Ukraine: When Home is more than just a Place

I wonder, what is “home”? Is home where you were born, or is home an extraordinary place in your heart which has a special meaning to you? Or, could home be a place which represents safety but is missing all the affectionate feelings? When “home” has not been a choice but chosen for survival reasons.

The devastating consequences a war has on a country and its population are nearly not possible to express in words. When our political world leaders meet, surrounded by high security staff, the vast majority of its people are dealing with an almost impossible way to survive their daily tasks.

I would like to give a voice to one particular person who had recently experienced the tragedy of what it means to live in fear and having to come face-to-face with war.

Her name is Lyubov. She is 48 years old and originally from Ukraine. Her dark brown eyes look tired and you can recognize the apparent sadness. She keeps her short hair neatly tied back. Despite the horror of the past months, she appears gracious and holding on to hope with every fibre of her petite body.

She is originally from the small town of Cherkasy, which is located 300 km from Kiev. Before the outbreak of the war, she worked in a women's boutique as a stylist and salesperson.  Lyubov loved her life in Ukraine. For as humble and ambitiously hard-working as she was, she always kept a thoughtful, determined and kind focus on life. Cherkasy is home. It is where she spent most of her life, where she dreamed about a fulfilling life in peace. It is where she experienced the first meanings of love. “Home sweet home,” as some say. A place where she wanted to spend her life and later on enjoy her retirement surrounded by her family. But everything became different. Her life, as for everyone in this beautiful country, changed abruptly at the beginning of the year 2022.

On 24th of February of 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war which began in 2014. On that morning, on a cold February day this year, according to Reuters, Vladmir Putin authorized “special military operations” in Ukraine to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. Russian forces launched missile and artillery attacks, striking major Ukrainian cities, including Kiev.

When asking Lyubov about her feelings during the weeks leading up to the invasion on the 24th of February, she said that she actually had a premonition that something was going to happen.  People talked a lot about this, and there was a smell of war in the air, but they did not want to believe it until the last moment. Everyone was still holding high on hope, despite the building up of troops since November 2021. “No one wanted to believe it,” she said very sadly.

The Russian invasion caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. The data revealed by Reuters (23/7/22) are devastating - at least 47,000 deaths so far with an additional 13,000 non-fatal injuries caused to civilians. More than 9.4 million fled the country which is a total of a third of its population that has been displaced.

One of them is Lyubov. Luckily, she had a daughter, a son-in law and two granddaughters who were living in England already and well settled for over four years. Therefore, she could apply for the Ukraine Family Scheme. As the Government announced, this Scheme allows applicants to join family members or extend their stay in the United Kingdom. They will be able to live, work and study in the UK and access public funds.

I asked Lyubov what made her decide to leave Ukraine and come to England.

It was the constant feeling of anxiety, fear, and sirens that ultimately made her flee her so much-loved country. She said that it just plunges everything into panic and fear for life. “We began to hear explosions not far from town, planes were constantly flying over the houses. Every day it got worse and worse.”

The moment she decided that she had to escape to save her life was the most terrific decision she ever had to take. Having to acknowledge that she had to escape was beyond anyone’s most terrible decisions. There was no time to think as she was overwhelmed by panic, nor did she have time to prepare her most precious belongings or memories before the departure.

She just automatically took a few warm clothes, a bottle of water, couple of sandwiches, documents, and trainers, “in case I have to walk for a long time,” she says. Those few little things she carried on her bag was everything she had. She was forced to leave behind all of her 48 years in Ukraine. She had to embrace the unknown, by saying goodbye to her life in a panic, as it was up to that moment.

Her long journey from Cherkasy to England began from an instinctive decision. She was picked up straight away by a minibus at her house. The bus took her to the Polish border in 16 hours.  “I was lucky, I quickly crossed the border, in about an hour.  I am very grateful to the volunteers whom I met at the border.  They fed me, gave hot tea and provided a bus that took me to Krakow.  In Krakow, I settled for a few days in a hotel. Then I flew from Krakow to England.”

No one can really understand what she must have felt that moment when crossing the borders. 

“I wanted to go back a million times.” She was very scared and was living in fear constantly.  “Because I don’t know any foreign language, I didn’t know how I would understand and communicate with people, how I would get to England and whether I would get there at all.”

Then there is the obvious feeling of not knowing if and when you will be able to return home. You can recognize the immense despair when she says “I am feeling big pain in my heart” not knowing when she will ever be able to go home again.

She had to leave her sister and her three daughters behind in Ukraine.  “We are all now in the hope that soon Ukraine will win and we will be able to return home.  Everyone makes his own small contribution to victory, as best as we can despite the fear and pain.”

Lyubov and her family are all trying to find new ways to cope with the situation, but “it's terribly hard for everyone right now.”  She recalls with gratitude that she has been welcomed in England with open arms, very friendly with understanding and sympathy.

Now she has been well settled into life in the United Kingdom, far away from what used to be her home. When asked how she feels now she said, “It took me a long time to get used to the silence and realize that the planes that fly in the sky are just passenger planes, not military ones. I understand that I do not need to wait for the sirens at night and run to a safer place.  It was difficult for me to get used to the fact that everyone speaks English, and I can’t understand or say anything.  But everyone around me is very helpful and takes care of me.  Now I already feel more confident and comfortable here.  I am planning to find a job and I really want our military to make free our Ukraine and I would be able to return home as soon as possible.”

But can the United Kingdom ever really feel home to Lyubov?

She is most grateful for the welcome in this country which might have saved her life “I really like to be here.  Very beautiful nature, sympathetic kind people, but my home is Ukraine. “

She has been living with her daughter and her family in a little village in the countryside in a London suburb. She explains that there is a small Ukrainian community where she can turn on any issue and just be in her environment. This helps her feel something native here. This makes her feel a bit like at home. But there is not a moment where she is not thinking of her original hometown. She said she is missing her house, sister and nieces in a way which are beyond anyone’s understanding.

When asked how she would dream her life in a distance of five years, she says that

“Ukraine is a prosperous, strong and independent country.  I dream to live again in my house and enjoy the little things in life.”

And what is your biggest wish? Only one - “Peace for Ukraine”

Lyubov recently survived a malignant cancer diagnosis, but having to be displaced due to the war far away from her country is far more painful than anything else ever experienced in her life.

Hence she is planning the dangerous journey back home any time soon as she cannot cope with the feeling of having left behind what she loved the most: her life in Cherkasy, even if this means she has to give up safety.

Home is home. Even if home is no longer the safe haven it used to be. But no country in the world would be ever able to replace home…

The human being is more resilient than we can imagine, but home can never be home if it’s not the one we carry in our deepest place of our heart.