Ukraine war anniversary: Ukrainian refugee opens up about how life has changed over the past 12 months

Oksana and her family made the journey to the UK nine months ago after they fled Ukraine during the war with Russia

The world has watched on in horror as the human toll of the Ukraine war continues to mount. A total of eight million Ukrainian residents have been displaced by the war, and around 8,000 civilians within the country are estimated to have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

The support for Ukraine - not just in terms of military aid - has been unprecedented and unwavering from the West. The UK alone has welcomed more than 160,000 people fleeing Putin’s war in Ukraine, with neighbouring countries such as Poland welcoming a staggering 1.6 million refugees over the border.

Oksana Yarova is one of the millions of Ukrainian residents forced to leave their homes to flee the war. Oksana, her mother, and her four-year-old son Tymur arrived in the UK on 24 May 2022, finding refuge in Cambridge.

Oksana spoke to NationalWorld about her family’s journey to the UK, their extraordinary past year, and adjusting to life away from Ukraine.

‘We never thought about living in another country’

Oksana and her family - husband Vlad, son Tymur and her mother -  were in disarray at the beginning of the war. They had no idea what the future would hold, and initially sought to stay in Kyiv, thinking that the conflict would blow over quickly.

“For the first week, we hoped that everything would end and it would not go on for a long time, so we stayed in Kyiv. And all the time we stayed underground because we had a lot of alarms and we didn’t know what could happen,” explains Oksana.

“It was very cold underground and we started to get sick - my son started to get a fever so we had to think what we would do next”

Oksana, her husband Vlad and their son Tymur lived in Kyiv before war broke out. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)
Oksana, her husband Vlad and their son Tymur lived in Kyiv before war broke out. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)
Oksana, her husband Vlad and their son Tymur lived in Kyiv before war broke out. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)

Their decision to leave their home meant a trip across Ukraine, but they were met with literal and metaphorical roadblocks along the way. Oksana recalls: “All our colleagues, friends, neighbours said their family had a car but no place for my mother, my husband and my son. We all lived together so we needed three spaces for adults and one for a child.

“But we found some people who could help us absolutely free because everyone tried to help each other. At first we came to the right side of Kyiv - we left the left side and now we needed to use a bridge to get to the right side and then to the west of Ukraine. A lot of the time, the bridge was closed because of the alarms.

“We made it to the right side of Kyiv and there was a bus which took us to west Ukraine. It was 1 March at 5pm when we left Kyiv - at this time there were some rockets taking flight. We were scared because we didn’t know what could be happening.”

Oksana and her family found themselves in Lviv, in western Ukraine, before heading to the Zakarpattia region. However, with a huge amount of displaced people moving throughout Ukraine looking for shelter from the conflict, Oksana and her family were forced to move on.

She said: “We stayed there for two months but there were problems with houses because a lot of people came to the region. After two months we couldn’t stay there because we couldn’t stay in the house anymore, so we had to think ‘what next?’”

Their quest for safety found them in Vinnytsia, a region where Oksana already had relatives living. They were forced once again to move on when this region came under fire from Putin’s troops, with Oksana beginning to consider a move to the UK after being informed of the Homes for Ukraine programme by a friend who was leaving to live with family already in the UK.

“We thought a lot about it. We never thought about living in another country,” she says. “In the capital, we have our own flat, we had good jobs, everything was ok.”

But the war changed things for them, she says. “We made the application at the beginning of April. Very quickly we got approved and told we could come to Britain.”

Oksana and her family arrived in the UK on 24 May 2022.

‘Every morning we check the news’

Oksana’s husband stayed behind in their native Kyiv. Leaving Ukraine would have been impossible for Vlad, with a ban on leaving the country still in place for Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60. The separation of the family has been difficult for everyone, but Oksana explains how important it has been to keep in contact and up to date with news from her home.

“We contact five times a day because nowadays it is very easy with Messenger and the internet. He is very close with our son. They play together through video but they speak all the time.

“We are scared every time [there is news] because every attack brings us something and we don’t know exactly what can be happening. Now in Kyiv, these attacks maybe don’t bring the same damage because now there is air defence but we still worry.

“Every morning we check the news, every evening, all the time. We have a lot of Telegram channels with news so we get it all the time.

“Not only does my husband stay in Kyiv but we have relatives in the Vinnytsia region, we have friends who stayed in Ukraine. All the time, we want to know everything is ok with them.”

The family keep in touch over the internet, contacting each other five or more times a day. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)
The family keep in touch over the internet, contacting each other five or more times a day. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)
The family keep in touch over the internet, contacting each other five or more times a day. (Credit: Oksana Yarova)

Looking towards a return to Ukraine

The community of Cambridge has rallied around Oksana and her family, as many other communities across the UK have done so in welcoming Ukrainian refugees into their lives.

“I want to say thank you. Thank you to all the people of Britain for your support, for helping because we met a lot of great people. Everybody has tried to help.

“Now we rent a house and it was absolutely empty but a lot of people helped us with furniture, with everything - from sofa to spoons. It’s very important to us that a lot of people have tried to help all the time.”

Oksana adds: “We are very grateful for all people, for all of Britain, and all of the countries. We didn’t expect so much help from other countries. All Ukrainians are very grateful.”

The adjustment to living in the UK has been big for the family, moreso for four-year-old Tymur. Oksana said: “It’s not very easy for him because he doesn’t know the language. He knows very small phrases, some words maybe, but it has been very hard for him.”

Tymur has now started primary school, and has made friends with his classmates, which has made his and Oksana’s lives easier in the UK. However, the young boy is looking forward to returning home one day.

“He does want to be back in Kyiv, he is counting every day we can go home,” says Oksana. “Every morning he checks what date it is today and how many days until then.”

Despite the past 12 gruelling months for Oksana, her family, and Ukrainian refugees across the world, hope is high that they will soon be able to return home. “We believe,” she says. “We are scared that maybe in the future, maybe in 10 years, they will start the war again. But we hope that it will never happen again.

“We hope to go back to Ukraine once it ends. We were never thinking of moving to another country. We would like to stay in our country and city, we had a good life and we hope that everything will be ok and we can go back.”