Ukraine – UK: a year on - Refugee Council
February 24, 2023

Ukraine – UK: a year on

By Kateryna, a young doctor from Ukraine, now living in the UK.

“We didn’t expect the war.”

Before the war, I was a doctor, a paediatrician. I can say that my life had just started.

I’d finished my studies, and I’d worked for two years. I was financially stable. I was going to get a car. I had a lot of plans, I wanted to travel, I wanted to support my parents.

I worked in the biggest children’s hospital in Ukraine, we had so many different cases. I had my own patients who trusted me, the best colleagues ever, the best team ever. I was so proud of myself to be in this position. I had a lot of friends.

Kateryna worked as a doctor in Kyiv Kateryna worked as a doctor in Kyiv

The only thing I regret is I didn’t visit my parents a lot. They live in the north west, near the Belarus and Poland border, it’s six hours by bus. When I had a choice to work or go to my parents, I always chose work. Now I tell everyone, if you have this opportunity, just go!

We didn’t expect the war. We talked about it, but I wasn’t prepared. I couldn’t understand how in the 21st century they could do that, we were neighbours. On our TV, they told us to prepare a backpack, to have documents just in case, and we were laughing, why would we do that?

I remember I was sleeping, I had prepared to go to work. I woke up, and I remember it was really loud, these two loud explosions. I couldn’t understand, I thought something had fallen.

I received a call from my Dad. I could hear his voice was different, but he just told me, take your backpack, your documents, just leave. He’d been in the USSR army, he was a soldier in Vladivostok, in Russia, all of our guys then were soldiers in the USSR. He knows they can be cruel and violent. I just listened to him.

We called our friends, our families, there were a lot of calls – just to ask, how are you? Are you OK? There were queues at cash machines, at the pharmacy, a lot of people panicking, it was incredible.

On 26th February I went to the Polish border with a friend.

Watch Kateryna sharing her story.

“I remember them saying goodbye to their fathers.”

We spent 30 hours at the border, it was very stressful. The most terrible moment for me was – I could see big buses of children leaving their dads, I remember them saying goodbye to their fathers.

A lot of cars, if the girls couldn’t drive, the husbands or their fathers just pushed the car through the border, and said goodbye, and came back. A lot of them were crying.

Queues of cars at the Ukraine-Poland border Queues of cars at the Ukraine-Poland border

What scared me was some shooting, in the sky, a lot of people lay down under the cars. I was on the phone to my parents, I didn’t know what to do. They said that it was a drone, and they tried to shoot down the drone, and it scared us all.

The Polish people were very kind. I couldn’t cry when I was in Ukraine, but when I crossed the border, I just broke down. I went to Katowice, from there I could get a flight to Doncaster.

I can’t even remember that flight. I was sitting in the airport and crying, like really crying. And a guy sitting near me, he was from Kazakhstan, and he just gave me some chocolate, and said – I can’t change anything, but I hope this chocolate will make you feel better!

I came to the UK on a visitor’s visa. I was lucky because I had this visitor’s visa, because I’d already been to visit my friend in the UK, at Christmas. I came back to Doncaster on 25th February.

The border guards in the UK were really kind too. They could understand my shock. They were good people, they asked if I needed anything. Everyone else had left, and I was sitting in a small room because they were checking, and they couldn’t understand what to do with me, because obviously I wasn’t a visitor, I was already maybe a refugee! I forgot all of my English words, I was really stressed.

They needed to decide what kind of stamp to put in my passport. I was sitting and waiting.

In my mind, it was two weeks maximum. I didn’t have any clothes, just one backpack, I wasn’t prepared at all. I hoped that it would be fine, that it’s actually not real! I had a short-term visa, for six months.

I was absolutely sure I would go back, but after two weeks it was even worse. I couldn’t understand what to do, I was absolutely lost. I’d lost everything. My friend sent me a picture, our apartment had broken windows. It’s happening there still and I just can’t go back at all.

During this time UK government announced the Homes for Ukraine scheme, so my friend was OK to use this opportunity. Still I wasn’t prepared. I was given a bit of money by Doncaster Council, and helped by my friend’s parents, and the Ukraine Centre.

“I was in a dark place, a hole.”

It took me a long time to accept the situation. I was in a dark place, a hole. I remember my birthday was 4th of March, first week after the war started. I was really stressed, I couldn’t even speak to anybody, I was crying all the time, I couldn’t sleep, I checked the news every few seconds, I had this big anxiety. I called the GP and I asked, can you give me something to help? He prescribed me pills to become calm and sleep. I went to the pharmacy, and they gave me pills with a message “happy birthday!” I had forgotten it was even my birthday.

It took me a long time to adjust. I wanted to go back so much. My parents said you need to stay, you can help from there.

Then I started to have English classes which helped a lot. I had a group, they were guys from Syria, from Afghanistan, from all these countries. They told me that it’s normal to be a bit like this. People without war, even just moving to another country, it takes years to adjust, and I shouldn’t expect to do everything immediately.

I met Charlotte from the Refugee Council, she made me feel relaxed, she said it will be fine, and I believed her. Thanks to her, I found a job. Rebecca was also really nice, helping me with everything.

I’m working part time as a bilingual support officer for Doncaster Council, helping Ukrainian children. I’m also studying for an exam in medical English, so I can apply for a programme which helps refugee doctors to become doctors in the UK.

Now I’m more sensitive about refugees from other part of the world. Before, I couldn’t understand, I thought it’s just something political. We were watching that on the TV and it was far away, we couldn’t understand at all. I was closed minded.

But now I can see all these people, from Syria, from Afghanistan, from all these countries. They really understand me. Now I feel more close to them. They are travelling much worse journeys than mine.

The worst thing is the children. I’m an adult, I have all this trauma. I will remember all this detail for many years, but I can only imagine for the children, it’s their childhood.

I met a Ukrainian girl, at school, I was working with a 9 year old girl there. The teacher said she’s crying, can you ask her what happened? So I asked her, why are you crying? She said, I was in PE and I fell over, my leg isn’t hurt, and I don’t know why I’m crying! I can understand that. I just don’t know why I’m crying!

I just want to say thank you to all the UK and British people, for the support. I want them to know that I’m very thankful.