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Ukrainian family speak of life in Kent on second anniversary of Russian invasion

It has been two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing millions to flee the country.

With the war raging on, Joe Crossley went to speak to the Bogdanova family about what life has been like in Kent since they left their war-torn homes.

Ukrainian refugees Anastasiya and Olena Bogdanova
Ukrainian refugees Anastasiya and Olena Bogdanova

From the comfort of the cosy adult and social services building in Central Avenue, Sittingbourne, a war that has seen more than 6.5 million people become refugees, seems a world away.

But the story of Olena and Anastasiya Bogdanova brings the horror of a conflict that’s lasted more than a decade closer to home.

Originally from Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, they now live on the Isle of Sheppey thanks to hosts who opened their doors as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Olena, 50, came to Kent in October 2022 and now lives in Sheerness while her sister Anastasiya, 45, and her 14-year-old daughter, Ulianar, have resided in Minster since May 2023.

Olena enjoys the peaceful seafront the Island has to offer.

She said: “I like living here on the Island. It's really quiet and close to the sea so I can go fossil hunting.

Sheerness beach on the Isle of Sheppey
Sheerness beach on the Isle of Sheppey

“I have collected lots of finds including a shark tooth, which I think might be from a megalodon, small snails and bones.

“Anastayia prefers being in forests though which neither Sheerness nor Minster has,” Olena joked.

Although they like living in Kent, the pair hope to one day return home where their parents, Lubov and Evgen, aged 73 and 75, are still living.

The Bogdanova’s are living in a village away from the fighting, and having already fled their homes due to Russian invasion once, did not want to do so again.

Despite the relative safety of the village Lubov and Evgen want their children and grandchild to stay in the UK and had pushed the sisters to come over in the first place.

“Kent is not home in every sense. We are safe, have a roof over our heads, and a little bit of money but something is missing that makes us happy

“There’s part of me that is missing since we left Ukraine – as they say here 'there’s no place like home'.

One of the English lessons held by Jack Shoard
One of the English lessons held by Jack Shoard

“But we cannot make any plans to go back because of the war. We don’t know when it will stop which doesn’t give us any stability.

“We also don’t know what will happen with our visas and if we can become British citizens.”

Even with an 18-month extension to their visa, announced last week, the sisters do not know how long they will be able to stay in the UK.

Ulianar, who has settled into life at the Sittingbourne School, has got a plan, her aunt says.

“She wants to join the British Army and become a NATO adviser where she can help Ukrainian troops,” Olena said, “But we don’t know if she will be allowed to join up.

“She does have a backup plan though which involved going to university and becoming an architect.”

While Ulianar is thinking of her future Olena and Anastasiya have struggled to find jobs on the Island in the present.

There is a limited range of jobs in the area that meet their skill level, Olena says, but admits their reliance on public transport, as neither of them can drive yet, doesn't help either.

Olena did have a job at Morrisons depot between Iwade and Kemsley in the Summer but she had to cycle for an hour each way.

“At my age, the job was too physical, especially with the commute,” Olena explained. “I had to give it up.

“The transport situation is not helping us as there are no buses off of the Island at the weekends and the busses stop quite early.

Olena, Lubov, Ulianar, Evgen and Anastasiya Bogdanova before the war. Picture: Bogdanova family
Olena, Lubov, Ulianar, Evgen and Anastasiya Bogdanova before the war. Picture: Bogdanova family

“English bureaucracy is also a problem as it has taken us time to settle down and we are still struggling to find work.”

Olena has a master's degree in Russian language and taught English and Russian in China, while Anastasiya has a bachelor's and master's degree in history and a second degree in economics.

And yet they have still found it hard to find work.

Waiting for bank accounts, DBS checks and certificates for English courses have all taken time and have not aided their search.

Anathysia is currently having driving lessons which she says is “frustrating” as she has eight years of driving experience in Ukraine. The 45-year-old is also having English lessons.

“A lot of English people have an idea of Ukrainians or refugees in general that we aren’t as smart,” Olena said. “But we had good lives in Ukraine with good jobs and think we can help contribute to Britain.

“There are labour shortages and we have the qualifications to help.

A destroyed Ukrainian building. Picture: Phil Hodges
A destroyed Ukrainian building. Picture: Phil Hodges

“We don’t want to sound ungrateful because we are and cannot say thank you enough to the UK for welcoming us but this is the situation we are facing.

“We have had to start our lives from scratch.”

As refugees, they are the first to say they are lucky to be away from the war.

The Boganova family's displacement goes back further than Putin’s ‘special military operation’ which began on February 24, 2022.

As Olena is keen to point out the invasion that began two years ago is an escalation of the Russo-Ukraine war which started in February 2014.

The capture of towns in the eastern Donbas region meant that Anathysia and her daughter were forced to move more than 850 miles away to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in June 2014.

“We had lost everything,” Anastasiya said, “We were on the frontline so had to flee.

“It was hard to move across the country as the sorts of people are different like how there’s a difference between the south and north of England.”

Olena and Anastasiya's parents decided to stay in the city until August 2014 at a point, Olena claims, when the Russian occupiers were killing Ukrainians trying to flee the city.

So when Olena did not hear from her parents for three days, panic hit.

She said: “It was so scary. We had no idea until after the fact that they were going to try and escape as they didn’t tell us.”

At this time, Olena was teaching English and Russian in China after moving there in 2013.

The Bogdanova family before the war started. Picture: Bogdanova family
The Bogdanova family before the war started. Picture: Bogdanova family

She had watched her home city be invaded by Russian troops via a live street cam. Then when the internet and phone lines were cut she lost connection to her family.

She said she “couldn’t sleep properly” for around three months until her parents left.

“When I was able to call them I could hear bombs and missiles when I spoke to them over the phone”, she said. “It was terrifying.”

The fighting ended with the second Minsk Treaty, signed in February 2015.

In January 2022 Olena returned to Ukraine from China and met up with her family in Lviv. She had left China for a holiday in Cambodia but was unable to return due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Full-scale war returned the next month.

The lounge area of the room in the KCC Swale Office, Central Avenue, Sittingbourne
The lounge area of the room in the KCC Swale Office, Central Avenue, Sittingbourne

Olena described the scenes of the air and drone strikes in the city.

“It was like pictures of the Second World War,” she said. “Train stations were filled with people taking shelter.”

Despite the air strikes the sisters did not want to leave their homeland, but were pushed by their parents, who now live in a village near the city, to leave the country to come to the UK.

They are now trustees of the charity Sittingbourne and Sheppey Helping Ukraine.

Set up by Michelle Henneker in 2022 the group now runs two sessions a week in person in the KCC building, supported by KCC and Swale council.

Along with the other five volunteers, they offer advice to Ukrainian refugees in the area.

When they first arrive, the group offer clothing and food parcels.

Sittingbourne and Sheppey Help for Ukraine voulnteers Noah Henneker, 18, Michelle Henneker, 52, Rosie Wheatley, 75, and Matthew Fowler, 39
Sittingbourne and Sheppey Help for Ukraine voulnteers Noah Henneker, 18, Michelle Henneker, 52, Rosie Wheatley, 75, and Matthew Fowler, 39

But once they are more settled, the volunteers help in any way they can, including helping them fill out vital forms for bank cards, DBS checks and job applications.

English lessons are also provided by Jack Shoard from the charity Groundwork South.

He attends the hub every Monday teaching not only English basics but also partial sessions teaching Ukrainians how to book NHS appointments, read train and bus timetables, and what to talk about with an English neighbour.

Olena has also become vital in helping to translate for her compatriots who are still learning the language.

The group are now seeking a new home as KCC is taking back the room on Sunday, March 31.

The room, which has a small kitchen, sofas, and tables and chairs, was gifted to the volunteers temporarily.

Dan Widger, the chairman of the group, thanked KCC for letting the group use the room that has helped them support the refugees.

Founder Michelle Henneker with Chairmen Dan Wedger
Founder Michelle Henneker with Chairmen Dan Wedger

The self-employed engineer started volunteering in February 2022 and now says that if he won the lottery he would quit his job and solely focus on helping the refugees.

The 45-year-old explained that the group has created a “family feel” by giving them a free space where they can meet up chat and get advice.

He said: “It’s somewhere Ukrainians can come and feel welcome.

“We help with English lessons, applying for jobs, paying council tax, gas, electric and water bills and figuring out how to work around UK bureaucracy.

“We are now looking for anywhere with enough space for us to continue to run our activities. Also somewhere we can be open in the evenings and at weekends.

“In the current building, we can’t do that which means some Ukrainians who are now in work struggle to get here.”

The group has recently set up a crisis helpline for Ukrainians on 0330 043 3225 or via info@shhu.org.uk

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