hopeful that the war in Ukraine can be defused, and the Russian troops are fully withdrawn from the Ukrainian territory.”