I had to leave my husband in Ukraine to flee to the UK – my kids haven’t seen him for 9 months
I thought it was unusual when my phone rang at 5:30am.
It was from a friend frantically wanting to know if my husband Oleksandr, two young children – Dima, 12, and Dasha, eight – and I were OK.
Minutes later, I heard an explosion. I peered outside the window of my Kyiv flat, but couldn’t see the source of the blast.
Several more followed in the distance – they were coming from different directions but we had no idea where, which was terrifying.
I then noticed neighbours were already loading their suitcases into cars, and the city was coming to a standstill in a traffic jam to get out.
This is how I learned of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country I have spent my entire life in. That was the morning of 24 February 2022.
One year on, that day still haunts me – but I’m now thankful to be living in the UK. I just wish Ukraine could be free from war already.
From that very first day, the next few weeks were ones of confusion and horror.
Since our car had no fuel, there was no way for us to escape our home. So we followed government guidelines, which was to protect ourselves by staying between two thick walls in our home to shield us from falling debris of missiles or errant bullets.
So we lived in our small corridor, which had strong walls. We covered our windows with duct tape and thick cloth. In that tiny hallway, we slept, ate and sometimes played games with the children.
We did not allow them to approach the windows, so they sat on the makeshift beds or on the floor almost all the time. School classes were suspended then so they simply read books or watched movies and cartoons on their devices.
My children – who once lived happy, peaceful and ordinary lives – now looked like small hunted animals in fear. We all did.
My neighbours had a car filled with fuel, so I would join them on a trip to the store for groceries, while Oleksandr stayed at home with the children. We had to stand in a queue of about 200 people just to get into the supermarket.
When fuel aid finally arrived from the next town over in early March, we took our opportunity to escape. We packed essentials in a suitcase and wrote ‘CHILDREN!’ on white sheets of paper, which we glued on to the car windows. This was in case we found ourselves driving through any cross-fire.
We drove to Vinnytsia, a historical town in West-Central Ukraine, where a family friend took us in.
My stepfather was working for an organisation called World Jewish Relief, which was running welfare and aid assistance in the country. He told us that there was a programme available – Homes for Ukraine – to help families seek refuge in Britain.
At this point, it felt like our only choice and the safety of our children was the biggest priority. When you’re running from war, you don’t get many options, so you take whichever chance you get to flee danger.
Since most men between the ages of 18 and 60 years old are not permitted to leave Ukraine, we had to explain to the children that their father could not come with us. Oleksandr had already decided that he would go to the military commissariat to defend our country in any way he could. It was a decision that many other families across Ukraine were making.
We anxiously applied for visas and passports for myself and the children, which took two months of paperwork. During this time – and as the political situation deteriorated – the questions arose in my mind: What is Britain like? Who will take us in?
Worse, the children’s questions broke my heart: ‘When will daddy be able to come and see us?’ In war, we know there is grief for the dead, but there is also grief that comes with the separation of loved ones.
Some of our uncertainties were alleviated by the team at World Jewish Relief. They kept in touch with us from the UK throughout the waiting stage, checking in to make sure we were doing OK.
In May, we were informed that the organisation had found us suitable hosts in London – a kind family of five – who would take us in. So I said goodbye to my husband and extended relatives on 25 May, and left Ukraine with my children in a coach headed to Krakow, Poland.
Within 24 hours, I had arrived from one world to another. I was greeted by my hosts at Luton airport. They had warm smiles and gave us a big hug. We felt relieved and ecstatic at the same time – we had found a new family and somewhere safe to settle. We got in the car and drove to what now is my second home.
In our new home, comfortable beds, delicious food and essentials were waiting for us. Most importantly, we had the warmth and care of a new family.
They sorted the paperwork for Dima and Dasha to attend the local school. My daughter couldn’t even speak any English so after their first day, I was worried that they wouldn’t want to go back because it was too different and unfamiliar.
How wrong I was – I went to pick them up at the school gates, and they ran towards me with wide eyes and big smiles, full of stories about their new friends and welcoming teachers.
In my mind, I divide my life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ war.
In Ukraine, I raised a family and worked as a cosmetic sales assistant. Passionate about cooking, I once ran a small business where I sold authentic Ukrainian food to around 120 regular customers.
The war took all of that away.
The first few months in the UK were hard. The children cried a lot because they missed their father and their old home.
Also, the scars of war stayed with us. Since we live in proximity to Heathrow Airport, the children would frequently dive under their beds, terrified – the passing planes sounded like the soaring missiles that we had grown accustomed to back home.
Determined to get a job and stand on my own two feet, I took up work as a residential cleaner. Not only has it given me confidence, but has enabled me to enter the next chapter of my life.
Now – nine months on – our lives are very different. My daughter recently spent her first Christmas in this country, writing a letter to Santa in her new language.
Meanwhile, it feels like my son has grown from a little boy to a little man here. He got 90% on a maths test recently and said to me: ‘Mum, I don’t know what your plans are for the future, but I want to study at Cambridge!’
I have been determined to find accommodation of my own with my children. Having been supported and given the love of a family, it was time to leave the nest.
That is when I encountered a bewildering London rental market. Trying to find a flat was a huge challenge – one that is hard enough for long-time Londoners, as I understand it.
When we would see a flat that was suitable, it would go in a flash. Furthermore, while employment is essential to me, I still need Universal Credit to survive independently.
Landlords are not allowed to refuse people based on their benefit status, but we know that many do not like it – they think that you don’t have money. I found that many other Ukrainian refugees are in a similar situation.
Thanks to the generosity of the British people, we all have a chance to get back on our feet and build a life for ourselves – Universal Credit is vital to enable this. But with demand for flats in London so high, we don’t get a look in.
As I wrote this, I was finally accepted for a flat in North London. My host family, along with some new friends here, agreed to become guarantors. I have made my first payment and I am excited to sign the tenancy agreement.
My children haven’t seen their father or other family since we left Ukraine. So, for now, we cherish daily phone calls.
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