Ukrainians in Hampshire speak of their experiences as war against Russia approaches a year

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February 24 marks a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and the war it sparked has already caused more than 8m Ukrainians to flee.

According to Operational Data Portal, on February 7, about 161,400 Ukrainian refugees were recorded in the United Kingdom, and more than 8m people in Europe. In Hampshire, the figure has risen in recent months.

The latest numbers from the Home Office reveal that 3,475 visas have been granted in the county under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

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Olga, 38, and MashaOlga, 38, and Masha
Olga, 38, and Masha

Some 2,886 Ukrainians have been settled by sponsor families, while 3,941 people have applied for a visa and are waiting to be approved.

Olga, 38, and Masha, nine months old, are one of those who came to Hampshire through the sponsor scheme.

Before February 24, 2022, Olga had a normal life in Kyiv. She worked as a lawyer in the department of social protection population, similar to a council’s adults social care department.

She was eight months pregnant when Russia invaded. She and her husband made the hard decision to leave the country for the sake of their baby.

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Artwork created by 13-year-old Ukrainian girls in HampshireArtwork created by 13-year-old Ukrainian girls in Hampshire
Artwork created by 13-year-old Ukrainian girls in Hampshire

They walked from Kyiv to Moldova’s border, sleeping in shelters and facing the cold winter.

Once in Moldova, her journey had to be continued alone, as the Ukrainian government set a law that men aged 18 to 70 were – and still are – not allowed to leave the country. She took a train to Bucharest.

The government did not recruit her husband to the army as he is a professional in IT and works for an electricity company.

She arrived at Heathrow on April 21, leaving everything behind, but looking forward to what was due to come, her baby.

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Masha was born in Winchester. She hasn’t yet met her dad, only by video call. She is a happy baby.

Olga said: ‘I’m very happy with my host family; they are a lovely 60-year-old couple. They are always willing to help me with Masha. I was very lucky to have them.’

She doesn’t speak very fluent English, but Tetiana does. Tetiana has been helping her comrades since she arrived in May. Her English allowed her to help Hampshire County Council with translation, papers and everything she could.

Tetiana has a son, who is seven years old, and curious about everything. They are also from Kyiv. She worked as a business manager and photographer.

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In the last few years, she has travelled worldwide for business – to China, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. She knew something could happen, but she never expected an invasion.

‘We had some who were pro-Soviet Union in the country, and we could cope with that; they were crazy, but we could manage,’ she said.

Days before the invasion, she started donating blood for the country in case something happened.

‘When everything started, my blood saved soldiers’ lives. I felt useful, I wasn’t a doctor or nurse, but somehow I was helping my country, and that’s why we want to return.

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‘I’m not an immigrant. I’m a temporarily displaced person. We have to adapt to a new culture, food, language, school, and it is hard. England is beautiful, and the people are friendly, but I love my country, and that is where we belong.’

As Tetiana, Olga is also planning to move back in April, even though knowing that war is still a threat to their lives.

Olga’s host family already knew her intention to move back. They understood her position and said to her that they would wait for her and Masha if they wanted to come back to the UK.

‘We are stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, alone with our kids, no family, surrounded by a lovely environment, but I haven’t chosen to live here,’ Tetiana continues.

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‘Ukrainians are strong, we are fighters. I understand that some (Ukrainians) are afraid to talk because they have family there or their husband are fighting, but the Russians stole our country and our houses, killed our families, and raped little girls; they are not going to silence me. I’m not afraid of them.

‘Our husbands can work. There are some challenges with electricity and the internet, but we can work.’

Due to his health condition, her husband is not required by the government. However, he used to play airsoft before, and the knowledge he gathered on cleaning guns and tactical movements have been helpful for the army. Nowadays, he is training military tactics to soldiers and teaching them how to clean their weapons properly.

Tetiana proposed to Hampshire County Council the creation of a support group for Ukrainians, which now meets at a Warm Hub in Chandler’s Ford, every Tuesday and Thursday.

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They have games, paint, arts and crafts, and a moment to feel at home, somehow.

Two young girls, both 13, were painting a jellyfish drawing. They also fled Ukraine last year.

One of them speaks about how her mum ran away. She is also from Kyiv.

‘For a few days, we slept in a shelter, then moved to Poland’s border to a friend’s house. After that, my mum decided to move to Italy; I don’t know why, but we stayed there for a month until we received the UK visa,’ she said.

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They both are in Year 9. They like their new school, saying ‘it has a better (educational) programme than Ukraine and is much easier’.

One of them wants to be a web designer or graphic designer.

They miss their friends, their family and the food. They would love to eat a ‘varenyky’, a typical Ukrainian dish similar to the English dumpling.

They will also move to Ukraine later this year, and they are happy to do so; a smile on their faces can tell.

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All of them are still registered in their Ukrainian schools. Through the app, their teachers send them assessments and work to do. They have to continue their studies because they can not be behind when they return.

Tetiana and Navid will visit London in the next few days. Since they arrived and every time they have spare time, they visit cities and villages. From Weymouth to Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Dorset, Portsmouth, Oxford, Southampton or Portsmouth, they love to travel, it is a way to feel distracted from the events back home.

‘I know some refugees are saving what the UK government is giving to them; why? Life is too short to save. I have my house in Kyiv, and I couldn’t take it with me, or my valuable belongings, just two suitcases. But what I could take were my memories, and that’s more valuable than everything.’