My life as a refugee, five months on

Sept 10

Ukraine in Focus

By Svitlana Morenets

Nobody is ever ready to become a refugee. It’s not taught in schools, universities or training courses – it just happens. One day, the life you knew ceases to exist and you are left with two options: fight or flee. In Ukraine, I was a journalist (then freelance) and was on holiday in Spain when Vladimir Putin began his invasion of my country. Rumours were rife and on the night of 24 February, I could not sleep. The bombing started a day before my flight back to Kyiv. I immediately called my mother, imagining the worst. My hometown would have been along the route to Kyiv, had the invasion succeeded. My stepdad was building barricades. I can’t remember what was louder – my mother crying or the sound of air sirens in the background.

I applied for asylum in Spain and got no response. By then, the UK had kindly opened its doors so I travelled to London under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. I had my passport and a small backpack with three dresses which I had brought for my short holiday. I was wearing one when my host family met me at Stansted airport. My plan was simple: get a job and help my family.

Finding a ‘sponsor’ (a host family) was stressful. I felt guilty asking for help from people who had never met me before, who owed me nothing. I didn’t know whom to approach. There was no single website with contacts. I looked up various refugee organisations online and consulted social networks, skipping all the offers from single men. I was looking for a family, preferably with children. The first conversation felt awkward – I didn’t know what to say. I was looking at the happy British family on my screen and felt thankful that they cared about someone from a different part of the world. ‘We know that your country fights for our freedom too,’ they told me – and I finally felt safe.

It took a few hours to complete the application and upload the documents. Two weeks of waiting and I had the visa in my hands. I had the time to spare: I wasn’t on the run with kids to look after, as so many others were. My host family’s kindness was overwhelming. For the first week, I tried to just come to my senses, understand British pronunciation and why I have to drink tea with milk. The routine helped me to come back to life. I spent days opening a bank account and signing up for NHS healthcare. Five months later, I have not found a dentist who will agree to sign me up; I now understand that this is a normal part of British life.

Two weeks after my arrival, a local councillor came to check the conditions in which I lived. He said that I was the first Ukrainian refugee he had met, and he was unsure how to help. He offered me some clothes and shoes, donated by a refugee charity. They never arrived, but it was a kind offer. I got lucky with my host family, who helped me with basic needs. I volunteered as an interpreter for Camden Council and learned about the experience of other refugees who had not been so lucky: some were kicked out by their sponsors after a couple of weeks. I remember thinking that, if council checks had taken place sooner, these problems might not have arisen.

It seemed strange to me to see Britons going about their peaceful lives while so many Ukrainians were fighting – or, at the time, being killed. It felt unfair. War is unfair. You’re always aware of this in the abstract. But as I followed news from my friends – many of whom enlisted in the military, some of whom have been killed – the reality of war hits. Like many displaced Ukrainians, I constantly felt guilty for not fighting alongside my people. This feeling faded a little when I started working at The Spectator, writing this newsletter. It feels that, albeit in a small way, I’m doing something for my country. I’m also mindful of how small the chances were of this happening: at the job centre, I was told that my chances of working as a journalist were low because I’m not British.

I miss my family, my friends and the life that was taken from me. It’s hard looking for a room to rent when many landlords are asking for payments six or 12 months in advance (common for those of us with no credit history). Almost 85,000 refugees have arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and I wonder how many can afford this. These challenges will stay with us, as the war doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

I spent last New Year with my family: the last time I saw them. None of us could imagine that within a few weeks I’d be a refugee and my brother would be home-schooled due to war, rather than Covid. Everything has changed. But all of my family are still alive: that’s the most important thing. Their windows have been shaken by Russian shells landing nearby – but this is, thank God, the closest they have come to harm so far.

In this newsletter I have the chance to say to you, directly, what thousands of Ukrainians here in Britain would like to say: thank you. You can tell a lot about a country about how people in my situation are treated, arriving here with a backpack and knowing no one. I’ve always had support and help when I needed it. This is an incredible country. When Ukrainians most needed help, the British have been there with kindness and encouragement for refugees abroad, while giving us what we need to fend off the invader at home. We will never forget it.

One comment

  1. My heart goes out to all the Ukrainian people, who have suffered because of the war, but, especially, the soldiers, who must endure so much misery and see so much suffering just to keep a voracious, evil monster from eating their country.
    Слава Україні!
    Слава його героям!

    Liked by 3 people

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