Ukrainian family loving life in London after horrific siege of Mariupol

Almost a year since fleeing war, Anastasia Shlyakhtyna and her 10-year-old son Maksym are living with a host family but miss their homeland

Anastasia Shlyakhtyna and her son Maksym. Photo: Theirworld
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Maksym Shlyakhtyna has thrown himself into school life since arriving in London a little less than a year ago.

The 10-year-old struggled at first, but now corrects his mother Anastasia's English, attends breakfast clubs, after school clubs and takes part in music and art lessons.

The pair are among 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who have settled in England since the war broke out and a refugee programme was set up. Ms Shlyakhtyna, a lawyer and aid worker in her homeland, is among 1,000 people being sponsored by local families in the borough of Lambeth, in the heart of the UK capital.

She has found work in hotel recruitment and they are making the most of their lives in the UK, despite having no home of their own and only a three-year visa. Maksym continues his Ukrainian studies remotely via a project supported by Theirworld, the global children’s charity founded by Sarah Brown.

Ms Shlyakhtyna, 34, said: “We are so grateful to the people of London for the generous hospitality they have shown us. We have lost so much in this war, but to have the city welcome us with open arms, and offer my children a place in school, gives me so much hope for the future. I’m from Mariupol and my city is destroyed. I lost everything. But I am so in love with London and the UK.”

But the horrors of the siege of Mariupol will never leave them.

The siege of Mariupol

Back home, Ms Shlyakhtyna supported people affected by conflict near the front line in Donetsk, close to the border with Russia. But when war broke out, she found herself in a humanitarian crisis and knew she had to escape.

“We expected that war was possible,” she said. “But no one believed that it could be so huge, that it could destroy so many cities and kill so many people.”

For two weeks, mother and son lived alongside dozens of other families in a city theatre, where children, overwhelmed with anxiety at the thought of war and fleeing their homes, suffered frequent panic attacks and an outbreak of dysentery with no access to clean water or medication.

“During the first couple days of the war, it was possible to leave the city ― there were trains for evacuation,” she told The National.

“But I did not do it. And that was my big mistake ― after then the city was surrounded and no one, even women and children, could leave.”

When it became no longer possible to stay at home, they moved to the theatre, which was being used as an air-raid shelter.

“The bombing was coming closer and closer to the city centre and around the theatre,” Ms Shlyakhtyna said. “At night, you could hear it very close by when you were sleeping.

“The children suffered so much.

“I was so scared for my son’s life and he was scared, but he was much better than some of the others.”

The ruined theatre after the air strike. Reuters

They left the theatre at the first opportunity, on March 15. The next day, the theatre was destroyed in an air strike, in which as many as 300 people are believed to have died.

“Whoever was lucky to have their cars tried to leave the city that day,” she said.

“I went out from our shelter and said, this is me, I have a child, so anyone who has at least one empty space, can you please help us.

“One family said, yes, we have one empty space in our car. But they said, sorry, we don’t have any room for your suitcase. I said no problem, just me and my son. We packed our documents and we were ready to go.”

Escape from Ukraine

Ms Shlyakhtyna and her son fled to Zaporizhzhia and passed through Uman and Khmelnitskiy before deciding to settle in Chernivtsi, where the charity she worked for supporting people on the front line in Donetsk had set up an office.

They passed through 13 Russian checkpoints on the way.

“It was a horrible experience. There were dead people and mines on both sides of the road,” she said.

Chernivtsi was safer — but it quickly became clear they could not stay. Her job required her to visit the front line, leaving her son alone all day. He was also suffering from anxiety.

“He had been strong in Mariupol, but when we got to a place that was more safe he always said there are alarms,” she said. “He was frightened. I had to do something.

“We had to start from the beginning, so I decided to try another country. Always I can come back to Ukraine to choose another city and to start from the beginning.”

Life in London

An old neighbour who was living in London said her friend had agreed to be a host. Their circumstances were similar, with both being single mothers.

They arrived last April, but the arrangement did not work out and after three months, they moved with another family.

“We had some issues. It was not too easy,” Ms Shlyakhtyna said.

Anastasia Shlyakhtyna and her son Maksym. Photo: Theirworld

“But still I am grateful to her. I know it is not easy to live with another family that is different culturally, who has different habits. There was nothing wrong with her and nothing wrong with me. Just different.”

Their new family in Clapham are “amazing”, she said.

“They are so nice. They are doing so many amazing things for us. They have three boys as well. And my son is so close with them. He is always saying, 'I am the fourth brother for them',” she said.

But her son desperately misses Ukraine and asks every day to go home, where his father, who is not in the military but is prevented from leaving due to martial law, still lives.

“I say to him, of course I miss my Ukraine as well. But Ukraine is not the same as before,” Ms Shlyakhtyna said. “He wants not just to be in Ukraine. He wants to go to Mariupol.

“I said, do you understand we have no opportunity to go back? Our city is destroyed. It’s under Russian control. We’re not going to live there. But he is still asking me to go back.”

Keeping the culture

Maksym's remote studies include Ukrainian language, literature and history and is provided to hundreds of young refugees.

Ms Shlyakhtyna said: “He does this during the weekend. I think it’s important and valuable for us.”

The lessons enable refugee children such as Maksym to study in their own language and meet other Ukrainian children. The lessons also help children to cope with trauma and reduces the chances of them falling behind when they return to school back home.

Lessons are not always straightforward. Power cuts in Ukraine mean that teachers often conduct the classes on their mobile phones, with candles or torches. While some schools remain open, thousands have been destroyed

Sarah Brown, chairwoman of Theirworld, said: “This brutal war has torn children away from everything that gives them safety and security: their family, friends, teachers and school. Arriving in a foreign country — often unable to speak the language — children can be traumatised, bewildered and afraid.

“In times of crisis, how our society treats refugees reflects who we are. I’m delighted that the people of London have shown such compassion and kindness to refugees like Maksym and his mother, who have suffered so much since the start of the conflict.”

Ms Shlyakhtyna wants settle in the UK long term, and has been trying to get a similar role to the one she had in Ukraine. So far she has been unsuccessful. But she is at least working.

“At the moment, I am working as a recruiter,” she said.

“But we are still not settled. I have no rented place and we still live with a host family.

“Our documents are just for three years here. I would like to try to organise my life and stay here. But who knows if I would be able to do it or not.”

Their hearts are still in Ukraine, she said. And one day, she may go back. She knows that she can never return to Mariupol.

“My city is destroyed. If one day I decide to go back, I will be doing everything from the beginning, including choosing a city to live in. I hope that my humanitarian experience will be helpful for my country and my people.”

But she wants to give her son the best opportunities possible and try to make a life for the two of them in Britain.

“I spent seven years helping my country. Maybe I should think about my own future as well.”

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Updated: February 23, 2023, 9:59 AM