'It's like your brain is split into two worlds': The reality of leaving Ukraine for safety in the UK

Valeria Kovtun, 25, fled Ukraine last year and now lives in West London. Credit: Valeria Kovtun

By Multimedia Producer Lottie Kilraine

"It's like your brain is split into two worlds - one half is still in the warzone and the other is here in the safe space."

I was first introduced to Valeria Kovtun in March last year, one week after the Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a move that shocked the world.

We spoke via a video call as Valeria sheltered in a basement bunker at her parents’ house in northern Ukraine.

The 25-year-old had been forced to flee her apartment in the capital Kyiv, after the city was repeatedly bombarded by Russian rockets.

During our call she compared her experience to living through a “zombie apocalypse”.

A few months later she escaped and now lives in west London where she continues to work remotely as the head of a Ukrainian government-backed media literacy project, called Filter.

I met up with Valeria in Paddington just days before the one-year anniversary of Putin's invasion on February 24.

Valeria Kovtun left Ukraine shortly after the invasion and now lives in London. Credit: Valeria Kovtun

"I now live in a very safe environment where I see people’s daily life which doesn’t have anything to do with the war," she told ITV News.

"It's like your brain is split into two different parts because you are experiencing two very different realities.

"Life for Ukrainians that are now living abroad can be relatively normal - posting on social media, getting a coffee, going on a night out, enjoying the sunshine - but they are also being exposed to the graphic stories or images from the war back home.

"Mixing this sort of normal life with war content can be very distressing."

For Valeria the transition to life in the UK has been smoother than most. She is fluent in English and previously studied at the London School of Economics before returning to Ukraine during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the reality of having escaped a war while her family and loved ones still remain exposed to regular drone strikes and constant danger is a difficult thing to comprehend.

"This wasn’t by choice. Ukrainians didn’t want to leave their homes and families, they were forced to," she said.

"I think the uncertainty of the past year has been very painful because you can't progress with your life.

"It's like you are frozen in time because you don't have a definitive answer about when the war will end and when you can finally go home.

"There is also the question of whether there will even be a decent life for you if you were to return post-war.

"I think many Ukrainians are now realising this, but it is a difficult thing to come to terms with," she added.

Some 219,400 UK visas have been issued to Ukrainians since the war broke out last year, while 11,600 applications are still pending, according to data from the Home Office.

Valeria spoke about a growing tension between those who have escaped, mainly women and children, and those who have remained in the warzone.

"I have had a couple of unpleasant conversations with my close peers back home," she admitted.

"They may not blame you for leaving but it is creating a tension between the Ukrainians who have fled and the ones who chose to stay.

"Of course, social media amplifies this divide and it can make people hostile to one another.

"People who stayed are seeing their friends posting photos of their lives abroad and they may think: 'why am I here suffering when my peer has been given opportunities to forge a career and live a life that makes them happy. Why do I have to suffer and delay my life until after the war?'"

A destroyed apartment building after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine in March 2022. Credit: AP

The mental health impact on those who have been forced to uproot their lives and start afresh in a foreign country is yet to be fully explored.

But Valeria warned there could be deeper psychological issues affecting those who have escaped because they are unable to to have their emotions and fears validated by their close circle.

"This is especially prominent with Ukrainians who have had to flee with their kids and have had to adapt to a new life in a foreign country with just their children, while the rest of the family has remained in Ukraine," she said.

"These are young mothers who may struggle to find a job or get their children enrolled in a new school, and they may worry about how to integrate into a community and make new friends.

"They have a huge burden on them but this may not seem like a big deal for those who have stayed in the warzone because they are facing losing their lives everyday.

"This can create another divide between friends and family members, and it can be very painful.

"Those who have escaped then minimise their pain to try and present it as less meaningful. But this could have longer term mental implications because they are not acknowledging normal feelings, like stress or sadness."

Valeria works alongside the Ukrainian government to educate civilians and organisations about disinformation. Credit: Valeria Kovtun

As part of her work, Valeria fact-checks disinformation about the war online and Russian propaganda which is being constantly shared on social media.

She previously told me she sees her work as a way of fighting for Ukraine via the “online battlefield” because disinformation "can be one of the strongest weapons in a war".

Reflecting on this, Valeria said she is glad she left Ukraine when she did because the trauma of sheltering in a bunker was impacting her ability to work.

"I need to get rid of this inner voice that tells me I should feel guilty for leaving," she said.

"Honestly, I feel like I would have been useless if I had stayed. I didn't flee immediately and in those weeks my existence was losing a sense of meaning.

"For me, it was worse than being killed. When you are not able to contribute anything to your country during war, you feel helpless.

"I would never be able to abandon my work for Ukraine, and in a way it is keeping my sanity."

For now, Valeria plans to continue her work on online disinformation but post-war she hopes to contribute her knowledge and skills to help shape government policies on support for survivors.

"I feel we are all traumatised for the rest of our lives because of the war but the only solution to this is to start talking about mental health now," she said.

"I want to encourage conversations between the Ukrainians who fled and the ones who stayed because it is vital everyone has their voices heard."

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