In the news they were saying that war was coming to Ukraine…..

But no-one actually believed it was going to happen.

This is insane…. It can’t be true!

No-one knew if we would be able to work… or be able to use public transport… and so thousands of people fled from Kyiv.

The public transport workers stayed on so that others could leave.

I think they were extremely brave.

view from window in Ukraine showing sky and high-rise blocks.
View from my home in Kyiv, Ukraine

My home in Northern Ireland is part of an apartment block.  

It is on the first floor and we have our own entrance so it feels  more like a semi-detached house than an apartment. 

It has two bedrooms. One for  me, and one for my mum and my five year old sister.  

There is a room where you can  have dinner, watch TV  and where my sister can play – and a kitchen and a bathroom. 

We needed to find accommodation near my sister’s school, to drop her off and pick her up, and there weren’t a lot of options.  My mum can drive but we had to sell our car  because it was right hand drive and my mum would be too stressed to drive it here.

I can’t drive at all.

When I first saw this place it seemed really dark. 

This apartment belonged to a man who  had lived alone and died of cancer. His parents left it just as it was when he was alive. 

It was  quite old fashioned.

There was carpet in the bathroom… old tiles… quite dark… dim bulbs. I don’t remember any lamps. There was a lot of mould and dust because no-one had lived here for 5 years. 

We cleaned it up  and I ordered some lighting from IKEA –  and that changed everything.

Mirror surrounded by Christmas lights
My Christmas Lights

I put up some Christmas lighting (in September)  because I  wanted to have more lights.

Then I bought some  candles and  moved the wardrobes into my mum and sister’s rooms, because they have much more stuff than I have.

My mum found table lamps on Facebook freecycling groups to make the place prettier.

On a visit back Ukraine  (in October) I  brought back some candles. I also bought a cosy bedspread which adds nice fresh colours – it’s kind of nice. Also,  I bought a table and  chair from IKEA so now I have a proper place to work. 

When we moved in September it was really dark and there was no sunshine at all. Then winter came and the leaves fell and I had a little more sunshine, so it became a bit nicer. 

Now it’s not as bad as my first impression in September.  

Pine double bed with striped bedspread
My Room

I think lighting is really important.

Adding more colour keeps it fresh, cosy: pinky violet.. blue green.. soft colours. It feels much nicer. 

The walls are  actually quite light coloured which gives the appearance of space. 

My apartment in Ukraine was all white walls…. grey floor because it is easier to keep clean. Here, I still like to keep it minimalist.

I can put all my clothes in one suitcase: I like  minimalism. 

I am ordering a lot of  books in Ukrainian from Ukraine. So now I have more books now than clothes.  

Books in Cyrillic from Ukraine
Ukrainian books

It  really helps me to have something here in my home written in my language, it makes it feel more ‘at home’.

It gives me a nice warm feeling when I have some printed  books written in Ukrainian. For some reason when you are in a foreign country that is really important.

I didn’t have as many books as this back in  Ukraine; I didn’t really feel the need.

In Ukraine we use the cyrillic alphabet. But you can’t see or hear it anywhere else in this country. At least now, in my  home, I have something in my language. It means I don’t need to try so hard to understand what is written. 

Also – maybe it is silly – but online I found the same brand of soap that I used back at home. There is a website that sells Ukrainian beauty products in UK. I find it really helps me to have small things like this.

Ever since I was five I haven’t had a ‘real’ feeling of home. 

Because  my parents were divorced I spent every weekend with my dad.

My grandmother brought me to school and looked after me after school.  Evenings and nights I spent in my mum’s apartment. 

When my parents were first married they bought a 3-bedroom apartment near the river.  It was really nice. There were lots of places to  barbecue and walk.. a nice riverside. It was a lovely place. 

They divorced when I was five and my father bought another apartment, but my mum and I stayed on in that apartment. 

After the divorce  my mum was poor and my dad was rich and so they lived in very different worlds.

From the age five until twelve I was living  in three different apartments, always moving between each place.  I didn’t really feel I belonged in any of these places.

My dad had  a better income so I had a different quality of clothes in his apartment compared to my mum’s apartment.

At my grandmothers it was a mix of both.  

tomatoes  on large grey plate, Ukraine

We lived in Dnipro until I was twelve.

My mum then decided to move to Kyiv because she wanted to get a better job, so we rented one  place… another  place.. one place.. another place ..all short-lived.

When my mother married my stepfather they bought another apartment, but I didn’t really feel at home there. When I was eighteen I left and I started renting with my boyfriend. Then we broke up and I got a place on my own. 

I rented  a small room in a basement but my mum didn’t really like me staying there  so she helped me to buy an apartment where  I did most of the renovation by myself. 

It took  me  two years to finish it properly, to  make everything look nice. 

I finished the renovation of my home in December 2021. And then the war  started in February 2022.

Everything was just how I wanted it and I  was very happy.   I had a bath… a bed… everything… candles… plates …. 

But, I only had three months of living in the finished space.

It seems really silly….. but I really miss my plates. I like big plates – like in  restaurants.

I don’t like to have plates with the same design because if they break you get  upset. When you have the same size and shape but  in different colours, if you break one  you can easily  buy a similar sized one. And they look good together. 

food on large grey plate, Ukraine

In February 2022 when the war started we wanted to stay together so we moved to my aunt’s house.

But it was near Irpin so  it wasn’t safe.

That area was occupied by Russians and it was near Bucha  where they killed a lot of civilians and children and raped women. It was awful, and  very unsafe to stay there. 

We were thinking: in a few weeks we will either win… or lose. 

Will the war be over in a few weeks?  

Will the Russians win? 

Or… will we win? 

No-one knew. 

We moved on to relatives in Vinnytsia, which is in the western part of Ukraine.

They were really kind, but although they didn’t say anything we knew we couldn’t stay with them  for long. It would  be too difficult for them, and it would affect our relationship. 

We moved on to other relatives in Lviv. 

So many  Ukrainians from the east had moved to the west  and the  cities weren’t able to cope with the huge numbers of people. It was impossible to rent anywhere and very difficult to get some items. The infrastructure wasn’t able to cope with that amount of people. Sometimes it was hard to find food in the grocery stores.

At least we knew  we could move  on.

Some people couldn’t leave Ukraine because they were dependent on medicines, or had to look after relatives.

My mum’s company – a French bank – paid for us to stay in hotel accommodation in Poland and so we lived there for two and half months.

It had one bedroom and an area with a table and couch.  There were no cooking facilities or a proper dining area but we had a  bathroom and a door leading outside. I had to  sleep in the TV/dining area so  I didn’t have any personal space. 

I lost my job in March.

My company lost all its clients and needed to cut expenses so they fired everyone in my department.

I tried to find a job in Poland but with  such huge numbers of  Ukrainians recently moved there it meant there were hundreds of people competing for the same job.

Because I can speak English  we decided to go with an Ukrainian Scheme to the UK. 

We considered that  it would be easier to find a job where you can speak the language of the country. Although we talked to different families on Facebook we decided to stay with a host family from Belfast because  we have a lot in common.. hobbies…. common interests.  

We joked that at least we would have good conversations over dinner. 

And we had!

We had a lot of family jokes and deep conversations. And, to be honest… I love them more than some of my blood relatives!

We moved here in May and I found my job in June.

It only took one month for me to find a job here – a great job, great company. I am very happy about this. 

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to continue my career in the same field. I was afraid companies here wouldn’t appreciate my Ukrainian experience – but they were very open-minded. And I am so grateful for this opportunity and trying to do my best.

Recently I successfully passed my probation – so it seems they are happy in hiring me as well.

In September we moved into our own place. 

living room with chair, TV and children's toys
Living Area

Things are different here.

In Ukraine most people live in apartments. I am from a big city of 1 million people and Kyiv has almost 3 million people, so they are much bigger cities than Belfast. 

The buildings here are much lower, but I think it’s really  cool that you can see the sky and green fields. They are not covered by skyscrapers

In Ukraine when people own their own house they  always have a basement. Always. It’s the rule. But not here, for some reason. 

It seems really strange to me the houses in this country don’t have basements. 

We have had a lot of  wars… wars where our people were fighting for independence. 300 years of  fighting the Russian power and other faces of Russia.  

In WW2 when  Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis our people hid Jewish people  and  the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in their basements – especially in the western part of Ukraine. 

Because people have to hide in their basements to protect themselves in war time they tend to keep a lot of canned fruit and pickled food .. tomatoes and cucumbers…. canned meat and greens ready: ‘Just in case’.  

Because we have experienced famine in  Ukraine so  people always keep some food in their basements ‘just in case’.

The Covid pandemic confirmed how quickly things  can change. 

You see: ‘ Just in case’. 

In Ukraine people are now using their basements as bomb shelters. So: ‘just in case’ has come true again!

In Ukraine,  whenever you have a house and garden, you grow food. 

When we first arrived here my mum was shocked that people here just grow grass in their gardens! 

You have gardens…  and so you can have trees, fruit trees, some  berries… bushes..  you can grow anything so why not?

Why just grass? It’s a little bit strange.

If you  own the house, if you have land, why wouldn’t you use the land to grow things?

Of course  some things you can buy  in Tesco cheaper, but berry bushes   and fruit trees  just grow  by themselves so you can have your own pears.. apples, cherries.

In Ukraine, you would at the very least grow fruit trees.   

Maybe it’s because of our history.

We had a famine  that was totally artificial.  We didn’t have any problem growing food, but  all our food was taken by the Soviet Union for money to  build factories in  Russia.  

Living under the Soviet Union, if you had a fruit tree in your  garden you had to pay a tax. It was insane – but it was the law. 

In the villages people had very little. They used to sell whatever they grew to make money. Sometimes they would barter:  I give you some berries… you give me some eggs. If they had no money and were not able to pay the tree tax, all their trees would be cut down.   

Our biodiversity  hasn’t recovered. A lot of types of trees  were completely lost.

I think  one of the reasons our people appreciate fruit  trees and berry bushes so much is because of  famine.  

Minimalist apartment with grey sofa, Ukraine
My apartment in Kyiv

What did I take with me when I left….? 

Because I thought we would have to walk a lot I only took one backpack. 

I took some of my t-shirts and my Naruto hoodie. 

 Naruto is  brave character from Japanese anime who always believes  in better things and always  tries to make things better. So I  wore this hoodie all the way to  Poland.

I took some clothes to sleep in.. some t-shirts…socks… underwear … tooth brush.. leggings.. and also one skirt and sweater. I thought maybe I would need some smart clothes for a job interview. 

We were hiding in basements and there were sirens…  you can hear explosions.

Everyone is talking about  missiles, rockets and stuff.  It was very stressful for my little sister and she cried  a lot at night. She missed her father very much. He is now serving in the army 

My sister’s toys

It is important for other people to know what it is like.

I feel people here really try hard to understand –  especially people at my  sister’s school.  

She  is invited to children’s birthday parties  and at Christmas  everyone was so kind. My sister was given presents  from people we met just once, neighbours.  It’s  brilliant. People here are extremely kind.

I hope we will be able to pay people back in some way for their kindness.

Currently, I am volunteering with Cancer Focus  NI and  I have also signed up as organ donor here. I don’t know how long I will be here but if I die tomorrow  my organs would help someone in NI.

To be honest, I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere.

If I were to go back to Ukraine my apartment could be destroyed at any second. It’s not safe.

Two weeks ago the apartment where I lived until  I was twelve was destroyed by  Russian missiles.  

Although I have really tried  to make this place as comfortable as I can, I can’t really say that I feel ‘at home’ here. 

It’s a really nice safe place,  a cosy place, but I don’t really feel there is any place in the world that I can call ‘my home.’

I have no idea how long I will stay here….. 

I have no idea what will happen next…. 

All Photos By Respondent

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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