Mum woken by ‘fireworks’ didn’t realise missile had hit outside
A mum who was woken up by the noise of "fireworks" didn't realise a Russian missile had hit outside her home. In February, Lesia Kondratiuk woke early to the sound of fireworks outside her 11th floor apartment in eastern Ukraine and rushed to her window to spot the culprit, but annoyance turned to fear as she realised the loud bangs were missile strikes. Now the 44-year-old says she feels "totally safe" as she settles into her new life in Merseyside.
Fears of an escalation in the seven-year conflict in eastern Ukraine had been brewing for months, but Lesia, 44, never expected a full-blown invasion by her country's neighbour. As a mum-of-two, Lesia's mind switched to her two teen kids, trying not to scare them as they packed for a two-week stay in a cottage an hour outside Odessa, their home city of a million people on the Black Sea coast. READ MORE:Army bomb disposal team called after 'suspicious items' found on train tracks
The family hoped to weather the violence in Lesia's parent's summer home, with only a wood fire for warmth in the depth of winter. But over the next 10 days, as Russian forces started to bomb nearby villages, it became clear even the countryside wasn't safe, prompting the start of a journey taking the Kondratiuks to Neston, a town with a population of 15,000 on the southwest of the Wirral Peninsula. Lesia said their experience was "not as terrible as some people" because they only experienced "some bombs in Odessa", but it was still "really frightening".
She told the ECHO :, "We didn't know what to do, where to run, what to take with us". She and her kids queued for an hour and half for petrol before starting a six-hour drive, Lesia's first on a highway, south west to the tripoint border with Moldova and Romania where they hunkered down for a day-long wait. The greeting from volunteers bearing food, tea and accommodation when they crossed into Romania was warmer than their night in the car.
Lesia said: "One of the volunteers was a Romanian member of parliament just working as a usual volunteer, helping people to have some tea or some food, or to take them from the border to the sports hall or hotel. It's amazing. I wanted to say thank you to all the people who helped us."
Her truck driver husband, Oleksii, flew from Italy to join them, and from there, they drove through Slovakia and Hungary to Poland before embarking on their final trip to the UK.
Lesia and her husband, who spent a summer picking strawberries here 20 years ago, always dreamt of coming back. But visas were "too difficult and expensive" to secure until the UK, along with other countries, opened its doors earlier this year to people fleeing the war in Eastern Europe. The mum-of-two said: "I'm so thankful to the people who helped me.
Europe opened for us. It's a very difficult time for Ukrainians, but we have found there are a lot of very kind and very good people in the world." Some of the more than 200,000 people who've applied to the UK's visa schemes for Ukrainians have reported waiting months for decisions to be made.
But the Kondratiuk family were granted visas in just three weeks after applying for the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, which matches Ukrainian nationals and their family members with host families in the UK through the Homes for Ukraine scheme.Lesia, Veronika, Vadym and Oleksii Kondratiuk visiting. They came to the UK five months ago under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which matched them with a host family in Neston (Image: Lesia Kondratiuk)
Roughly 88,000 people had arrived under the scheme by September 5, with a further 34,900 arriving under the Ukraine Family Scheme for family reunification, according to the latest data published by the Home Office. Hundreds of Ukrainian nationals in Liverpool have been granted visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
It's made "an enormous difference" for people hosted, according Kate Brown, CEO of Reset Communities and Refugees, a charity running the scheme's matching system. Hosts, who the government pays GBP350 per month, go through mandatory training run by the charity to prepare them for the task, before humans - not algorithms - match them with guests with similar interests, like being Harry Potter fans. The Reset chief executive said: "It's about finding those connections and hoping we can build a relationship that's really going to last for at least six months, which is the minimum we expect people to host."
Much of the early stage of hosting involves adapting to cultural differences and helping guests navigate "British bureaucracy" to secure national insurance numbers and bank accounts, which is "tricky if English is your first language". Despite horror stories of relationships breaking down, Kate said "far more [matches] work out than don't work out". She said the experience of hosting can be "enriching", pointing to the example of one woman who told them she couldn't imagine life without "four amazing Ukrainian women" to share space and food with.
It was hard to find a home for the Kondratiuk family to share, but their hosts - a family of four, with kids the same age as Lesia's, plus a dog - have even offered to let the guests stay for a whole year. Lesia thinks "they're very brave people to take an unknown family into their house", saying "it's not so easy to have so big a family in your house for a long time". Five months since the Kondratiuks arrived in Neston, all four are now in education.
Lesia's English skills, although good, aren't enough to slide back into her old career, while her husband's truck driving qualifications aren't valid over here. Lesia and Oleksii are both taking English classes at Cheshire College South & West, where their 16-year-old daughter Veronika studies game design. Lesia, who is doing a nail course, has taken up squash with Veronika while Oleksii is prepares for UK driving tests.
Their son Vadym, who was at university in Odessa, is due to start an international business management degree at Chester University, student finance pending. They plan to stay for the next three years until he graduates. After that, they don't know what they'll do.
Lesia doesn't think much about the future. She said: "I'm happy to be here. I'm really happy to be here.
At night, when I wake up for water, I realise I feel totally safe." Reset is "desperately in need of hosts" and wants "people to consider if it's something they might be able to do". The initial webinar people attend after registering takes an hour and carries no commitment to go further with the process.
People who want to help but don't feel able to host refugees in their own home can participate in the Home Office's community sponsorship scheme. Described on Reset's website as "a refugee resettlement programme with local people at its heart", it involves local groups facilitating refugees to independently and participate fully in society. . The charity's CEO said: "We call it community-led welcome, so it's about empowering communities and giving them the support and the training they need in order to be able to welcome refugees arrived on resettlement programmes like the Syrian Resettlement Programme, Homes for Ukraine, and the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy."
One Afghan family was put up in private accommodation by Refugee Assist, a south Wirral-based community interest company Lesia volunteers with. It's yet to do the same with Ukrainian refugees, but its founder, Chris Young is doing his bit to help with the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The 44-year-old set up WhatsApp groups - one for hosts and one for guests - where people can share experiences with and find support from others in similar situations.
Members of those groups also arrange meetups, even in the tiny of village of Capenhurst, with a population of more than 300 people in the shadow of a nuclear plant. Refugee Assist is running a donation drive, collecting clothes, footwear, toiletries and sanitary products, which are sorted by volunteers at a monthly 'talk and sort' session before being sent to a hub in Neston, where refugees can pick what they need. There, Lesia's "bright outlook" and language skills help the people Chris calls "guests" feel at ease.
A machine operator at Tata Steel during the day, Chris said: "I just look at it from the perspective of, what if that was us? Where would we go? What would we do?
I don't think anyone can imagine their home being blown to bits, every possession they've got being destroyed. You just can't imagine that. Well, I certainly can't."
Grateful to be welcomed to safety, Lesia said: "Find good in your situation. You have a roof above your head, you have food, you have good people around you. You're happier than a lot of people who lost their houses and lost their family."