Ukraine refugees fear they will never return to their homeland

From 'apocalyptic' evacuation scenes to their homes being destroyed, refugees tell their harrowing stories two years on

Refugee Diana Kocheva lives in London. Her flat in Kyiv was destroyed. Photo: Diana Kocheva
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The Russian tanks and troops had been gathering at the Ukrainian border for weeks.

But for Elena Tomash and Diana Kocheva, who both lived in Kyiv, they never imagined an invasion would actually happen.

Then on February 24, 2022, their lives were turned upside down at lightning speed.

They became just two of more than six million Ukrainian refugees displaced across Europe.

Each has a different story, but they have in common their fears that they will never see loved ones again and may never be able to return permanently to their homeland.

They have created new lives and homes, like many of the 283,000 people who came to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

Those saw British people opening up their homes to strangers, offering them sanctuary at their time of need.

Despite the UK announcing an extension to the sponsorship scheme until 2026, the future still remains uncertain.

Ms Tomash, 47, lived in Kyiv and fled Ukraine with her sons, aged 16 and seven, two days after Putin's war machine rolled into the country.

“Nobody was expecting the war to break out. My advertising firm had a big event launch that we had been planning for a few months which had cost $50,000.

“The client called us and said: 'We will have to cancel due to the threat of war but we will still come and everyone can enjoy the drinks and caviar and music.' No one expected the war to start or thought it would happen,” she told The National.

“But at 10am on February 24 we all received emails saying they would pay us February’s salary but nothing more. The war started and I lost my job within an hour.

“I had my children to think of and I needed a job so I decided to leave because I knew in two weeks I would have no money to buy us food.”

Next train out of Ukraine

The family tried to head for the border with the plan of joining Ms Tomash's older daughter in France.

“I joined the thousands of others who tried to get on to the trains. It looked like an apocalyptic scene. It was a miracle we got to the train,” she said.

“We spent 34 hours crammed into a four-person compartment with 12 other people. It was very unpleasant.

“We got to France and stayed there a couple of months and I began looking for a sponsor in the UK.”

They were offered a place with a family in a Kent village in July 2022 and Ms Tomash found a job in advertising in London.

But the five and a half-hour daily commute was too much for the single mother and she managed to find a property in the capital's Battersea area, closer to work.

“The first 10 months I spent just exploring London and its surroundings. We have seen all the exhibitions and I got tickets for the opera and the theatre and overloaded myself with art.

The war started and I lost my job within an hour. I had my children to think of
Elena Tomash

“I still feel lonely, though. Because I started work immediately I didn’t have chance to socialise and make friends. I meet people at the school playground and in parks but I miss my friends,” she said.

She and her sons have taken part in a nationwide billboard campaign to thank the British public for their kindness.

“I feel very grateful to the UK government for supporting our families. What it has done is priceless.

“It’s not about money, it is about caring for people living in the country, and it does not matter if we are a UK resident or not. I’m grateful to all the people who have supported me.”

Ms Tomash fears she will never be able to return home and see her mother, who lives in the northern town of Putivl, near the Russian border.

“Already I feel very sad, I have not seen my family for two years,” she said.

“My mum is very sick and I fear we will never meet again. Knowing I may not see her again is a very sad feeling.

“I am trying to look for new possibilities. I have to try and be optimistic because I have to look after the mental well-being of my sons.

“For my family at home, they are older and it is not important to them now if they live under Russian or Ukrainian rule, they just want the war to be finished as soon as possible so we can see each other again.

“For me though, it matters. I support Ukraine in this war, I donate whatever I can to help and I support my friends who are still living there. I do whatever I can for my country.

“I am realistic. I understand that if the war ends tomorrow or in two months it will take at least 10 years or even 20 to refresh the economy and rebuild the education system. I’m almost 50 and in 10 years nearly 60, which is almost retirement age in Ukraine. I think it will be hard to get a job.

“I would prefer to stay in the UK. I think one day my elder son will move back but not me. But anything could happen, I don’t make plans, I just try to enjoy today and don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow.”

Mother's text revealed war had begun

IT developer Diana Kocheva, 28, was on a backpacking holiday, surfing in Tenerife, when the war broke out.

A message from her mother to say she was safe was the first she knew of the fighting.

“I was not expecting the war,” she told The National.

“I was surfing with just a swimsuit and only a few belongings. I woke in the middle of the night, around the time the rockets hit, feeling sick. Then my phone started going and I saw the first news. My mum messaged to say she was OK, and it was the first I knew something was wrong.

“I didn’t go back to Ukraine.”

Her friends had a key to her apartment and they retrieved important documents and valuables to look after them.

“Two months later my home was destroyed,” Ms Kocheva said. “I applied for the UK sponsor scheme when it opened and managed to get a place in London.”

Finding jobs for 700 refugees

Ms Kocheva had her own IT start-up but lost her equipment and funding when her apartment was destroyed.

However, she found a job in IT in London and began helping other Ukrainians to find work.

With little money and no means of hiring a venue, she arranged meetings in the capital's Green Park, which dozens of Ukrainians would attend to listen to her advice.

She has helped more than 700 people find work.

“The first year I was in the UK I spent it helping everyone,” she said.

“But then what happened took its toll on my mental health. It has been hard living between two worlds.”

Ukrainian refugees flee crisis – in pictures

One highlight was being reunited with her dog, a corgi called George, who had been staying with her mother in Zaporizhzhia when the war broke out.

It took 32 people to help with documentation and transport to bring him to the UK for her.

“When he arrived it was Jubilee week,” she said.

“Everybody loved him.”

Fears for family near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

Ms Kocheva constantly fears for her mother, who lives near the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has come under repeated attack.

This week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, warned that the plant needed to be protected at all costs.

“It is still going very badly for them [in the area],” Ms Kocheva said.

“Most international shops are all closing. The situation there is worse than at the start.

“My mum works in internal security and she knows due to her job she cannot stay if [the area] is occupied.

“Every day there are rockets and people are dying. I miss her.”

Ms Kocheva never imagined the war would still be raging two years on. It has left her in a quandary as she has settled into UK life.

“London is my home now but I still miss Ukraine and I do not know if I will ever return,” she said.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 9:10 AM