Ukrainian refugees in Manchester reflect on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine
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Exactly one year ago today, Ukrainians awoke in the early hours of the morning to the news that their country was at war. The Russian troops and tanks that had been gathering at the borders for weeks were on the move and heading towards the major cities. Air raid sirens rang throughout the country and people headed to the shelters for the first time.
At the time, Ukraine was no stranger to war. It had already been dealing with conflict in the eastern Donbas region and occupation of Crimea for nine years. But there were few who believed an all-out invasion was imminent.
In the coming days and weeks, thousands fled to European countries that had opened their borders to Ukrainians. By early March, the UK’s visa regime for refugees was in place and applications were flying in. Facebook groups were created to help match willing sponsors with Ukrainians, mainly women and children, looking for a safe place to wait out the attacks. They did not realise then that this was just the beginning.
ManchesterWorld spoke to some of those Ukrainians have found a temporary home in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, to find out how their lives have changed one year on from the start of the all-out invasion.
Valentyna Stoyeva, 36, is from Melitopol, a city in the south-eastern region of Zaporizhia. She lived with her husband and two daughters. The oldest is 12 years old, a ballroom dancer who had represented her country all over Europe. Her youngest was just nine months old. She describes the events of the first day of the invasion as “horror.”
“Some people heard the rockets, but we saw them. We saw the explosions, we saw the occupiers with our own eyes,” she said.
They lived among the shelling for one month before deciding to leave. Critical infrastructure had been hit, so they were often without power and water. They first travelled the 100km to Zaporizhia, along roads that were heavily mined with checkpoints every 200m.
She said: “[Russians] told us to leave Ukraine because there wouldn’t be a Ukraine tomorrow or the day after.
“They were telling people: ‘Go, go, drive over the mines.’ It was to freak us out. We were lucky. Some people got through, by the grace of God, but some people had less luck and just simply did not make it.”
They then travelled by train to western Ukraine, where they were greeted by the welcome sight of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“We saw our Armed Forces when we reached a mined area and when we saw our soldiers we burst into tears, we couldn’t believe our eyes because for a month we’d lived in horror,
“We waved from the window, they waved at us and they were in tears, even the grown men, because it was a whole carriage of just women and children. They understood that those who were leaving, were leaving because they’d survived.”
Natalia Hrubova, 31, fled her home at the start of the war. She lived on the 15th floor of an apartment block in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, with her husband and six-year-old son Andriy. When the bombs fell, it shook the whole building, “like a huge earthquake.” She left her home with almost no possessions, apart from warm clothes and her son’s allergy medication.
She said: “I could hear the whistling of the rocket. I pulled my child out of bed, ran straight into the corridor. That’s when I realised I could not live like this. It was too much for me, psychologically, it was too much. Because you’re always waiting for something bad to happen, always looking out.”
Natalia Zubaryeva, 43, also from Dnipro, lasted until July in her home city. That was when Russian missiles started targeting the city centre and blew up the shopping mall. By that point, she had grown used to living near a frontline.
She said: “My city started to work as it always had, all the volunteers who have been helping the army for the last eight years, started to do the same, but with a few differences. There were air raid alerts, which was a horrible new thing. We started to collect bottles and corks for Molotov cocktails – that was a new thing – and we were donating, making nets for camouflaging our soldiers and equipment.”
Coming to England
Natalia Zubaryeva and her 12-year-old son travelled first to Munich and then to UK. As an English-speaker, this was where she wanted to be. She received help from old colleagues in Europe finding a job and accommodation, and now works remotely for a company that sells outdoor and mountaineering products. She lost her husband to cancer just before the war started and now, as head of the family, has taken the move to the UK in her stride.
She said: “For me, it was like a great adventure. I’m not the kind of person to sit at home, I travel a lot, so for me it wasn’t totally unexpected. I’d been planning it, thinking about it, what I would do if it gets worse.
“That’s important for me because I am the head of the family. I support myself, my son, my mum, my flat in Dnipro. My friends in the UK have helped me as much as they can and I am really glad. It’s unusual but we are trying to see this all as an adventure in Great Britain.”
Things have not been so easy for her son though. He has had difficulties settling in at school and has been the target of bullying so severe that the school has contacted the police. She said that the boys in his class were taunting him with “Russian slogans.”
She said: “I believe in the British education system, even more than in Ukraine. The teachers do everything they can, it’s just strange for me because I’m from another country, but it will continue. For me, a single mum, it’s like everyday life in Ukraine just without a home and in English.”
Natalia Hrubova, on the other hand, did not speak English so sought help through the sponsorship scheme. She said her sponsors are more than hosts, they have become good friends
She said: “They’re an unbelievable family, who have given us, not only a home, but a lot of moral support and support with everything we need.
“I don’t have a high level of English, I’m learning now, so they helped us with documents, school for my son, helped distract us from our thinking about the life we have lost and that we are now many kilometres away from loved ones, from relatives.”
Valentyna now lives in a house of her own with her husband and child. She said that the warmth of the people she has met here has gone a long way in helping her adapt.
She said: “After surviving that, honestly, it was a big sigh of relief, we were comforted by the fact we were safe. We didn’t feel like we were just some foreigners. People are so nice, they have really helped us, so there were no problems at all adapting. But that longing for home grows and grows and grows.
“That’s the only thing, that we really miss home. We can’t accept this situation, we can’t accept it. We live, and generally we’re fine, only because the people in England are very good people. They helped us, opened their homes and hearts. That’s how we keep going, truly.”
Thoughts of home and what awaits them when they do return occupies the minds of all three women constantly. Contact with relatives there can be sparse, due to the attacks on critical power infrastructure.
Natalia Zubaryeva’s mother has remained in Dnipro and she said it has only gotten worse for her as the year has progressed.
She said: “It’s more stressful now just because it’s been going on for a year. The air raid alerts are really loud. There’s a lot of news about dead friends and neighbours. She talks to a lot of women and a lot of their adult sons are now in the army. So it’s hard for them.”
Natalia Hrubova says that there is only a window of about two hours a day where she can call her mother and husband. The rest of the time there is no power.
She said: “I send text messages and just hope my mum reads them. It’s the same for my husband.”
The situation for Valentyna is slightly different. Unlike Dnipro, Melitopol is currently occupied by Russian forces. She explained that a lot of elderly people are refusing to leave, mainly because they fear their houses will be looted by the occupying troops.
She said: “They go and see there is no medicine, no good food, there’s nothing, they see that they’re suffocating, but people aren’t leaving because they know that if they leave the house will be robbed, it will get ruined. And where are they going to go? They are at their age that travelling is hard.”
She is also concerned that she may not even have a home to go back to at the end of the war.
“We are really afraid of what will be left. Now our house is still there, it is standing. We really hope that we can return there. I don’t know how that will be allowed, I don’t know what will be there,” she said.
Looking to the future
Victory and peace is all any Ukrainian wants right now. All three women have been active within the local Ukrainian community, helping to raise money and supplies for the war effort back home. They will be out in force this weekend at the protest in Piccadilly Gardens to mark the one year anniversary of the war.
Natalia Hrubova said: “I want Russia to leave. I wish that at the border, instead of Russia there was just a big ocean, that there was just nothing else there. I want peace in the country, I simply want to be able to look at the sky and not be afraid of it, because I’m used to planes in the sky, but I don’t want them to pose a threat.”
Valentyna is also praying for peace and believes this is possible with the support of countries like the UK.
“Ukraine must win. Ukraine must get back its territory. We believe this, we pray for this, we put all our thoughts into it, we really yearn for it. We have a lot of strength in our country.
“A lot of countries have supported our country. Because of this support, Ukraine has a chance of victory, but Ukraine is paying a very high price for this victory. A lot of people have already died and it’s still not known how many have died. But we have the kind of people who will stand until the end, only until the end.”
Natalia Zubaryeva is less optimistic. Instead, her thoughts are with what will need to happen once the troops have left and the country needs rebuilding. She does not think it will be over any time soon either.
She said: “I communicate with people in the military, people who understand what is happening, a lot of my clever and educated friends are now in the Ukrainian army and it is a complicated question. For example, what will happen with liberated Crimea, with all those citizens? We are not the Soviet Union, we cannot deport them all. It’s a big humanitarian problem, which needs to be solved but how? No one knows.
“The aggressive part of the war will stop when they stop shelling us and we get back our borders. It’s a process, it won’t finish this year. That’s impossible. It will probably be a few years. There’s no one step, it will be a few different steps, one by one.”
One thing that unites all these women is their gratitude for their new friends and family in the UK, but they say this support needs to continue for them to win.
Natalia Hrubova said: “I remember the first hours of the war, when it all happened, I remember how Britain supported Ukraine, that they were not afraid of Russia. Everyone was silent, but Britain then took such a strong position of support, they were not leaving anyone behind. When I heard the news that Britain was supporting us, it suddenly didn’t seem as scary.”
Valentyna agrees. She said: “That support is invaluable, because when you see this horror and don’t know if you’re going to live through the next half hour driving down a road littered with mines, and then you arrive and people give you a house, they feed you, support you – people who you didn’t know a month ago. They open their house, their hearts – that gives you strength, strength to survive.”
She also has another important message for people in the UK.
“Don’t take peace or one another for granted. Because we were living our lives we had problems, we argued, we shouted, but then the war started and we realised that it was all unimportant. And now we dream of returning to that life, and we will cherish that every day, every moment.
“We won’t complain, we won’t shout because we have a completely different outlook on life. I love cherishing my country, my home, my family. Peace – that you live with now – is everything. That is life, 100%. It needs to be cherished.
“We’ve seen with our eyes the price of this peace, so we just want to say that it should be cherished. I thank, with my whole heart, with my head bowed to the floor, for this help and support.”