Ukraine case study: Olena’s story

Ukraine case study: Olena’s story

We spoke to Ukrainian guest Olena Ostrovska who came to Ely under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme:

Olena Ostrovska lives at Zaporizhzhia. It’s a place many of us have heard of as it’s located close to the nuclear power plant the Russians have taken over in the Donbas region of Ukraine. When a bomb landed in her neighbouring village she decided enough was enough and she and her family made the heart-wrenching decision that she would leave her husband, grown-up son, mother and father, and try and get a safe passage to England.

“I was very worried about leaving,” she said. “But my family were insistent. They said what is the point in no-one surviving? We want at least one person to survive and we want that to be you.”

But then for Olena came the guilt. Not only would she be leaving her family and her job as a sales manager, her home and her friends – she had also taken on extra responsibilities for other people who had already left the region. There was her friends’ parents to care for, a cat to feed, errands to run to get bread, and flowers to water.

“It was a very hard decision to make and I was very scared, but the Russians were getting closer and closer and I knew there was very little time,” she said.

Olena started looking on the internet for people and organisations that could help and soon stumbled on a Facebook page promoting the Homes for Ukraine scheme in the UK.

“I saw an advert for a couple from Ely who were prepared to offer a room to a single person so I sent an email to Dr Ian and Suzanne Lindsay not expecting to hear anything back. But within 10 minutes I received a text message from their daughter-in-law who could speak Russian and we had a What's App call straight away and everything moved on quickly from that point.”

Olena packed her bags and on 19 April left Zaporizhzhia to stay with her friend in Poland. On 20 April a bomb exploded on a train not 50 yards from her Ukrainian apartment. No one was killed but for Olena it meant that no matter how scared she was of the future, she had made the right decision.

Then came the wait for a visa. “I knew I needed to wait for a visa and I was expecting this to take weeks,” she added. But within days it had arrived in her in-box and Olana was on her way, via Germany and Brussels, to London where she first met the Lindsays as they waited for her at St Pancreas Station.

“They could not have been more welcoming,” she said. “I wanted to come to England because I spoke a little English and I love old movies, architecture, cars and the history. As soon as I met them I knew I had made the right choice.”

Initially, Olena struggled because of her difficulties with understanding the English language. “It was difficult to understand and I was really afraid of upsetting people,” she said.

Fortunately with support from Lindsays, East Cambridgeshire District Council and the Ukrainian hub, Olena was quickly able to settle into life in Ely.

“It was really nice to have those first three months just to settle in,” she said. “I very much want to go home at times and I miss my family so much, but the Russians are very close and it is just not safe.”

“I have really benefited from the personal approach everyone has taken. It is not just a tick in a box. Taking on someone from Ukraine can be a big responsibility. It is not just about giving someone a place to live, it is far more than that. Some people in Ukraine have seen a lot and have been traumatised because of the war.

“If anyone is thinking of offering their homes I would encourage them to come forward. I, for one, am so, so grateful for all of the support I have received and the Lindsays have been so kind.”

“My message for fellow Ukrainians who are thinking of coming over is to be active. To get out there and ask people. I know there are people who have come over and they are waiting for people in England to reach out to them and sort out everything for them. It’s not like that. You have to reach out and meet people and sort stuff out for yourselves. We all need to listen, to talk and to find ways to fit in. We may not know how to speak English but somebody can cook, somebody can help with children. It’s about reaching out, talking and learning the language. We all have to take a step forward.”

For Olena her big breakthrough came when the Lindsays’ neighbour, who comes from Lithuania, was also able to step in and offer Olena a job as a part-time barista in the café she runs at Ely train station.

“It was really hard at first because I did not know what people wanted – but I persevered and now my English is coming along fantastically, so I can talk to them about their coffee or their dog. Some of my regular customers are even learning Ukrainian!

“I would encourage employers to really think about employing someone from Ukraine. We just need a hand with getting started but most of us are looking to make a life here and are grateful for any support we can get. I am sorry I don’t always understand English, but the English I am learning through my job is much better than any I can pick up through a course, and I will get there.”

So what does the future hold for Olena?

“It’s a difficult question to answer as no one knows what the future holds,” she said. “I would like to go back to Ukraine, but I am realistic about the chances of that happening any time soon. My goal for now is to settle here and be able to pay for the rent on a room with the income from my job and any support the government can help with.

“Sometimes I feel down about the whole situation,” she says. “But I have received incredible support here, and I am not giving up!”