Vasyl and Olena left Ukraine in April to come to the UK, where their daughter and her family live. Here they share their experiences of the past six months.
Reflecting on the days leading up to the invasion, they say “we felt anxious. A large country was putting a lot of their troops on the border of our small country. We had a feeling something was going to happen, but were not sure when.”
They describe the first few days after the conflict erupted as “a nightmare which we found ourselves living in. People were panicking, buying lots of stuff in the shops. We were trying to stay calm. Our son and daughter in law came from Kyiv to our home, but instead of the usual 90 minutes, it took them over seven hours as there were masses of people trying to flee the capital.”
Interruptions to power made it challenging to keep in touch with others, and required thinking ahead. “We had electricity black outs, so at those times we only had a battery-operated radio. When the electricity came back on, we tried to charge our phones and torches for later, and to use the internet to communicate with family.”
In their community they observed many contrasting responses to the situation. “People were all saying different things. Some were immediately volunteering at the territorial defence, some were making plans to leave.” Many focussed on supporting the military. “In our church there was a military chaplain and he was requesting donations for the soldiers, such as extension leads, warm clothes and so on. People were trying to find what was needed.”
With one of their children in the UK and the other in Ukraine, Vasyl and Olena were torn. “We didn’t want to leave our home, our friends and other family. But our daughter was asking us to come to England.” Initially they felt that it might not be too bad if they stayed. “We thought, ‘we are pensioners, we will be left alone’, but then we saw that no one was safe, that anyone could be tortured and killed. We felt miserable. We didn’t know what would happen if Russian soldiers came to our home.”
Eventually they agreed to travel to the UK, and from that moment, tried not to look back. “Once we decided to go, we left everything and went; we were taken to western Ukraine by an evacuation bus. It was a long journey as petrol was rationed for the military and the emergency services, so we had to wait for at each petrol station for the small allocation of fuel given to evacuation buses.
“The destruction we saw on the way was overwhelming, and confirmed to us we were doing the right thing. It was scary: as we passed towns and villages near Kyiv that had been liberated, we saw what had been done to people. We saw cars riddled with bullet holes... we saw people fleeing with small children…we saw children left with no adults to look after them. We were afraid and the fear kept us going west.”
Once safely with their daughter and her family, it took time to adjust. “For the first few days we were terrified at the sound of airplanes, or sudden noises. We knew in our heads we were safe, but we couldn’t think of much else. We were also constantly thinking of those who were left, hoping they’d be safe. Our son is unable to leave the country and his wife will not leave him. We pray for them every day: while we are safe here, they are not.”
Several months on, they feel calmer. “Every day is a gift. The anxiety is still there as no one knows how things will go from day to day, but the world is helping and our people are doing all they can. The whole world is praying for Ukraine's victory.”
They are grateful for the welcome they have found in the UK. “People here who we do not know and have never met have opened their hearts to accept us; others are accepting complete strangers into their homes and communities: this togetherness cannot be defeated. We feel like the whole country is standing together with Ukrainians in showing support, and this support encourages Ukrainians to continue fighting for freedom.”
It is of course very difficult to think of making plans to return, but Vasyl and Olena remain hopeful. “What will be, will be. People will go home when it is safer.”
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