Beyond Ukraine: refugees relying on the kindness of strangers

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More than 6mn people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its full invasion of the country, many of them travelling across the globe in search of safety.

The refugees have mainly sought safety in nearby European countries such as Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, but some have travelled as far afield as Japan and Iceland. It marks the biggest movement of people in Europe since the second world war.

After the Financial Times asked readers for their accounts of ways in which they had been affected by the war, hundreds shared stories of helping Ukrainians, with some putting us in touch with those they were hosting.

We heard directly from Ukrainian refugees, who described the anxiety of fleeing a war zone, their experiences adjusting to unfamiliar countries and their hopes for the future. Hardship, heartache and uncertainty were constants, but so too were acts of kindness by people who offered a safe place to call home.

Family separation

Artem Tsymbaliuk, 13 

A passion for karate was the one connection that made Japan seem less alien for Artem Tsymbaliuk. He arrived in the small Japanese mountain town of Nagano three months ago after fleeing Ukraine with his mother.

Tsymbaliuk, who started learning martial arts four years ago, was among nine Ukrainian refugees brought to Japan by Takashi Ozawa, founder of an international karate group to which some of them belonged, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has divided his family with his father, a construction worker, fighting on the front line while his 22-year-old brother lives in Poland.

“We all miss each other,” Tsymbaliuk said in an interview through an interpreter. “But I’m very proud of my father for defending our country and I want to be like him when I grow up.”

He was speaking a week after a Russian air strike on his hometown of Vinnytsia last month that killed at least 25 people, including three children.

“We search for new information on the internet every morning, noon and evening,” said Olena Volosenko, his 44-old-mother. “We put in calls to make sure our relatives and friends are safe. This is the biggest concern for us.”

Tsymbaliuk tries to speak to his father every day but on some days when he is out on the battlefield, they are unable to reach each other, leaving him uncertain about his parent’s wellbeing.

Despite the disruption caused by the war, Tsymbaliuk’s face breaks into a smile when asked about his new life in the town of Takamori.

“I go to school every day and have made new friends. I also take karate lessons and am eating various Japanese foods that I’ve never tasted before,” said Tsymbaliuk, who is learning Japanese and keeps in touch with friends at home via occasional online chats.

Artem Tsymbaliuk punching a pad with a fellow student during a karate class
Artem Tsymbaliuk, left, was among nine Ukrainian refugees brought to Japan by Takashi Ozawa, centre, the founder of an international karate group © Toru Hanai/FT

Japan has accepted just 1,586 people from Ukraine since the war began, according to the Immigration Services Agency. While the Ukrainians have not been granted formal refugee status, allowing that number of people to flee to Japan is a big policy shift for Tokyo and the figure for the evacuees contrasts sharply with the 74 refugees — a record at the time — Japan accepted last year.

In April, Ozawa personally arranged for plane tickets to Japan for the nine Ukrainian refugees and collected donations to support them in the absence of government funding.

“All the kids are very cheerful and it’s hard to tell that there is a war going on looking at their faces,” Ozawa said.

Tsymbaliuk receives karate lessons from Ozawa twice a week and, he said, the experience has been one of the highlights of his stay in Japan. “I love karate because I can feel myself getting stronger,” he said.

Battling bureaucracy

Yelyzaveta Taranukha, 30, London

Before the war, life was good for Yelyzaveta Taranukha. When Russian forces invaded, the philology and comparative literature student was reluctant to join the exodus out of Kyiv with her friends.

“How could I leave my life, my partner? I thought it would be over in a matter of days,” she recalled. “I was one of those people who, until the very last moment, could not accept the idea that a full-scale invasion was actually happening.”

She and her partner spent the first week sleeping in a shelter as the Russians launched air strikes that shook the capital. The psychological impact of constant shelling quickly took its toll. Taranukha decided to leave for Lviv, the first step to finding a haven abroad.

She packed a few possessions into a rucksack, taking just a laptop, passport, student diploma, personal documents and a single change of clothes.

“The hardest thing was leaving Ukraine without my partner. He couldn’t go with me as men were expected to stay and join the military — even though he has health issues so can’t fight. I went on to London and he returned to Kyiv.”

Taranukha already spoke some English and had visited the UK, so London seemed the natural place to go until conditions became safe enough for a return home. She had colleagues in London, at the Ukrainian Institute, for whom she taught Ukrainian as a foreign language online from Kyiv.

One of her students, Ian Gaunt, contacted her when the war began and suggested she come and live with him and his wife, Iryna, who also worked at the institute. About 86,000 Ukrainians have resettled in the UK since March under the Homes for Ukraine scheme or a related programme for Ukrainians with family already living in the country.

Ukrainian refugee Yelyzaveta Taranukha with the couple hosting her, Ian Gaunt and his wife Iryna
Both Yelyzaveta Taranukha, right, and her hosts grew frustrated by the complex bureaucracy that every Ukrainian refugee had to navigate to enter the UK © Anna Gordon/FT

But both Taranukha and her hosts became frustrated by the complex bureaucracy that every Ukrainian refugee has to navigate to enter the UK.

“The paperwork imposed by the British government at the outset seriously delayed the arrival of Ukrainians in Britain. Particularly challenging were the biometric tests needed to obtain a visa,” said Gaunt.

Even getting a UK bank account was difficult. Taranukha said it took six weeks to gather the supporting documents and receive a bank card. “Even then it took still longer to set up an international transfer,” she said.

But she has grown accustomed to her new life. She works for the institute, co-ordinating English courses for Ukrainians. In her spare time, she helps others navigate the British visa application system. But she constantly worries about her family back in Ukraine, some of whom are in territory now occupied by the Russians.

“I feel guilty all the time. The people I love are still in Ukraine and yet I’m here, safe, in London. I’m happy to be away from the bombs but constantly scared for the people I’ve left behind.”

A different language

Alevtyna Kudinova, 47, Shropshire

Russian was the language Alevtyna Kudinova had always used with family and friends. That changed a few months ago after the bombing began. She could no longer bring herself to use the invader’s tongue and switched instead to Ukrainian.

“Not only have the Russians taken away my life, my home and my family, they’ve robbed me of my mother tongue,” said the 47-year-old economics professor whose parents were Russian-speaking Ukrainians. “I can no longer speak Russian without feeling sick to my core.”

Before the invasion she lived in Bucha, 30km north-west of Kyiv, and worked as the director of a business school. One night, soon after the invasion, her husband Denys Verba joined the local defence organisation and she left home to embark on the journey out of Ukraine.

“We didn’t take much, just the clothes on our backs and a couple of changes. Only what we thought we would need,” she said. “Then we got in the car and I drove to Truskavets in the Lviv region. We drove for 20 hours.”

One of her lasting memories of that journey was seeing hundreds of people walking down a long road dragging suitcases behind them, many walking to towns up to 400 kilometres away.

“We’ve seen this sort of thing in movies, but never dreamt it could happen in real life.”

She drove her twin boys, her mother and niece through Poland to the Czech Republic, Germany, France and finally the UK.

“I was humbled by how nice and kind everyone we met along the journey was. People went out of their way to help us, giving us food and shelter and keeping us company. They cried with us when we cried, and supported us when we needed it.” she said.

Alevtyna Kudinova
Alevtyna Kudinova, third from left, seated, moved to Shropshire, in the UK, where she is staying with a family that has made rental properties available to Ukrainian refugees © Andrew Fox/FT

During that journey, her cousin sent a text telling her about a group of parents in the UK who were inviting young Ukrainians to enrol in their children’s independent school Moor Park, and offering to host families.

One of these hosts was Frank Bury whose family runs a country home in the English county of Shropshire and owns rental properties. He and his wife provided three properties on their estate as accommodation for Ukrainian families.

Bury worked alongside volunteers and local people in the village to obtain visas for the Ukrainians staying with him. “I pretty much had to down tools from my day job for a few weeks while I helped apply for visas for the Ukrainians,” he said.

Kudinova’s boys now go to Moor Park and she continues to work remotely, running the business school from Shropshire. They spend time with the other families on the estate.

“I enjoy learning English and my boys are speaking the language more fluently every day. I just wish I didn’t have to forget the language of my childhood.”

Finding work

Alex Nikolayuk, 20, Warsaw

Alex Nikolayuk arrived in Poland less than 24 hours after learning that Russia had invaded Ukraine. He travelled with his flatmate by bus from the western city of Lviv, where they attended university, to another city near the Polish border.

After crossing over, they rode on another bus to Warsaw, where a friend had already found them a temporary home in Poland’s capital. “It’s all been about getting helped by friends of friends of friends,” he said.

Nikolayuk’s host family posted a message on LinkedIn to help him get a job in which he used his computer skills. Although Nikolayuk was in his third year of studying psychology, he had initially considered studying computer sciences and becoming a software developer.

His Warsaw job search quickly yielded fruit. Since April, Nikolayuk has worked as an online recruiter at Boston Consulting Group, under an initiative it launched to recruit Ukrainian refugees. His job involves searching online for suitable candidates for the consultancy firm.

“I felt a lot of guilt and shame about working in a good company and not having to go to a shelter and hide from the bombs, as some of my classmates have had to do,” he said of his life in Warsaw. “My friends told me that it’s OK, that me feeling guilty won’t help Ukraine win the war.”

Nikolayuk hopes to finish his university studies online. He must also choose whether to forge ahead in IT or stick with psychology — in Warsaw he has volunteered as a therapist on an online platform that connects him to young people struggling in Ukraine.

He now shares a Warsaw flat with three other young Ukrainians. “We really don’t talk about the war: sometimes we mention something that we’re missing, but mostly we talk about the present, things here in Warsaw,” Nikolayuk said.

Ukrainian refugee Alex Nikolayuk with Maciej Gerhardt, who is co-ordinating BCG’s Ukraine initiative
Alex Nikolayuk, right, worked as an online recruiter at Boston Consulting Group, under an initiative that is being co-ordinated out of the consultancy’s Warsaw office by Maciej Gerhardt, left © Maciek Jazwiecki/FT

Nikolayuk’s mother and his half-brother recently visited him in Warsaw. Their hotel stay was paid by the bank that employs his mother, and she worked remotely while in Warsaw.

“I sometimes get homesick, I miss my community and friends, but Warsaw is a good place and I have some close Ukrainian friends here,” he said.

But Nikolayuk added that he had been overwhelmed by the welcome given by Poles to Ukraine’s refugees. “I didn’t think that the relationship between Poles and Ukrainians had been warm before the war, but everybody here really seems to care a lot about Ukraine.”

MARIANNA pELYKH, 40, Niesky, Germany

A small German town near the Polish border is now home for Marianna Pelykh. She relocated to Niesky in March with her 14-year-old son Andrew, who has autism, and her elderly parents.

Their lives have changed beyond recognition. They are living in a group of apartments alongside 60 other Ukrainian families of children with special educational needs. The families were all helped by Marina Krisov, an Israeli who has spent a lot of time working in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, which came under heavy bombardment.

For years, Krisov worked with families and educators in Ukraine to develop an inclusive education system, particularly for children on the autism spectrum. When the war broke out she contacted Pelykh and offered to help her evacuate her family from Ukraine.

“I was so happy that she remembered us. Because of Covid we hadn’t seen her for two years. She came to our rescue,” said Pelykh.

Kharkiv train station was packed with thousands of desperate Ukrainians and Andrey was petrified by the crowds. “Marina waited for hours to get my son and my parents on to a bus and bring them to me. I will never forget how it felt to hug them for the first time in two weeks. She saved us that day.”

At the apartments where the Pelykhs now live there is a large space for group activities, and also for individual lessons with teachers and consultations with psychologists. Families gather together there to help each other fill in forms and obtain visas.

“We split up the jobs that need doing,” said Pelykh. “One person looks for a local doctor, another tries to find an insurance company and someone else organises our supplies.”

As important as the help with the administrative work is the emotional support available in the group. “It’s much easier to get through this hell together. When one of us is crying, and we feel like we can’t go on, others pick us up, dust us off and encourage us to carry on.”

Marianna Pelykh’s family is living in apartments alongside 60 other Ukrainian families of children with special educational needs
Marianna Pelykh’s family is living in apartments alongside 60 other Ukrainian families whose children have special educational needs © Marina Krisov

Outside the group in Niesky, Krisov and her friends have helped more than 135 other refugees settle in different towns and cities. She is working with people she knows to establish hubs in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, where families and children could get support in their native language.

Pelykh yearns to return home, but knows that such a move would be too dangerous.

“The Russians decided to destroy my country . . . so for me there is no safe home there now,” she said. “It’s going to be so hard to go back and see all those historic buildings and familiar places destroyed.”

Finding a school

Olga odnopozova, 34, lubriano, Italy

Olga Odnopozova felt unsettled after arriving as a refugee in the quiet Italian town of Lubriano, as the 34-year-old mother of two struggled to adjust to the slower pace of life.

“Everyone was always staring . . . but eventually they got used to us,” Odnopozova said. “Italy is very different”, she added, “you don’t know what to do, you have no plans.”

In March, after Odnopozova had endured a week of heavy shelling in Kyiv, Francesca Zanoni — an Italian businesswoman who knew the Ukrainian woman’s husband professionally — offered the use of her three-bedroom holiday home in Lubriano.

After fleeing the Ukrainian capital by car, she drove through Romania and Budapest before arriving in Italy with her daughter Emma, aged 7, and her 16-month-old son Boris.

Before the invasion, Italy had the largest Ukrainian population in western Europe — with about 235,000 people, many of them older women involved in care work.

But in Lubriano — with its tight-knit local community, transient visitors and no Ukrainians at all — the family felt isolated, without friends who could understand their experiences.

Ukrainian refugee Olga Odnopozova with her daughter and their host, Francesca Zanoni
Olga Odnopozova, centre, is considering whether to move from Lubriano to Milan or London © Francesco Pistilli/FT

Helping Odnopozova’s daughter, Emma, to socialise with other children was among the biggest challenges. The child participated in online classes with pupils from her English-language private school in Kyiv, which helped give her a sense of solidarity. Of the 22 children in her class, just two had remained in Ukraine, while most — like her — were elsewhere.

But she felt isolated once classes ended. Most local children play in their own gardens, and the public park was virtually empty.

Zanoni arranged for Emma to join daily classes at a local swimming pool in another town nearby, which helped to build Emma’s confidence.

Odnopozova is torn about her next move. The Italian town offered refuge initially, but does not feel like a place for a long stay for a Ukrainian family, she said. Yet she is reluctant to return home with her children while fighting rages, even though schools in Kyiv have reopened.

She is now considering whether to move to Milan, where she has other Ukrainian friends. She thinks a school could be found there that was better suited to her daughter’s needs.

“We’re looking for a school with English — my daughter doesn’t know Italian at all.”

London is also an option, but Kyiv is off the list for now. “We won’t go back to Ukraine until the war ends,” she said. “I hope it won’t last for years.”

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