People Profile – Forced to Flee

Andrii Andreiko, Ukrainian Refugee

When we lived in Irpin, a suburb to north-west of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, our life had been fairly settled, blessed and relatively predictable. We lived in a private house, owned a couple of businesses which we’d run for nearly 20 years.  One was a real estate agency and the second, a local property development company which built homes in Irpin, Bucha and the surrounding area. We developed a brand that everyone knew in the area, with its special style and design – inspired by local design here in England. We first visited UK in 2009 when my sister-in-law Oksana, married Dave Burt, in Cranleigh. I was impressed by the local architecture of terraced and detached housing in the area and replicated it in Ukraine.

We enjoyed a happy family life, with lots of fun and activity as well as thriving businesses with many clients.  We had a beautiful church just 3 minutes’ walk from our house, with many friends.  Our children had plenty of friends who would come over to our home.  We had such a happy intensity of life before the war began.  And then everything changed.

In early February 2022 my wife, Luba and I took a holiday.  We left our 3 children with her parents to get a complete rest.  Even before we went on holiday we were aware things weren’t good, something was building up in our country.  Oksana kept ringing from UK saying she could see a war with Russia was coming. In fact, Luba suggested in January that we pack some essential stuff just in case – like documents, basic clothes, food provisions, some cash. We were very focused and kept it to 4 suitcases packed and ready. The logic being that if nothing happened, we could easily unpack everything.

An explosion from an air bomb in center of the city of Kharkov, the metro station Constitution Square

We returned from holiday and on 23rd February Luba said, “What about leaving now? Just right away.”  We didn’t realise the war was about to erupt, we didn’t want to believe it would happen.  Some of our friends thought Luba was paranoid.  I remained calm and encouraged her to go to bed and review the situation in the morning.  Well Luba couldn’t sleep and just before 5am her cousin in Kiev, rang us.  She was the first one to hear these loud, violent sounds around her area and we knew the war had started.  I can’t recall her exact words, she didn’t actually say ‘the war has started’ but we knew that our life would never be the same.  

We’d prepared the children for this morning about 3 weeks earlier. We told them we may have to be ready to go, without any questions, just get up and dress quickly.  As morning dawned at 5.30am, that’s exactly what we did.  It reminded me of a parable in the Bible, that Jesus told about 10 maidens with their lamps, all trimmed ready with oil and waiting for the bridegroom – we were ready!  Our cars were tanked up to the full with fuel, we had everything ready ‘just in case’.  

We did not get very far as the traffic was building up

There were 6 of us in our car – ourselves, our 3 children and our nephew.  His parents couldn’t leave at once so we took him as well.  It was a full car in every sense. I come from a large family of 11 children, I’m the oldest.  I phoned my brothers and warned them to get their families ready too.  I think we had a convoy of maybe 5 cars with family and friends. It was winter time and obviously very cold. We didn’t travel far because we were caught in a traffic jam about 3km from our house and we waited and waited and waited and waited.  I started to change my mind and suggested we return home.  I was worried we’d run out of petrol.  Subsequently I regretted that decision but that’s what we did.  We turned around and went home. We unpacked many things from our car with loads of space and roof box that we’d stuffed full.  We waited until about 3pm and then military jets started flying right over our heads.  It got worse and worse.  They were bombing though not near our place, just outside Irpin and another town nearby.  There is a strategic airport in Hostomel, about 6 miles away.  Then lots of Russian helicopters followed. 

The building we built reminds me of all the Ukrainians wounded but not destroyed
More pictures showing the destruction in our home town

Our house has an underground, basement floor totally equipped for life.  It has a bathroom, places to sleep, music studio, sauna, children’s play area, a freezer with food ‘just in case’ and tiny kitchenette/laundry. So we invited families, relatives anyone who didn’t feel safe, who felt vulnerable to come.  There were roughly 30-40 people who came to stay in our tiny basement.  At the time, we thought how’s it going to be if this situation lasts for a week or 2?  I remember thinking it would be difficult to sleep for all this number of people.  We knew some of them, but not all.  Anyway we gave them the key saying “Stay in our house, use the facilities, anything you want.”  And we left and have never been back since.  We built that house together, it was the centre of our lives.  Our friends visited, our church groups held bible study there.  We just drove away.

We drove night and day for 7 days to get to France where my sister lives and stayed there for a while.  We didn’t encounter any Russian military on the way.  However, we saw our tanks progressing from the western part of the country, going past.

Ukrainian tanks making their way to the frontline

We’re glad we made the break when we did. Because we left on the first day, we left in time and our children haven’t seen anything traumatic. They heard a lot of military jets flying overhead as we loaded the car the second time.  At one point I covered my children with my body because I thought ‘What if they drop a bomb now?’ They screamed and it was a very scary moment.  For up to a month after that our son was frightened when he saw or heard a helicopter. I can’t imagine how affected people and their children are who’ve seen such terrifying things during the war. The route out was fraught with difficult situations. The first night we reached Ternopil but couldn’t find a hotel.

Trying to keep our spirits up on the dangerous journey
Our previous life was packed in this car

Finally, almost in the morning we found a motel outside the city and could get a couple of hours of sleep. Over the next couple of days we slept in different places, one night just in a car in the car park of a petrol station in Romania.  We felt like Mary and Joseph, when there was a ‘No room at the Inn’!  I tried 2 or 3 hotels but each one was full.  We were running on adrenaline I think.  We kept going and came to a larger town, near Botosani,  with fairly basic accommodation in 1 of the hotels where we stayed for 2 nights. Compared to the car it was relatively comfortable and we were very thankful.  We waited there for other women from Ukraine who were following us, to catch up.  Their husbands weren’t allowed to leave the country.  I was permitted to leave because we have 3 children.  Even if you’re not signed up to the army, if you have less than 3 children, the men have to remain.

We waited for those ladies to join us because they couldn’t travel by themselves. I was the only man. While we waited we needed a meal. We sat in this hotel in Romania and began to order something, not knowing much Romanian and the waitress not knowing a lot of English, nor Ukrainian, Russian, German or French. She approached us using gestures and everything. She tried to explain something to me but I couldn’t figure it out. She was pointing at a young man across the room. What she was telling us was that he had paid for our meal – all of 7 of us.  As soon as I realised, I went over to thank him and take a photo – just to remind our children in future that even if you don’t know someone, be kind to them.  It was such an encouraging moment for us as we travelled away from our homeland, through strange, foreign places.

A complete stranger (left) paid for our meal

Next day we went onto Cluj Napoca, the second largest city in Romania. We didn’t know anyone there either.  We waited for the Ukrainian women and they followed and brought us to their friends’ friends.  We’d never met them before. We were invited into their house for a meal, they offered us their bedroom.  We found out they were Christians, it was very encouraging.  They washed and checked our cars and packed some stuff ready for the next day. They said we could stay as long as we needed but we were headed for France and had to press on.

Us with the Romanian friend who fed us and fixed our cars

From there we travelled into Hungary.  Dave Burt suggested we headed there as he knew a Hungarian living in Haslemere, who was desperate to help Ukrainians.  He told Dave if he knew of anyone from Ukraine, who arrived in Hungary needing help, they could contact him.  Again we were in a country where we couldn’t speak the language.  It was the middle of the night when we arrived.  I wasn’t sure about calling him especially as I didn’t know what language we’d use – English, German or French? But I knew we’d find a way and got in touch.  When I explained we were heading to  Austria he gave me a girl’s phone number to ring.  He said he’d book her hotel for us to stay in and off we went.  Amazingly her husband owned a garage and when we got there he checked our cars, us and 2 other families with us.  One of them had poor tyres which he changed.  It was such a blessing that we never expected.

Ukrainian refugees escaping from Irpin over the bombed out bridge

From there we travelled safely through Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and into France. My sister lives just near the Luxembourg border and we decided to stop there with her. When we left our home we didn’t know where to go, we hadn’t planned this.  All of a sudden our lives changed and we ran for our lives.

However, as we approached France, Oksana told us about Boris Johnson’s Family Visa Scheme he’d announced for Ukrainians fleeing our country.  She encouraged us to come to UK through the visa scheme.  And we thought why not? We speak English. We could remain in France but the language wasn’t familiar to us and would be an issue.

My mother stayed in France as did the other families we’d journeyed with. Our papers were processed in Paris, we received our visas and travelled here on 19th March 2022 – a year ago. Me, Luba, my children and nephew and we stayed with Oksana and Dave.  They were amazing.  It was a very busy household and in a way that was a good thing. My brain didn’t have time to think about the past, only the present.  There were things back home to help with – friends who’d been called up to the army needed armoured, bulletproof vests.  Things to sort here – so many forms to complete and help other Ukrainians who wanted to come and asked us how we’d got here.  There were various visa schemes for different people, so much red tape. It was pretty confusing and we kept trying to solve all these issues.

When I contacted Surrey County Council or Waverley, it turned out we were one of the first families in the area.  They didn’t know what exactly to do and neither did we.  They explained we were going to be their ‘guinea pigs’.  In our situation then we didn’t mind it at all. We had to register with doctors, schools etc.  It was good in a way because it distracted us from our sadness and the awful thoughts of the war back home.  We checked the news and kept up to date and we kept our phones switched on all the time so friends and family could contact us at any moment.

Living here we’ve been so encouraged by British people’s welcome and support, you’re very pro-Ukrainians.  We have friends who are scattered all over the world and many have not received that kind of emotional support from other countries.

There was one lady in Cranleigh, in her late 70s probably, and she would bring us cakes every day and try to encourage us in this way. Oksana invited her parents to join us, so the house was packed!  We had no idea what we were going to do, it’s very difficult to rent a property here you know. Then friends of Dave and Oksana’s offered us an empty house.  The owners were planning to start selling it in a couple of months, so it bought us some time. This 4 bedroom house turned out to be such a blessing.  We stayed there from April until August.  During that time we applied for alternative accommodation and we’ve been able to rent the house we’re now living in, southwest of Cranleigh. 

When the children first started in local schools it was a nightmare.  They weren’t confident in speaking English and only knew a few words.  They cried regularly because they didn’t want to go to English schools, they wanted to go home to their school. Their school at home was a comprehensive private school and it was very nice.  It tore my heart apart to recognise how much my children missed it.  To see my 4 year old, not even 5, going to school with tears in his eyes was extremely hard.

Our eldest son is 16, our daughter is 10, and youngest son is now 5. Then junior was born!  He’s 3 months old now. 

Things were hard for the children and they weren’t easy for us either.  We had no idea how long the war would last. Would it be over by the summer for example.  How could we plan a future?  What plans could we make? Well we couldn’t plan.  So I took action and did something – I started gardening.  Back home I had a gardener, now I was learning to garden.  I went onto do some decorating for another local company.  Then I worked as a handy man,  assembling and dissembling furniture, portering etc.   And kept looking for a permanent job.  As autumn came we began to realise the war wasn’t going to end as soon as we’d expected.  We knew we couldn’t return home in the winter because at that time there had been bombings in our area and there was no gas supply.  There was no water and no sewage either so I couldn’t risk returning with our children and began looking for more permanent work.  I started networking and visited the Job Club here in Cranleigh which is so good.  I met Rosemary French there and told her my story that I was looking for work in real estate and property development.

I walked round nearly every estate agency in Guildford handing in my business card and CV. I went to Farnham, I got some appointments in Horsham. I was desperate to find work. Through a chain of contacts, I finally got in touch with my now manager, at CALA homes. So I began working for them covering Surrey, Sussex and Kent. 

There are so many good things that have happened and encouraged us in settling here for now. We’ve gradually accustomed to a new way of life. The food here in general is nice. It’s not completely unusual to us in a way that perhaps Thai, Chinese or Japanese food might be.  We tend to eat a substantial breakfast and quite a big lunch. Whereas in the evening, personally we wouldn’t eat very much.

There are limits however!  First of all – Marmite,  I would never eat Marmite.  I can’t get used to tea with milk either.  In Ukraine we drink black or green tea, herbal or fruit tea.  We enjoy pancakes but usually for breakfast.  Here you add lemon and sugar – we’d never eat such a combination.  Back home we would add jam, Nutella or have a savoury pancake with ham and cheese!  If we want to eat Ukrainian flavours we can purchase items at a Polish shop in Guildford that has a good stock.

We keep in close contact with things back home.  We don’t depend on the News so much.  My mother couldn’t stay in France, she returned to Ukraine.  We generally use Wi-Fi calls to communicate with her.  We’re very close and communicate relatively often. We need to know how our friends and family are.

I have a 30 minute drive to work in Dorking when I do 1 of 2 things.  I either listen to BBC World Service or I dial a member of my family and chat on the phone.  I do that on my way home as well and have a quick conversation in my half hour journey.

This month, we’ll celebrate our second Easter in UK.  We always celebrated Easter at our church in Ukraine.  We would have a sunrise service at 5.30am then a later service at 10.3am. Some years we had an outdoor service with food afterwards.  We always met together with friends at our house or theirs.  Or we would go to my mother’s or Luba’s parents’ home, just to be together with relatives and friends to celebrate.

In recent years we introduced a chocolate egg hunt.  Ukraine has become pretty westernised these days. We have everything that you have here although you don’t have Russia as a neighbour. If the tanks were lining up on the Surrey/Hampshire border everyone would be a bit worried.  It makes such a difference because of the fear and complete absence of strategic planning.  It’s impossible to plan ahead, for the long term.  They’re always trying to undermine us, as a nation, as a sovereign and independent country.

In history, we’ve seen it happen before.  One minute all’s well and the next there’s tanks in the streets.  It’s happened over the years in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Georgia in 2008.  It’s an old story.  We have to stand together.  I think it’s amazing to see the support of Boris Johnson, other European and American leaders.  We have to stand together because otherwise we’ll all be fighting on the frontline where the Ukrainian soldiers are now. Soldiers, men, women and children too unfortunately.  It looks like Russia won’t stop. They will never stop.

Our first family Christmas in the UK, away from home but blessed with the birth of a new baby son

We’re teaching our children that we don’t know how long we are here for, but try to enjoy every moment, try to learn something new and make new friends. For now you have to be ‘present’ here. In the beginning it was really hard for them because they left their lives in Ukraine so abruptly. We’re trying to live like this as well though it can feel harder for us, we’re not children and realise the deeper issues. We’re trying to use this opportunity for the better. God has provided for us.  We’re surrounded by a lot of nice, kind people and blessed with family here. 

In the bible, one of the prophets, Jeremiah, told the Israelites when they were exiled in Babylon – for the time being build your houses, plant your gardens, be a blessing in this place.  There will be a time when you can return home – and that’s the approach we’ve adopted.  

Thank you so much. Have a Happy Easter!

From Andrii and Luba Andreiko 

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