Three Ukrainian refugees share their stories, a year on from escaping the war to settle in Chiswick

Images above: Cherry blossoms along Staveley Road; an impression of Chiswick Mat and Anna shared with the Ukrainian refugee they sponsored

Three refugees tell the story of their decision to leave Ukraine

Three Ukrainian refugees who fled to the UK have recounted their experiences over the last year in a series of interviews posted to YouTube.

The interviews, conducted by 12-year-old Malakai New, son of professional photographer, videographer and Chiswick resident Mat Smith, involve Viktoriia (Vika), 20, Marta, 46, and Bohdan, 10,  describing their traumatic journeys from their home cities of Ternopil, Kyiv and Kryvyy Rih respectively to London, where two of them now live in Chiswick.

The refugees’ stories are spliced together with videos and images of the destruction wrought by Putin’s invasion of Russia. They include shocking descriptions of Russian tactics and bombings in the early days of the war, as well as the group’s long and arduous journeys across Europe to escape the conflict.

All three interacted in some way on their journeys with with Mat and his wife Anna, who both volunteered as sponsors for Ukrainian refugees when the war broke out. They helped to organise the journeys of Vika and Marta to Poland, eventually driving there to meet them both.

They also accompanied Sasha (Bohdan’s mother), who they had met previoulsy by Zoom, who was afraid to undertake the journey alone.

Marta now lives with Mat and his family in Chiswick; Bohdan lives with his mother and sister elsewhere in Chiswick and Vika lives with her sponsor in Cambridge. The three of them came together to tell the story of how they reached the decision of leaving their cities, how they met along the way, and gave a flavour of what their lives are like now in the UK.

Image above: Viktoriia 

Vika

Though the city of Ternopil, where Vika is from, was not the target of Russia’s bombing straight away when the war in Ukraine began, the area quickly became a hostile environment where pro-Russian forces paid teenagers to commit acts of terror.

In April 2022, a group of young people ram-raided a church during an Easter service, vandalised infrastructure including damage to gas pipes, and covered the town in pro-Russian graffiti.

At first Vika, her step-dad, mother and ten-year-old sister were in two minds about leaving the country, preferring instead to stay hunkered down in their apartment building hoping they would be safe. A turning point came when the first bomb went off in April 2022.

“My mum and I were just talking, folding some clothes and we heard one single sound like a firework. We knew what happened but we hope it’s not what we think it was, and it was the first bombing in my home town since the beginning of the war.”

Vika’s family then decided to make preparations to move to the countryside, where they thought they’d be safer.

Image above: a car apparently driven by pro-Russian forces through a church in Ternopil

Accused of being a Russian spy

The next day, when searching for supplies for the journey, an air raid siren went off, forcing Vika to seek shelter. As she went into a crowded hospital, she noticed pigeons were taking shelter in a nearby bush and took a picture. She was accused of being a Russian spy and detained in a police station for two hours before being released. 

“[Both my] mental and physical state was affected because of those two things happening so close to each other”, she said. These traumatic events were the trigger for Vika deciding to leave the country entirely.

Images above: Marta Holod, Marta’s apartment building after being bombed

Marta

Marta Holod, a well-known hat designer in Ukraine, had her own fashion boutique in Kyiv. President Volodmyr Zelenskyy once wore one of her hats. She described the moment the reality of the war sunk in:

“The moment it sunk in and really grabbed hold of my soul was when a rocket hit the house where my parents were living. People were running out of the building and there was panic, water was pouring down from the top floor.

“That was when I promised to myself that, as Putin had attacked Kharkiv, then he would need to die.”

Marta’s first impression of Chiswick was of the cherry blossoms in Staveley Rd, images which Mat and Anna sent her by Whatsapp.

“I wrote that it was very beautiful and I wished all people could live in such safe cities,” she said, “They asked how I was, I said ‘I’m fine, yesterday a bomb hit our building’. They were shocked to see this and wondered how I was able to stay calm. It’s very strange how people eventually get used to even such terrible things.”

Marta is continuing her fashion work in London and said she is “so grateful” for the hospitality of Mat and his family. She has re-launched her hat business here in the UK and has just relaunched her website ahead of her show at London fashion week on Saturday.

Image above: Bohdan

Bohdan

Ten-year-old Bohdan, who now lives Chiswick with his mum and sister, described his family’s journey out of Ukraine as “very sad” because nobody wanted to leave and they did not know where they would end up.

“We set out travelling with my whole family together, me, mum, my dad, my sister, and my grandmother. But we couldn’t all travel together because my dad wasn’t allowed to leave, right? So my dad and my grandmother took a bus to the Carpathian Mountains, she didn’t want to leave him behind.”

Bohdan, his mother Sasha and his sister then drove for ten days to Poland, sleeping each night in the car, snatching aout 20 minutes at a time. They ran out of petrol, food and phone charge but were offered free supplies at a petrol station on their journey.

The family then had the stressful experience of moving between three sponsors, having to drive another 300km across Poland and then eventually make the journey to the UK. Though, Bohdan says, the end result has been positive because he is making lots of friends in school and enjoys the food London has to offer.

“I really like live here. It’s really good school and really good eats” Bohdan said. He has found integrating into school in London easy and he has been able to make close friends his short time here.

“Alex is my favourite friend here. Like Malakai, he speak Ukrainian also like me… I have more friends like Roxy, Saeed and more!”

You can watch their Vika, Marta and Bohdan’s interviews in their entirety here on Youtube:

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