They won’t be home for Christmas

Thousands of Ukrainian war refugees are living in the North. How will they be spending their first Christmas in this country?

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Kyiv to Leeds

Dariia Kovnatska (pictured above) is from a small village in the Kyiv region. Her house was struck with a Russian bomb on 13 March. Together with her newborn daughter Sofia, she managed to escape to her husband’s family home in the Vinnytsia region, some 250km south-west of Kyiv.

“We spent one and a half months there in an old house. We had to use the well to wash our hands as people did many decades ago. With a little child – she was four or five months then – it was very difficult,” Kovnatska, 28, says.

In May, Kovnatska and her family returned to her village in the Kyiv region to check the house.

“There was so much glass,” she says. “One half of the house lost its walls. The second floor is dangerous to step on in general. And that’s why we decided I would leave the country with the child. It would be difficult to stay for the winter without heating or walls.”

Kovnatska and her infant daughter spent the summer in Bulgaria looking for a place to over-winter while her husband stayed in Ukraine (men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine except for in rare circumstances). That’s when she registered her interest for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the UK government’s programme for accepting Ukrainian war refugees.

“A Ukrainian lady who has lived in Leeds for a long time, Olena, reached out to me on Facebook. She helped me find a sponsor,” says Kovnatska. “We applied and a day later received our visas. We bought tickets and came here.”

Kovnatska says it’s her first time visiting the UK, and she’s lucky because she’s been helped by “very kind people”.

“First Olena, and now my hosts who really support me these days. They’re a shoulder I can lean on. I don’t feel lonely and I don’t feel uncertain. We sorted everything out in my first two days and they’ve been helping me all this time. I feel very comfortable here, even with a little girl,” she says.

Little Sofia turned one in November. Kovnatska says that this Christmas she wants to treat her hosts to a “Ukrainian Christmas”. She’s interested in her hosts’ traditions and they also often ask how holidays are celebrated in Ukraine.

“I just want them to understand why our traditions and observing them are so important to us, to show in the way that I can what Ukraine is and why we defend it,” Kovnatska says.

Kherson to Manchester

Viktoria Valova* from Kherson had one of the most difficult experiences leaving Ukraine. Footage of jubilant liberated Kherson was all over the international media last month but, a few months earlier, in April when Valova, 66, left, the city was a less happy place.

“I lost so much weight under occupation, you could only see my nose and eyes. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. And it wasn’t through lack of food as there was food. It was a psychological thing,” Valova says with emotion. “The Russians are worse than [Nazi] Germans. The old people who fought or lived through World War Two, said Germans didn’t indulge in such sadism.”

Kherson – a southern Ukrainian city a similar size to Sheffield – spent eight months under Russian occupation. For Valova, staying wasn’t an option but her husband was less decisive.

“I stayed for so long [six weeks] because I tried to persuade my husband to come with me. He just wouldn’t go – he had many reasons for that,” Valova says, reluctant to go into more detail. “He’s still in Kherson and I’ve had no contact with him recently. No electricity, water, heating, or gas for him too.”

It took Valova a couple of days to get out courtesy of volunteers who risked their lives evacuating people in vehicles travelling at speeds of 75mph. She considers herself “very lucky” as, for others, it took a week or more to leave: through dozens of Russian checkpoints, filtration camps and sometimes fierce heat. Some people didn’t survive that journey, she says.

Valova chose the UK because she feels safe here and it’s not too far from home.

“I understood that Poland was dangerous as it could be targeted next, just like Baltic states. There were talks that Russians would seize the whole of Ukraine, despite them saying that they were only interested in the territory up to Kyiv.

“I was thinking of Denmark or somewhere a bit further. The US, Canada, and the UK were already open then. But you needed money for the US and Canada, and England is closer after all. So I applied for the visa and got here.”

She arrived in Greater Manchester in mid-April and has been living with sponsors since. In the run up to Christmas she’s preparing humanitarian aid for Kherson.

Asked if she thinks she will see her husband and friends soon, she says: “I hope and pray that everything will be all right, and I’ll see all of them again. I no longer make predictions and plans. I stopped that when the full-scale war started. The war changed us, our thoughts, and our values. I became a different person. And not just me – many of those who lived through it.”

Lviv to Lymm

Anatoliy Shalayev is from Lviv, west of Ukraine, an area that officially accepted a quarter of a million internally displaced persons. It is considered one of the safer areas of Ukraine due to its proximity to Poland and distance from the Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine’s east and south.

But Lviv, like most of Ukraine, also suffers from hours of blackouts every day. For Shalayev’s 12-year-old child with diabetes, these power cuts could have cut off life. Along with his wife and two children, Shalayev, 43, has settled in the village of Lymm in Cheshire.

“My wife made a Facebook post, and Paul and Sally agreed to host us,” Shalayev says. “They were very welcoming and accommodating. We didn’t even hope for that.”

Shalayev’s wife, who was a lecturer at a Lviv university, is now a teaching assistant at Lymm High School, and the children are also placed in school. Shalayev continues to work remotely as a freelance journalist in Ukraine.

His current worry is that the six-month period the UK has agreed to host Ukrainians will be over on 10 January, and they don’t know how to sort out their future accommodation.

“We don’t know how to find accommodation, how to rent and so on. The hosts said that they would host us until spring.”

The Ukrainian-English Lymm household is now preparing to celebrate Christmas together.

“We will probably celebrate twice,” Shalayev says, referring to 25 December and 7 January.

Traditionally, Ukraine has been celebrating Christmas using the old calendar, in January, but this year, Ukraine’s religious leaders officially allowed celebrating in December, together with most European countries. The Shalayev family is planning to cook 12 different dishes, as the Ukrainian Christmas tradition dictates, in January, while Paul and Sally will organise an English Christmas on 25 December.

“Our children are learning carols. My older son Taras plays bandura [string instrument], so he’ll make a small concert for our hosts. We’re also thinking of making a Ukrainian vertep [Xmas puppet theatre].”

For most Ukrainians arriving in the UK is a strange and scary experience. Many of them come without knowing the language or having visited the country previously. Hosts who enter the Homes for Ukraine scheme are part of this support ecosystem, but they also rely on others.

The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) has collected around £3.5 million for the needs of Ukraine since February 2022. The association, which dates back to 1946, has 28 branches across the UK, which organise events and provide support, advice and essential physical items to Ukrainians who come to the country.

While most Ukrainians come to the UK with the intention of going back when it’s safe, the immediate future is still unknown for many of them. Shalayev and his family are lucky to be allowed to stay at Paul and Sally’s house until spring. He worries that others’ hosts are less generous.

“It’s quite a big and serious issue. I think the government needs to address the Ukrainians’ situation after six months, especially for those whose six months are up in winter.”

The UK government has not put any further housing help in place for Ukrainian refugees, although some social housing is available in local schemes. Due to a lack of language skills or previous experience living and working in the UK, many are years away from getting a job that will allow them to settle down in the country.

*Name changed at the request of the interviewee

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