Mum who swapped Ukraine for Coleraine says she will never forget kindness shown to her
‘I’ve seen the dark side of humanity, but I’ve also seen the very best here’
A war refugee who swapped Ukraine for Coleraine says she’s so grateful to the people of the Ulster town for welcoming her and her young son.
Olena Tytarenko has been living in an apartment in Coleraine along with seven other Ukrainians who fled the city of Irpin in a hurry last February just as Russian soldiers advanced on the city, which is close to the capital Kyiv.
“We can’t thank the people of Coleraine enough,” she said. “They have been so kind and generous, especially the sponsors who let us use their apartment.
“We have no complaints at all. Of course, we would rather be back in our beloved home city and living with my husband, but I’m glad we came here.
“We left Irpin on the 27th of February and we tried to find the safest route to flee unharmed. One bridge we crossed leaving the city was destroyed in a bomb just 10 minutes after. We were extremely lucky to cross that bridge safely in time, others sadly were not.
“Just a few days later after we left Irpin, Russian tanks and soldiers were freely moving around our city, including the residential area where we lived.
“The Russian army controlled our city whilst they were trying to control Kyiv. Their soldiers destroyed our homes and our possessions.
“They threatened, attacked and killed innocent residents, including woman and children. Now 70 per cent of our once-flourishing city is destroyed.
“So many of our friends and neighbours stayed and they were murdered by the Russians. There are tombstones in the gardens of our neighbors where the Russians killed them.”
Olena was speaking for the first time to highlight the upcoming first anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country, which started last February with thousands of missiles being fired across the country and troops crossing the border illegally.
Back home, Olena, who’s in her 30s, was a respected English language teacher at a school and lived a peaceful life with her husband Yehor and their son Myron.
That was until February 24, when she was awoken to the bone-chilling sounds of bombs dropping all around her – within three days the family left Irpin before the Russians arrived.
They made the heartbreaking decision for Olena and Myron to leave Yehor behind to help with the war effort.
“It was an ordinary day, Thursday 24th February,” says Olena. “I woke as usual at about 7am and planned to take my son to kindergarten and then to work.
“I picked up my phone and saw the following message ‘The kindergarten is closed today’ without any explanations. I then felt worried. I then got another message which simply said, ‘The war has started’. It was a short message that turned my life upside down.
“It was terrifying. Even though Putin had been threatening it, we couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”
Olena lived close to Hostomel Airport, a key target from day one of the attack.
She says: “We could clearly hear loud explosions and see constant smoke coming out of the airport area. That night we slept in our clothes with a bag with personal possessions and documents set by the bed, to allow us to grab it quickly and go in case something happened.
“The next day my husband’s sister Dasha came over and after an emotional conversation we made the difficult decision to leave the city, our home. My son was the motivating factor in making this decision, as his mother I needed to keep him safe.
“My husband understood and knew it was the right thing to do. He stayed to volunteer to help but he knew we had to leave to be safe.
“We told each other that no matter where we are we will overcome it but a family should live together or they are not a family. Though we speak to Yehor nearly every day we haven’t seen him since we left Ukraine a year ago.”
With Russian soldiers taking over her city shortly after she fled, she knows she made the right call and while she is devastated to be separated from her husband, she and Myron are fitting into their new life as best she can and she reveals they have even tried out surfing on the north coast.
“I want to take this opportunity to express deep appreciation to our sponsor Carol, her sister Dorothy and their families,” says Olena.
“They have done so much for us. When we arrived from France, Carol met us in Rosslare port in Ireland and brought us to her apartment in Coleraine.
“She is so kind, open-hearted and generous. We were amazed how people can be so nice to complete strangers.
“She helped us with all the issues we encountered to make our stay here more comfortable, making us feel safe and feel like home.
“We’ll never forget what Carol and her family have done for us. They gave us a new life, new opportunities and faith in humanity.
“Despite how difficult our journey was getting here to Northern Ireland, my son and I now feel safe and increasingly happy. Myron is doing well at St Malachy’s Primary School and, although he misses his father, he is safe and he is as happy as he could be in such a situation.
“I have seen the dark side of humanity, but I have also seen the best of humanity with the welcome we have received here in the Coleraine area.
“I’ve experienced lots of new things here like surfing, horse riding and participating in different diverse cultural programmes.
“I always try to take all opportunities to talk about my country and the brave men who still every day give up their health and lives in dangerous to protect Ukraine and preserve our nation, identity and culture.”
Olena, her son, some close family and also some people she didn’t know very well at all travelled together across Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany and France – all before arriving in Ireland.
“When we eventually arrived in Poland we immediately felt the enormous wave of support towards our country and us personally,” says Olena.
“One kind man kindly offered us their big countryside house to live for six weeks. I remembered that day, my eyes were filled with tears as I didn’t expect such kindness. It was a true gift of human kindness that we all desperately needed and we were truly exhausted.”
But while they were safe now they left loved ones behind who were not all so lucky.
“Poland was safe but it was difficult emotionally,” she says. “Dasha lost contact at this time with her boyfriend Kyryl, we then sadly learnt that his house had been bombed on 1st March and its core completely destroyed.
“It was difficult to get any further information as that town Borodianka [Kyiv region] was occupied by Russians. We sincerely hoped and tried to believe that Kyryl together with his mom and aunt had managed to survive.
“But then one day sadly Dasha received Kyryl’s picture on her phone to identify his body. He was lying dead in the middle of the house with his legs torn off.
“His mother and aunt were tragically found dead also. It was a heartbreaking picture. That day we had no words, the air was filled with deep sorrow. Dasha screamed and cried. She desperately wanted to go back to Ukraine and bury him, but it was too dangerous.
“We had learnt the Russian forces did not allow us to bury our dead with dignity. Some people had to wait a week or even a month just to be able lift their relative’s or friend’s body from the street.”
While in Poland Dasha’s best friend Iuliia Wilson, a fellow Ukrainian who has been living in Northern Ireland for the past seven years, invited them to come here.
“Iuliia had started to do charity work helping Ukrainians come to Northern Ireland,” says Olena. “We have such deep respect for her because she helped us sort our visas and process all other paperwork.
“She found a wonderful lady who kindly agreed to host our big surrogate family in an apartment through the Homes for Ukraine programme.”
Olena says she no longer makes plans past the next day.
“I just live for today,” she says. “I’m really thankful that my son and I are alive and healthy, and we appreciate everything we have. I’m thankful for people keeping my country in your hearts, thoughts and prayers.
“I try to have a positive attitude, which sometimes is difficult, but I believe this can really help. One thing I have learnt is that material things do not matter. Instead, what matters is family, those you love, having a strong faith, strong mind, inner strength and determination.
“I’m continuing to learn English and I am thinking about working as an interpreter or teaching English language to Ukrainians. I play the guitar and listen to music.
“I have no idea if we will ever be able to go home or when the war will be over but I think I need to highlight that this needless war is still going on in my country and I feel it is important for me not to be silent.”
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