Beyond Ukraine: refugees relying on the kindness of strangers | Financial Times

Ukrainians share the heartache of leaving their homeland to start new lives and uncertainty over their next steps.

by UKCHP_Admin

More than 6mn people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its full invasion of the country, many of them travelling across the globe in search of safety.

The refugees have mainly sought safety in nearby European countries such as Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, but some have travelled as far afield as Japan and Iceland. It marks the biggest movement of people in Europe since the second world war.

After the Financial Times asked readers for their accounts of ways in which they had been affected by the war, hundreds shared stories of helping Ukrainians, with some putting us in touch with those they were hosting.

We heard directly from Ukrainian refugees, who described the anxiety of fleeing a war zone, their experiences adjusting to unfamiliar countries and their hopes for the future. Hardship, heartache and uncertainty were constants, but so too were acts of kindness by people who offered a safe place to call home.

Family separation


A passion for karate was the one connection that made Japan seem less alien for Artem Tsymbaliuk. He arrived in the small Japanese mountain town of Nagano three months ago after fleeing Ukraine with his mother.

Tsymbaliuk, who started learning martial arts four years ago, was among nine Ukrainian refugees brought to Japan by Takashi Ozawa, founder of an international karate group to which some of them belonged, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has divided his family with his father, a construction worker, fighting on the front line while his 22-year-old brother lives in Poland.

“We all miss each other,” Tsymbaliuk said in an interview through an interpreter. “But I’m very proud of my father for defending our country and I want to be like him when I grow up.”

He was speaking a week after a Russian air strike on his hometown of Vinnytsia last month that killed at least 25 people, including three children.

“We search for new information on the internet every morning, noon and evening,” said Olena Volosenko, his 44-old-mother. “We put in calls to make sure our relatives and friends are safe. This is the biggest concern for us.”

Tsymbaliuk tries to speak to his father every day but on some days when he is out on the battlefield, they are unable to reach each other, leaving him uncertain about his parent’s wellbeing.

Despite the disruption caused by the war, Tsymbaliuk’s face breaks into a smile when asked about his new life in the town of Takamori.

“I go to school every day and have made new friends. I also take karate lessons and am eating various Japanese foods that I’ve never tasted before,” said Tsymbaliuk, who is learning Japanese and keeps in touch with friends at home via occasional online chats.

Japan has accepted just 1,586 people from Ukraine since the war began, according to the Immigration Services Agency. While the Ukrainians have not been granted formal refugee status, allowing that number of people to flee to Japan is a big policy shift for Tokyo and the figure for the evacuees contrasts sharply with the 74 refugees — a record at the time — Japan accepted last year.

In April, Ozawa personally arranged for plane tickets to Japan for the nine Ukrainian refugees and collected donations to support them in the absence of government funding.

“All the kids are very cheerful and it’s hard to tell that there is a war going on looking at their faces,” Ozawa said.

Tsymbaliuk receives karate lessons from Ozawa twice a week and, he said, the experience has been one of the highlights of his stay in Japan. “I love karate because I can feel myself getting stronger,” he said.

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Battling bureaucracy


Before the war, life was good for Yelyzaveta Taranukha. When Russian forces invaded, the philology and comparative literature student was reluctant to join the exodus out of Kyiv with her friends.

“How could I leave my life, my partner? I thought it would be over in a matter of days,” she recalled. “I was one of those people who, until the very last moment, could not accept the idea that a full-scale invasion was actually happening.”

She and her partner spent the first week sleeping in a shelter as the Russians launched air strikes that shook the capital. The psychological impact of constant shelling quickly took its toll. Taranukha decided to leave for Lviv, the first step to finding a haven abroad.

She packed a few possessions into a rucksack, taking just a laptop, passport, student diploma, personal documents and a single change of clothes.

“The hardest thing was leaving Ukraine without my partner. He couldn’t go with me as men were expected to stay and join the military — even though he has health issues so can’t fight. I went on to London and he returned to Kyiv.”

Taranukha already spoke some English and had visited the UK, so London seemed the natural place to go until conditions became safe enough for a return home. She had colleagues in London, at the Ukrainian Institute, for whom she taught Ukrainian as a foreign language online from Kyiv.

One of her students, Ian, contacted her when the war began and suggested she come and live with him and his wife, Iryna, who also worked at the institute. About 86,000 Ukrainians have resettled in the UK since March under the Homes for Ukraine scheme or a related programme for Ukrainians with family already living in the country.

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