Refugee mothers share their experiences of fleeing war to settle in the UK

Women who fled conflict reveal what they think of their new lives

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When Russia invaded Ukraine this year, it sparked a new wave of refugees. Almost all were women or children, because men were compelled to stay behind and take part in the fight.

These refugees made up almost 10 per cent of the 90 million worldwide who were forced to flee their homes, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR.

The UK has schemes in place that support refugees from countries such as Ukraine and other war-torn countries, like Afghanistan.

But after arriving in the country, many need significant help to rebuild their lives.

That is where organisations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) come in.

This week, IRC held an event for refugees in the UK it supports to celebrate their successes.

Emery Igiraneza from the IRC said: “Some of them have gone through many weeks of training with IRC. All these activities are designed to make sure refugees can quickly integrate in UK society.”

The National spoke to several refugees about their experiences of fleeing war and how they had begun to turn their lives around.

Lawyer Yulia Dubovyk fled Ukraine with her son in April

Yulia Dubovyk, a Ukrainian refugee in the UK. Photo: Amy McConaghy / The National

Success for Ukrainian refugee Yulia Dubovyk was to see her son become naughty again.

When the Ukrainian war started he was polite. He did everything she told him. “He was scared,” she said.

“I remember that first day we ran away we spent 24 hours in the car and he was silent.

“Now he says ‘I want this’, or ‘you are not a mum’. [He now] lives a normal child’s life.

“For me success is to see my child smiling, to see my child become naughty.

“We did it for our children, to save them. If we didn’t have children I would be in Ukraine.”

They made the decision to leave on March 4 and had only 30 minutes to pack. She took everything that was near by, including her office dress and heels.

“At the border I was standing on the hills in a dress and tights, and near me was a woman in her pyjamas. So we all didn’t have a lot of time to gather our things.

“In my luggage there was a Ukrainian encyclopaedia for my child, some toys and some medicine."

It took Ms Dubovyk and her son ― they had to leave her husband behind ― seven hours to cross into Poland on foot.

They stayed there for four and a half months, but because they did not speak Polish, she wanted to get to a country where she could communicate with people.

“And then I learnt about this programme from Britain and applied. It was Homes for Ukraine,” she said.

Ms Dubovyk is grateful for the kindness she has been shown and the opportunities she has been given. But it has been hard.

“You have lost everything. But most important you have lost your confidence, because everything that is important to you, you have left behind. I am 37,” she said.

“In Ukraine I was a lawyer. And now I am not a lawyer. I am here with my child without a diploma or a profession because I couldn’t work as a lawyer here. And you need to start from the very beginning.”

IRC has helped her find her confidence again, even explaining the complexities of applying for positions.

She had never heard of a cover letter, and did not realise managerial positions came with extra responsibility.

“They help us understand what each position means. Because we didn’t understand it.

“We are like small blind kittens.”

But things are finally now looking up. They moved out of their sponsor’s home after four months and into a rented flat.

“Now my child and I have our own space. I will be fully satisfied when I find work that will help me to help other people. I want to be useful. I couldn’t be very useful in Ukraine, so I want to be useful here.”

Voluntary worker Tetiana Politova fled Ukraine with her daughter four months ago

Tetiana Politova, from Ukraine, also wants to help people.

She arrived in the UK four months ago and lives with her daughter and sponsor family in Redditch.

“When we arrived we didn’t understand what we had to do. I wanted to say thank you International Rescue Committee. Every week we came to know and we can speak with Ukrainian families, the community and to know more information.”

In Ukraine she was a manager, but her English is not good, which limits her job options here. But she is now studying English at college to improve her opportunities.

She aims to help people back home, too.

“Before I arrived to UK I was a volunteer and I have an official certificate of volunteer. I want to help people who stay in Ukraine.

“I collect warm blankets, pillows and warm clothes and I send them back home.”

Presenter Zahra Shaheer fled Afghanistan with her two children after Kabul fell to the Taliban

Zahra Shaheer, an Afghan refugee in the UK. Photo: Amy McConaghy / The National

Zahra Shaheer, an Afghan refugee, came to the UK in the clothes she was wearing when she applied for asylum following the fall of Kabul.

She worked as a TV news presenter for nearly 10 years in Afghanistan.

“[I produced one programme] called Peace and Security. It was all against Taliban actions and their bombings. So when Kabul fell to the Taliban I saw I was at risk. I applied for evacuation and I was able to come to the UK with my children”, the single mother said.

The Ministry of Defence said don’t take anything because we don’t have much space in the aeroplane. So at that time I only took water and biscuits for my children, nothing else.”

The transition was difficult. Leaving her mother behind, who they used to live with in Kabul, was hard. Her two children, aged 12 and 10, miss their grandmother.

“Being a mother is not an easy job. When you look after children it is like building a city.

“But if they see I am in trauma or in depression, I will lose the children’s future as well. So we must be very careful about children. They are the ones who are going to build the country of wherever they are living.”

Finding a home in the UK was also slow. She spent six months living with her two children and other families before they moved into their own place.

“It was difficult. But I thank the UK government because they saved my children’s lives. My daughter is in secondary school and in Afghanistan girls are not allowed to go to school after secondary school.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened with my daughter if we stayed.”

They are slowly rebuilding their lives.

She did a six-month refugee journalism course and is working voluntarily with the Refugee Council on its social media.

“That is a good experience for me. I can go for a fellowship with them for three months, which is the first steps to a job or career in the UK," she said.

“When you are motivated and you want to integrate in society, even if you lost everything, and you don’t give up then you will be successful.”

People, mostly women and children, cross from war-torn Ukraine into Poland at the Medyka border crossing in April. Getty images

Providing hope

Success in supporting refugees integrate into society is about giving them hope again, Mr Igiraneza said.

“That’s our job,” he said.

“Success to us means getting someone who was hopeless or was helpless and support them to reintegrate or start again to see the meaning of life and be part and parcel of society, be proud of their contribution to society.

“There is nothing else that can define success. It is giving a hopeless person hope.”

Updated: December 23, 2022, 1:17 PM