‘Learn to accept help with dignity,’ Ukrainian refugee in the UK

(Credit: Olha Holovina)

Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes due to Russian aggression. Now they have to look for work, raise their children and rebuild their lives in different parts of the world. For Ukrainian journalist Olha Holovina, that journey took her to the UK.  

My son and I arrived in the UK on 12 April under the government sponsorship programme. In mid-March, it became clear that it would be too dangerous to return to Kyiv in the near future and it was not possible to work remotely for my previous job.

When a Russian missile hit the airport for the second time in Lutsk, where I was staying at the time, I decided to apply for a British visa. I thought it would be easier to find a job because of my good level of English; plus, my son will go to school and we will be together.

But the journey to the UK was not easy. According to the latest government figures, only 15 per cent of the 74.7 thousand Ukrainians who applied for the sponsorship route came to Britain.

On top of that, you need to be prepared for the fact that life in the UK is not cheap. The flights alone from Warsaw to Birmingham cost my son and me about 130 euros. Public transport, as in most European countries, is not free for Ukrainians and you can only travel by bus or train for 48 hours from the time you arrive in the UK.

Still, ordinary Britons are happy to help. My sponsor, who agreed to take my son and I, lives in the suburbs of Northampton, in Duston. Lucinda set up a garden house for us, which borders her house. It had everything we needed. The refrigerator was filled with food before our arrival, a Ukrainian flag on the wall, a photo of my family on the table, which the hostess had printed out and placed in a frame.

Not sitting idle. Finding a job is harder. Most Ukrainian women are offered cleaning or work in warehouses. The minimum payment is £9.50 per hour. Our people agree to such conditions, because we need to live on something and we are not used to sitting idle.

All my attempts to find administrative work have so far been unsuccessful despite the dozens of applications, phone interviews and enquiries sent out.

Knowledge of English is, without a doubt, a big advantage. However, the level that I considered above average in Ukraine is perceived differently in England. Courses on learning or improving English are promised only in September when the new academic year in colleges begins. In the meantime, the UK offers online training.

A lot of time is spent on drawing up and filling out all the necessary documents that Ukrainians who come to the UK during the war need to have.  Numerous Facebook forums help to understand the intricacies of bureaucratic procedures.

Each city usually has its own group, which includes sponsors and Ukrainians. There you can find answers to questions about placement, job search, and English language courses. Of course, this takes a lot of time and energy.

I knew that it would be difficult abroad. This is not a tourist trip or voluntary emigration. All those who have been forced to leave Ukraine have to go through the painful experience of being a refugee.

It is not so much about wondering [what to do], but about gaining new skills, being one’s own petitioner and learning to accept help and support with dignity.

And the British are very helpful to Ukraine, for supplying weapons and financial support at the state level to opening the doors of their homes.

Finding refuge in thoughts of home.  Everything is new and unfamiliar here. From the basic rules of communication, to the environment and language. I am helped by telephone conversations with relatives, meetings with Ukrainians who have also been abroad, regular yoga practices that I do through Zoom with a friend who stayed in Kyiv, and walks in the woods with my sponsor's dogs.

A special ritual for me is scrolling through photo reports on social networks of the activities of communal workers of Darnytskyi district of Kyiv, where I lived.  When I see the familiar streets and houses of my district, people who go to work every day despite the danger, I believe that our victory will come very soon and it will be easier for me.

Read the Ukrainian version here.