'My heart is split in two': Ukrainian refugees on life in the UK two years after Russian invasion

Credit: ITV News

Words by ITV News Producer Sophia Ankel

Ukrainian refugees living in the UK breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week after the Home Office announced it would give them another 18-month extension on their visas.

The refugees - the majority of whom are women and children - have been trying to integrate in the UK since Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Government figures show as of September 2023, more than 188,900 Ukrainian refugees are living in the country, with rights to access work, the NHS and education.

But as the war rages on, many of them continue to struggle with survivor's guilt. Their future - and the outcome of the war - remains uncertain.

On the second anniversary of the war, five Ukrainian families living in the UK tell ITV News how they are coping.

Anhelina Fesenko, 18, Cardiff

Anhelina Fesenko Credit: Anhelina Fesenko

Anhelina Fesenko knew the day Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the war was going to last for a very long time.

So, the aspiring opera singer and her mother decided to leave Kyiv - the only home she ever knew - for Europe.

The pair spent the first six months in the south of France, but when the language barrier became increasingly difficult, they decided to apply for the refugee scheme in the UK.

In September 2022, the then-17-year-old and her mother moved in with a host family in Cardiff, Wales. Ms Fesenko immediately enrolled into a college.

Integrating wasn't always easy, she told ITV News, adding: "It is difficult for me to find friends in college because they just don't understand me.

"I might seem a bit odd for them because of different things in life that we experienced."

But knowing how to speak English has allowed her to focus on her studies. She is due to sit her exams in May and has already applied to several universities.

She said: "We miss home a lot. I'm young but I miss home a lot. I'm constantly in a state of melancholy - dreaming about the past and worrying about the future.

"But now I'm looking forward because I applied to five universities around the Cardiff area. At least I can have a brighter future."

The teenager wants to stay close to her mother, who doesn't speak English. Recently, the pair moved into a two-bedroom flat together.

Ms Fesenko is continuing to pursue music: she was accepted into the National Youth Choir of Wales and was also part of a refugee choir that sang at King Charles' Coronation in 2023.

"These are moments where I am happy," she said. "But of course, I still worry about what the future will look like".

Aliona Donteska, 36, London

Aliona Donetska and her three children, aged 9, 7, and 3. Credit: Aliona Donetska

Aliona Donteska and her three sons arrived in London on April 26, 2023.

The family had no plans to live abroad - they were happy with their life in Kyiv. But for the sake of her young children - aged 3, 7, and 9 - Ms Donetska said she felt like she had no other option but to leave.

Her husband chose to stay in Kyiv for work, but occasionally visits the family in the UK.

"For me it was difficult with three children alone," she told ITV News. "But now I am more independent."

For the first few months, Ms Donetska and her sons lived with a host family in London. But they eventually moved into a ground-floor flat. The first year's rent was paid for by the host family.

Ms Donetska said she is grateful for their help, and that people in the UK have been "kind" to her family.

"It's of course not home, but I am very happy about all the people around us," Ms Donteska said.

She makes her income with dog walking and dog training and plans to do a fitness trainer certificate.

Her sons are also settling in well despite still carrying trauma from the first days of war: her youngest still ducks whenever he sees an airplane in the sky, she said.

"My sons didn't know much English when they first came," she added. "But now, their English is better than mine."

Anna Savchenko, 26, West Midlands

Anna Savchenko Credit: Anna Savchenko

Anna Savchenko, 26, a refugee from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, told ITV News: "Starting a new life from scratch in a new country is the most challenging thing I've ever done.

"For more than a year, I've been in the UK and while I am here geographically, my heart and thoughts are always in Ukraine," she added.

The 26-year-old, who came to the West Midlands in May 2022, left behind her entire family.

"My heart is split in two. I understand I am here, I am in a safe space. But I can't say I'm enjoying my life here. I am always worried about them," she said.

Leaving her family behind was a "very hard decision," Ms Savchenko said, but felt necessary because of the war.

Today, she lives in a one-bedroom flat by herself.

Like many others, Ms Savchenko also suffers from survivor's guilt.

The only way she says she copes is by helping other Ukrainians settle down in the UK. She is currently working as a liaison officer for the government's refugee scheme, Homes for Ukraine.

Ms Savchenko said thinking about the future is difficult, and she can only plan her life one week ahead. But she is confident she wants to go back as soon as I can.

"I am waiting really and truthfully for the victory," she said. "I do believe that one day it will definitely happen."

Oleksandra Bohdashkina, 34, London

Oleksandra Bohdashkina and her children Credit: Oleksandra Bohdashkina

Over a span of four months in 2022, Oleksandra Bohdashkina, 34, drove with her two children from Ukraine to Poland, and then to the UK.

Ms Bohdashkina, who is originally from the highly-contested Zaporizhzhia region in Ukraine, didn't think it would be safe to keep her 12-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter in the country. Her husband stayed behind.

In June 2022, Ms Bohdashkina and her children moved in with a host family in London - and haven't left since.

"We all live here together and it is good," she told ITV News. "They help us a lot."

Ms Bohdashkina said in her first year in the UK she felt a lot of "guilt" but over the past few months, her family has become "rooted" in the UK.

The 36-year-old is working in marketing and is thinking of applying for a work visa.

Her son is enjoying school, and her daughter is already speaking in an English accent. The eight-year-old has dreams to become a professional gymnast and has been winning many local competitions.

She said: "Now its hard to imagine how to move back. My mindset has changed a lot. The children are in school and we are in a good spot.

"My old life feels far away," she added.

Diana Kocheva, 31, London

Diana Kocheva, 31, and her dog George Credit: Diana Kocheva

Diana Kocheva, 31, who lived in Kyiv, was on holiday when the war broke out.

For weeks, the young entrepreneur who started her own company, tried to help her friends, family and colleagues get out of Ukraine.

It wasn't always successful: the CTO of her company died in the rubble of his home in Kharkiv after it was attacked by a Russian missile. Shortly after, she had to shut down the business.

Since she wasn't able to return to her home, Ms Kocheva decided to move in with friends, who acted as her host family, in London. Her dog - a corgi named George - soon followed.

Within a week, she found a job in the tech industry. This inspired other young Ukrainians to reach out to her to ask for advice about jobs.

Over time, she started building a Ukrainian IT network to help others find jobs in London. She helped more than 700 women with career consultations last year, IBM asked her to organise the biggest tech conference for Ukrainian women in the UK.

But Ms Kocheva says she has also been struggling with her mental health.

"My coping mechanism became helping others for free. I was always working to the point I started burning out. I still have this inner voice in my head that says: 'I'm still not doing enough. My friens lost their lives and I am fine.'"

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