Norwich student relives terror of fleeing Ukraine and says war has torn her family apart

Ukrainian refugee Anastasiia Petrenko.
Anastasiia Petrenko. Credit: ITV News Anglia

A student who fled from Ukraine to the UK has spoken of her pain and anger over the war which has destroyed her home and divided her family.

A year ago Anastasiia Petrenko was living a "normal, happy life", working for the Red Cross in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Now, her uncle is dead. Her mum has fled to France and her grandmother is in Russia after being duped, she says, by propaganda.

The 29-year-old, who now lives in Norwich, left her home as soon as war broke out last year - terrified by the daily explosions and news of Russian advances.

"When a (nearby) warehouse exploded, I had a meltdown," she said.

"I knew that nowhere was safe. The whole country was on fire. Russian tanks were moving forward to Kyiv."

Anastasiia Petrenko said she lived a 'normal, happy life' before the invasion. Credit: Anatasiia Petrenko.

Ms Petrenko managed to get on a packed evacuation train with her friend.

"One stopped and opened one door in one carriage," she said. "A massive crowd of people jammed in.

"It was a nightmare, like those horror movies where huge crowds try to squeeze inside. We were there crying because it was a nightmare.

"An air alarm was on so we were expecting a rocket to come and explode the whole thing."

A week later, Ms Petrenko crossed the border into Poland. She travelled to Berlin where she found people to stay with until the UK's Homes for Ukraine scheme opened.

Now, she is studying for a postgraduate degree in International Development at the University of East Anglia.

She received a scholarship from the Universities of Sanctuary project, which is open to students from a forced migration background, who receive full tuition fee support and a bursary towards living costs and expenses. 

But she hasn't seen her family since she left Ukraine and her grandmother has stopped talking to her.

"She believes Russian propaganda," said Ms Petrenko. "This is my grandma. She was a big part of my life. She was helping me a lot in my life and she, somehow, believes a TV more than me.

"She believes a TV more than my mum who told her Russian soldiers were in the city threatening her with a gun. She didn't believe that."

Ms Petrenko says she is "incredibly grateful" to her friends, the university and all the people in Norwich who have offered her kind words and support.

She wants to finish her studies and hopes, one day, to return home.

"After the war finishes, after our victory I want to come back and help rebuild the country," she said.

"I want to make sure that we are a democratic country. That we are doing what we are fighting for right now. We are fighting for freedom, for democracy and human rights."

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