Tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes following the Russian invasion and are now living in the UK.
Over 60,000 people fleeing Ukraine have now arrived in the UK – some with family visas and others under the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme, which enables the general public to host an individual or group.
To shed some light on the positive experiences of Ukrainians settling into life in the UK, we spoke to Anna currently residing in London.
Tell us about your journey to the UK
I came to the UK in mid-March under the Ukraine Family Scheme visa. My family had been staying in Ukraine for a week after the war started. My sister and her husband had been living in the UK for a while. We were in the middle of Europe looking at ways to leave and we found out about the scheme.
Initially, we had been staying with a few people who offered to host us. Two families on the same street offered – one family offered an apartment to my parents and another woman invited me to stay with her in a separate room.
People were super welcome with our stay here despite all the difficulties we had with documents and so forth. Everyone was really open with offering their hands to help us.
Originally, I was working for a Ukrainian company but given the unpredictability in Ukraine, I started to look for work in the UK to have a stable income. Thankfully, I found a job here in the UK working at a creative agency.
Again, people were really open and welcoming. They gave me a step-by-step explanation of these documents.
What’s your current living situation like?
At the moment, I have been kindly offered a room at cost of my utility bills by people who are willing to support Ukrainians in these times.
I live within a five-minute walk from my sister and brother-in-law. They live in a one-bedroom studio apartment, along with two dogs, one of which we rescued from Ukraine. And he is a little shell-shocked, so he’s living with my sister. They themselves already had a dog, so as you can imagine, two people and two dogs – it’s a lot to handle!
My family and I are all really close. Even though such a bad situation happened, we now have an opportunity to spend more time together whereas before we were living in different countries for the past year and a half.
I’m keeping in contact with people who came to the UK on their own from Ukraine and can see how difficult it is for them. Even though it was stressful for me, and I’m still trying to adjust to some parts of my life, having family with me is much easier than figuring everything out on my own in a new country.
What were your first impressions of the UK?
I’m really interested in technology and I relate the three stages of a cultural shock to my experience here.
The first stage is amazement! Definitely, in the beginning, I was excited. London really feels like a place where everyone is a local. And just walking down the street you see a diversity of people and languages. It’s hundreds of different cultures existing all together in one in one city. And it all seems to fit.
When I started my job, I think I was in the second stage where I felt quite down. As I’m used to business language in Ukrainian, it was all new to me at work. I started my job and everything was in English and it was really hard. At the same time, I commuted to the office, and the transport was hard to get to grips with. During those few weeks, I suppose I was depressed, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was doing the bare minimum, you know, just enough to stay on track with everything. I didn’t feel like hanging out with people and so on. But this experience was really important for me to go through. The cultural shock is like a roller coaster. You have your ups and downs.
More or less, I feel like I’m at a point of stability right now. I still have my downs when reading the news from Ukraine and staying in touch with people who are still there. When you’re coming to a place where there’s no war, compared to other people you’re not quite ‘normal’, though you may seem to be around people, there’s a lot happening in your head. Everyone around me is really considerate of my mental health. People at work directly told me that if I need some time to check up on my friends or family or if it’s a particularly hard day, just to let them know and it’s totally fine to take a day off. My colleagues have been incredibly supportive.
Have you brought any Ukrainian traditions to London?
Yeah, so I’ve been making Ukrainian traditional dinner with my landlords. They cooked traditional British meals for me. Recently, they made a sausage casserole with gravy. I love gravy and I feel like gravy is everywhere in British cuisine!
I cooked a Ukrainian meal called ‘kruchenyky’ which translates to swirls. They’re chicken rolls stuffed with cheese. Also, I’ve been cooking buckwheat porridge which you can only find in Polish stores in London. Polish stores have been so helpful as they have really similar products to Ukraine.
I’ve been wearing Ukrainian embroidered shirts for every special occasion. For example, it was Vyshyvanka Day (World Embroidery Day) on the 19th of May. I actually found an embroidered shirt in Zara! Even though it’s not from Ukraine, I still wore it to celebrate my culture.
What can we do to support you and fellow Ukrainians starting a new chapter in the UK?
For me, it was quite difficult to understand the next steps. Things like opening a bank account and registering with the GP surgery – my sister and brother-in-law helped with this. It wasn’t something that was obvious to me. I guess when people are coming over by themselves, these administrative bits are not necessarily easy to research. Step-by-step guides and hotlines for this would be really helpful.
In terms of emotional support and adapting to a new culture, people have already done so much. Everyone has been eager to help, whether that’s inviting me for coffee or just having a chat. At the same time, everyone’s been really respectful. For instance, anytime someone has asked me about Ukraine, they’ve asked whether it’s okay to speak about it. For me, the more I talk about it, the easier it gets. But I know there are people who are traumatised and would prefer not to speak about it. It seems like understanding and mindfulness are part of British culture.
What message do you have for Ukrainians?
Even though we’re across the world, whether it’s in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, or in America, we’re going to reunite and celebrate our victory in Ukraine. We’re going to invite all those amazing people who have helped us, all those other countries who’ve supported us to Ukraine to show them how beautiful it is. So, we need to stay strong and functional because that is how we can bring the moment of our victory closer.