‘We Will Never Give Up,’ Say Ukrainian Refugees On First Anniversary Of War

Charities warn of a looming homelessness crisis facing Ukrainians in the UK.
Yuriy Symanchuk with his family and Lesia Ditkivska with her son
Yuriy Symanchuk with his family and Lesia Ditkivska with her son
Yuriy Symanchuk and Lesia Ditkivska

When Vladimir Putin launched his brutal invasion a year ago, ordinary Ukrainians were jolted awake by the sounds of war.

“I woke up at 5am because an airbase was bombed,” 19-year-old Mary Rohotska said.

“It was about 2km away from my home, but the sound of that bomb was really loud. I thought that my neighbour’s house had fallen down.

“After that, my mum just started really shouting ‘get ready, get your things, we’re going to the basement, just get ready’.

“My dad also rushed to the gas station for the fuel. My grandparents were just making sure that we were feeling safe.

“Everybody was trying to do their best but it was stressful. You don’t know what’s going on and you don’t know whether you will see tomorrow.”

People hug as a woman with a suitcase uses her smartphone outside a metro station in Kyiv in the morning of February 24, 2022.
People hug as a woman with a suitcase uses her smartphone outside a metro station in Kyiv in the morning of February 24, 2022.
DANIEL LEAL via Getty Images

Father-of-two Yuriy Symanchuk, 35, was also woken up at 5am, but to the sound of sirens.

“At first I thought it was some kind of alarm, something unusual and probably unpleasant,” he said. “I opened windows and turned on the TV and saw that the war had started.”

Yuriy’s family followed a similar pattern to millions across the country who rushed to gas stations and shops to stock up on fuel and food.

“There was no fear we were just acting,” Yuriy added. “It was only later when we truly realised what awful things were happening when we saw tanks in our streets.”

Ekaterina / UK for UNHCR / Ioana Epure
Ekaterina / UK for UNHCR / Ioana Epure

Ekaterina, 30, who was a wedding photographer in Ukraine, recounted her memories of the day war broke out: “My husband and I couldn’t believe it. We could not believe that in the modern world such a thing was even possible.

“It seemed to us that this was some kind of nightmare - we would just wake up any minute and everything would go away.

“A week went by, and horrific videos began to circulate from other cities and we understood that this was what would await both us and our city.

“When Kherson had been occupied, we realised that we had to get out, we had to save our child.

“Two weeks after the start of the war, I realised that that was most likely the end of my life there. I needed to collect my thoughts, let go of my home, my career, leave it all and just leave the country and just save my child.”

Today Ukrainians will mark the first anniversary of the illegal war that has killed thousands and uprooted millions.

In the UK - which has issued more than 200,000 visas to Ukrainian refugees - a one-minute silence will be led by prime minister Rishi Sunak at 11am.

Putin shows no sign of relenting, reading a long address on Tuesday in which he said Moscow had no plans to pull out of the bloody conflict.

Ukrainian refugees, however, have vowed to “never give up” as they spoke to HuffPost UK to mark the first anniversary of this devastating war.

Lesia Ditkivska, 30, and her three-year-old son, Orest, are among the thousands who fled to Great Britain.

Lesia Ditkivska and her three-year-old son Orest
Lesia Ditkivska and her three-year-old son Orest
Lesia Ditkivska handout

“I was a project manager in Ukraine,” she said. “I am married, I lived with my husband and my son…my job was in one of the highest buildings in Kyiv.

“Everything was perfect before war in my life in Ukraine and then February 24th changed everything.”

She said it was a “very difficult decision” to leave Ukraine but added: “We were put with a beautiful family, I didn’t ever expect that a family could be so great.

“We were there about five and a half months and then we moved to our house.”

Lesia’s husband came to England a month ago and now they are renting a house together.

Other refugees who fled to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme also speak highly of their sponsor families including international law student Mary.

Ukrainian refugee Mary Rohotska
Ukrainian refugee Mary Rohotska
Mary Rohotska

In Ukraine, she lived in a small town called Brody in the Lviv region with her three younger sisters, parents and grandparents.

Mary said it was “difficult” to leave her family behind, after they chose to stay. “It is dangerous there and when they have no electricity and they cannot answer my calls, then I start to worry,” she added.

It took her five months to get her visa sorted before she arrived in the UK in November where she was sponsored by a couple in their sixties.

“They are so great,” Mary added. “They know some Ukrainian phrases, they truly enjoy learning even more. I’m really happy to have them.

“They say that I’m part of the family...they really take care of me as their child or grandchild.”

Mary has continued her studies while volunteering for charity Nadiya which helps Ukrainians find homes.

Mary said she was “really grateful” for all the help that the UK had offered Ukraine, adding: “Putin is not stopping because he’s not the kind of person that will give up. They will go further and further whenever they can.

“But I want to say that Ukrainians are also not the ones who give up, it’s our territory so we will never say that we are giving up.”

She likened the invasion to a robber occupying part of someone’s house, adding: “You would try to get rid of him, it’s the same of Russia in Ukraine. We won’t give up.”

Yuriy said that coming to Britain was crucial for his two young children, adding: “For me the most important thing is that my children don’t see a war.”

More than 8 million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded across Europe, according to the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Europe. An additional 5.3 million people are displaced within the country.

Out of 35.6 million people still living in Ukraine, approximately 17.6 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance - 45% are women, 23% children, 13-15% have a disability.

Families continue to try to escape the violence and just last week British Conservative MP Duncan Baker helped rescue one family.

The MP for North Norfolk spent his Parliamentary recess delivering aid to Ukraine that had been donated by his constituents.

On their return, his group helped a refugee family who were trying to leave Ukraine and had a host family waiting in Guildford.

They took Svitlana, her 10-year-old daughter Vlasta and their pet Marty the French Bulldog, in their van after the family’s house was destroyed in the invasion.

Baker told HuffPost: “She contacted us and said ‘I’ve got all my paperwork will you think about taking me back?’

“And I said ’well funnily enough we’ve got two seats in our vans...we’ll take you back’.”

Baker was one of the first British MPs to welcome a refugee family into his home after war broke out.

Student teacher Anna and her six-year-old son, Sviatik, stayed with Baker, his wife and their two daughters at his constituency home.

“They have been with us for nine months and to help them get more independence and freedom we have helped them with renting a little place of their own,” he said.

The children all go to school together and the two families are now “extremely close”, regularly seeing each other. Baker said the experience was “extraordinarily rewarding” and that he took on a “pseudo father figure” role with Anna’s little boy.

He added: “It’s our duty to look after her and if you make a promise to the husband, the father, that you will protect and look after his child until it’s time to go home. I’m not a man to break that promise.

“So we said we would look after them until it was safe for them to return and that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve pretty much included her with our life. So socialising with us, meeting our friends, Christmas lunch, birthdays, like a family.

“We even went on holiday with them in the summer because they couldn’t afford to do it on their own and they didn’t know what to do. So we said well ‘come with us’.”

Asked what more Brits can do to help Ukraine, he replied: “I’ve been there twice. I’ve seen it. You cannot imagine how awful it is to have fathers of children and husbands to wives who are unable to be with their families.

“It is absolutely soul destroying, I just cannot deal with it. It’s just so awful. These children should not be here. I should not be looking after this little boy he should be with his dad, his mum.

“So the message really is to those who are doing this, it will be temporary, it will end. No matter how difficult it is for us - actually it’s far worse for them and therefore just stick with it. Help as much as you possibly can.”

It comes as charities sounded the alarm over a “looming homeless crisis” facing Ukrainian refugees in the UK.

Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine Scheme hosts were required to take them in for a minimum of six months.

Derek Edwards is the co-founder of Nadiya charity which helps Ukrainian refugees find homes in Britain. “It’s critical that people still in Ukraine can’t get sponsored,” he said.

“My colleague still gets maybe 15 emails a day from Ukrainians trying to flee Ukraine. It’s heartbreaking.

“We see these emails and we know there’s nothing we can do because we don’t have sponsors.

“The other thing is the people who are now coming close to being homeless or have been coming close to the end of the six month tenancy. We’re trying to organise accommodation for them in the long-term rented sector.”

His colleague, Mary, urged British landlords to recognise that Ukrainians can rent in the UK despite not having credit history.

“Our charity helps with that but it would be really great if landlords understood the situation,” she added.

Mike Adamson, British Red Cross chief executive, said Ukrainian refugees were facing “challenges” and added: “Relatives hosting people who arrived on family visas are not entitled to any financial support from the government, unlike those who arrive on the homes for Ukraine scheme.

“Gaps in support like this must be urgently addressed, particularly as people struggle to cope with the rising cost of living.”

Over the last year the British Red Cross has helped more than 50,000 people who arrived from Ukraine with issues such as SIM cards, emergency cash and emotional support.

Emma Cherniavsky, chief executive of UK for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said: “As this devastating war carries on, families remain torn apart, their lives in limbo.

“A staggering 13 million people are displaced inside Ukraine and across Europe. The numbers are hard to fathom, but almost all are women and children trying to rebuild their lives from scratch.”

According to the latest available figures, the UK government has issued a total of 218,500 Ukraine Scheme visas. There has been 162,700 arrivals in the UK by Ukraine Scheme visa-holders.

In December, the government announced that thousands of families who opened their homes to Ukrainians would receive a package of further support.

All sponsors will receive an increased “thank you” payment of £500 a month for guests who have been in the country for over a year.

The payments will also be extended from 12 months to two years, so that guests who may not yet be ready to move into independent accommodation can stay in sponsorship for longer where sponsors are willing to extend arrangements.

In cases where sponsorships can no longer continue, councils in all parts of the UK will receive help to house Ukrainians through a one-off pot of government funding worth £150 million, as well as a new £500 million Local Authority Housing Fund in England.


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