Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine: One year on

Tetiana Konieva and Serhii Sharban are pictured with their sons, Mykhailo Kolkbrodov and Maksym Koniev. Tetian's mother, Olha Ryzhkova, is also pictured, along with  two dogs, Bruno and Zhan.

Today (24 February) we mark the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a sad day, and our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. Thousands of people have lost their lives and millions have been displaced by the conflict.

Tetiana Konieva and Serhii Sharban, were forced to flee Ukraine last year with their young family, when the Russians invaded their city. Here they tell us of their long journey to freedom and why Bristol now feels like home.

Our “great journey” to England began on 24 February 2022. That day, we were awakened at 5am by powerful explosions. It was Russia launching their first missile strikes before invading our city. We lived in Kharkov, the second largest city in the Ukraine, which is located about 40 km from the border with Russia. That morning Russian tanks were already 1 km from our house.

Not suspecting anything, thinking that this was a misunderstanding, and it would be resolved, we went to work and treated it like any normal day. You don’t imagine that your country is going to be invaded. But many people had already left the city or evacuated. It soon became known that because the city had not surrendered there would be a bombing raid by planes. We were afraid. Having collected our documents, children, and dogs, we went to the dacha [traditional country house] 100 km from Kharkov.

The next day there was fighting on the outskirts of the city, and every day we saw and heard the shelling of our beautiful city. Our street was badly damaged. Four shells flew into our house, and our neighbours’ houses were destroyed and burned. We felt that this could not be happening to us, like a bad dream, but unfortunately, it was. We felt like our whole world collapsed, all our happy days ended, and anxious days came. We were confused, didn’t know what to do. We had lost our jobs, lost our peace and the kids were confused and very scared. After two weeks, we learned about the Homes for Ukraine programme and, with the help of our friends who live in England, we started looking for sponsors. To our delight, we found them!

My youngest son and I decided to leave immediately, because the situation was very difficult. We knew Russian forces could come any day now. Thus, on 20 March 2022 we became refugees and began our journey across Europe. I never imagined that something like this would happen to us. We gradually made our way across Europe to England and saw a lot of people on the move, refugees from Ukraine.

Finally, a month later, my son and I obtained a visa and arrived in Bristol. We were very warmly welcomed. Our sponsors, Jane and Steve Storey, were very welcoming. They provided me and my son with a small apartment and surrounded us with care and attention. There was financial and moral support. My son went to school, I got a job. Later, my eldest son arrived. And six months later, my husband and mother. I also managed to get my two dogs out of Ukraine as well.

The apartment that our sponsor had kindly provided us with came to an end, and we started looking for a home. By then I had become friends with British people, and they helped us find a home. With the help of Bristol City Council, the city authorities and its employees, we now all live together in a house. England has become a second home for us. We feel safe here, we like our neighbours. They are kind, sympathetic people who are always ready to help. I think Ukrainians and British people are very similar in lots of ways. The natural politeness of the English was surprising too, it is their way to always say “sorry”, even when it’s not their fault!

The support of the Mayor’s Office is very much felt. My mom is provided with medical care and medication. We are eternally grateful to everyone who helped us, we are grateful to God, we appreciate the help and support of the city authorities, the Mayor, and people like Larysa, our Support Worker from the Bristol City Council Refugee Resettlement Team who is always interested in our lives and help us to feel like we are welcome and can belong here.

During the time that we have lived here, I’ve managed to get a better job and my eldest son also works. My husband immediately got a job when he arrived, but after a while he was let go and is now looking for a new job. We really like this country, its people, and we want to integrate into society and to be useful. We try to remove barriers, so we are learning the language, its history, laws, customs, and rules. We are so very grateful to the people of Bristol, and the UK, and want to contribute positively and be a part of this society.

Find out more about how Bristol City Council is responding to the crisis in Ukraine and how you can help here: The resettlement of vulnerable refugees in Bristol