Olesia and Olga first met at Moscow State University when they were students, but were reunited on the streets of Sevastopol, Crimea, during a chance encounter 21 years later in the summer of 2021. The two could not have imagined that their meeting would provide Olesia with a lifeline to flee war and find a safe shelter in Oundle.
We met Olesia at Olga’s home, where the interview was conducted in Russian, and Olga translated for her.
Olesia had been living in Kyiv for two years where she worked in property marketing. Before that, she had grown up in Sevastopol. She was born in Turkmenistan, where her mother was from, and her father was from Kazakhstan. Her background reflects the blurred national and ethnic identities of citizens in post-Soviet republics who move from place to place. For many people, multiple identities are common, and in peacetime, it rarely matters.
“My relatives always spoke Russian, language has never been a problem, it doesn’t matter what language you speak,” she said. She grew up in the Soviet Union before Ukraine gained independence, and she speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. She said she never experienced any of the nationalism that Russia claims as an excuse for the invasion.
When Olga and Olesia met by chance last summer, Olga was on holiday with her family and was organising a reunion for their university classmates. The two exchanged phone numbers during the reunion and kept in touch.
When war broke out in February, Olesia did not know what to think. Many people started to leave immediately. “The first day when they started bombing Kyiv, I woke up and I did not really realise what was happening, I just heard noises, that’s all,” Olesia described. Yet many did realise the gravity of the situation as soon as attacks began, and Ukrainians started to evacuate the city. The UN estimated that nearly 80,000 Ukrainians fled on the 24th of February alone.
Olesia left Kyiv on the 28th of February, four days after Russian troops invaded the country. A work colleague had a car and offered her a lift out of the city. She packed one suitcase at half past five in the evening and they travelled towards Vinnytsya, south-west of Kyiv. The journey would normally only take two hours, but in the dark, over back roads, it took more than seven.
Olesia was expecting to stay in the region for a short while and make a return home afterwards. Olga texted her and encouraged her to travel to Hungary, rather than stay in Ukraine, where the situation was becoming increasingly volatile. It took around twelve hours for her to travel from Vinnytsia to Mukachevo, where Olesia then took a train to Budapest. “There were amazing people there who met me at the station, gave me shelter and food. They took me to the station the next day, and even bought my ticket onwards,” Olesia said. She then travelled to Prague where she stayed with Olga’s partner.
When Olga heard about the Home Office’s sponsorship programme, plans were made to bring Olesia to the UK.
The war in Ukraine is incomprehensible to them. “It’s not normal to be an aggressor and to do what Russia is doing to another country,” Olesia said. “I think that everybody understands that, except some of the Russians, unfortunately.”
Both Olesia and Olga still have family in Crimea, which was annexed by the Russians in 2014, which makes communicating with them about the situation in Ukraine very difficult.
“They don’t really know what is happening because of the media shutdown,” Olga said. “They are not told what is happening. Many Russian families do not believe what the Ukrainians are saying. My family does not believe me when I say what is happening. They are so brainwashed. If I try to talk about the war, it ends with shouting. It’s really heart-breaking that they do not listen to us. They are always finding excuses to all our arguments. When we spoke to our mothers, they said that Ukraine wanted to bomb Crimea. They strongly believe what the government says.”
Olesia said that even if residents in Crimea wanted to object to the war, there would be no opportunity. “Crimea is small, and all the social media is monitored so it’s very difficult to get people together. And we have cameras everywhere, so there is surveillance.”
Like all good cities, life in Kyiv was dynamic and international, and for Russians and Ukrainians, Crimea had always been a perfect holiday destination because of its long coastline and warm seas. “I really miss Crimea,” Olga said. “For the kids, it was amazing to take them back last year to where I grew up. We camped by the sea, we swam every single day. It is a gorgeous place, it is truly.”
Along with other refugees, Olesia abandoned everything in Kyiv – her job, her rented flat, her possessions. She remains hopeful, but does not know when she will be able to return home. She is proud of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. “He is very brave. He stands by Ukrainians and tries to protect Ukraine. He is still standing.”
With memories of Kyiv still fresh, she shakes her head. “I never, ever thought I would go to England and end up in Oundle,” she said.
Olivia Pegge and Priyanka Menon
More than 14 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine. Over 6 million have left for neighbouring countries.
In response, the UK government launched the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme called Homes for Ukraine. There is also a visa scheme for those who have family members in the UK. By late May 115,000 visas had been issued, and 60,000 visa holders had arrived in the UK. After arrival, Ukrainians who have been granted visas can apply to
live and work in the UK for up to three years.