At 4am, 20 February 2022, Anna’s efforts to sleep were interrupted by the first Russian attack on Berdyansk, a port in south-eastern Ukraine. From her eighth-floor flat she could see and hear the attacks on the airport and docks.
“It was so loud, I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was scared, my child was scared and I didn’t know what to do,” she told the recent Central Co-op Women’s Voices event. “Imagine your usual day, you wake up, take a shower, have breakfast, take the children to school, have friends over and never expect something to happen that will impact the life you had and you’ll never have it back.”
Her ex-husband advised her to escape to the western part of Ukraine; her parents refused to join her, so Anna took the 20-hour drive alone with her nine-year-old daughter Sofia.
Over the next few months she kept busy by volunteering, packing products for Ukrainians in affected regions. “It was better to do something than be alone with your thoughts and checking the news all the time,” she said.
When she realised the war would continue and keep her from her old life, she applied for the Homes for Ukraine scheme launched by the UK government. She came to Britain in September 2022 – and then got a job with Central Co-op.
She misses her family, who are difficult to contact in a city under Russian occupation, but is grateful for a safe home in the UK – and her job, which means local customers already know her.
Liudmila, from Dnipro, who had a similar journey to the UK, told those gathered at Central’s International Women’s Day event that she wished them “not to know what war is”.
Like Anna, Liudmila thought the war would end in two weeks. Yet within two hours of her city being attacked she decided to leave for Prague, where her sister lived. She traveled with her daughters – Diana, 14, and Sophia, 12 – and her mother, Valentine.
They made their way to the train station as military personnel with weapons tried to evacuate people: something she had only seen in films. “Everybody was pushing,” she said, “trying to catch the train. There was no schedule, we didn’t know when trains would come.”
Each carriage had between 50 and 60 people, on a 35-hour journey with phones and lights switched off to prevent an attack on the train.
From the border in Slovakia the family got a bus to Prague. Once there, Liudmila was offered a teaching assistant job – the same work she had done back home in Ukraine. But to stay, she would have had to learn Czech – a language she and her daughters found difficult.
She came across the British Homes for Ukrainian Refugees agency in Prague and asked about the opportunity to go to the UK where her daughters could continue their education in English, a language they were already familiar with. They applied and waited for three weeks for the visas.
They now live near Leicester and feel safe. Liudmila, who also works at a Central Co-op store, is grateful she took the decision to move; like Anna, she lives in a terraced house near the society’s Markfield store.
“My house is so cosy, so comfortable, I feel at home,” she said. “Thank you for your empathy for us, for a safe life, for the opportunity to work. My children have the opportunity to go to school.”
Lisa Dobson, who works for Central’s business support centre, explained how the society’s board got involved in the Homes for Ukraine scheme in April 2022, starting off by filling in forms on the government’s website.
This was followed up in July when the charity Reset introduced the co-op to another a charity in Prague, which put them in touch with Liudmila and Anna. Both women had their visas approved in August 2022.
When they came to Britain, Central furnished the properties they had available near their store in Markfield to ensure they would be ready for their arrival in September.
Housing Ukrainian refugees is just one element of Central Co-op’s efforts to support those affected by the war in Ukraine. The society also decided to stop selling Russian vodka and started selling Ukrainian lager instead.
It also raised funds for the DEC Appeal for Ukraine and collected toiletries for Ukrainian refugees arriving in the UK.
Over eight million people have been recorded as refugees from Ukraine across Europe since the start of the war.