Ukrainian community looks homeward
Each morning starts the same way for Natalia Baburova. She picks up her phone to check the latest updates from Ukraine.
War fills the screen and she just hopes that none of her family or friends have been caught up in the shelling or missile attacks.
A year ago this week, Russia invaded Ukraine and Natalia, who has lived in Inishowen since 2010, is consumed by the war.
“I am in touch with them every day,” she says of her parents and sister, who remain in the country.
“They’re fine, in between the blackouts.
“My sister lives in Kyiv, and my parents in Vinnstyia (south of the capital). They’re not on the frontline, but in Ukraine no one is sure what will happen in five minute’s time.
“You saw what happened in Dnipro,” she says, referring to a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in the city last month that killed 45 people and left scores of families homeless.
“Nobody can be safe.
“Sometimes I cry,” she says, recalling two friends who joined the army and were killed. “They had families and they left young children behind,” she says sadly.
Natalia was one of just two Ukrainian people in Inishowen this time last year.
She’s been joined by many hundreds of her compatriots since, and she admires their tenacity in coming to a foreign country without knowing what lies ahead and perhaps even without being able to speak English.
“I wouldn’t be able to move and start a new life in France or Spain,” she says.
The garage at her Buncrana home became a sort of depot last spring, where donated clothes and toiletries were sorted and boxed and delivered to the hundreds of
Ukrainians who fled the war and have come to Inishowen.
The last count by the Central Statistics Office estimated 800 Ukrainians now live in Inishowen
“A lot of people, maybe 90 per cent, want to work and are looking for a job,” she says.
“They want to work instead of staying at home.
“The main problem is having English, or not having transport from where they live. Many people live in remote places.”
As the war enters a second year, and with Russia continuing to bomb civilian areas and attacking Ukraine’s electricity network to inflict miserable conditions on its people, there is no sign of an end to the conflict.
“Some people have settled well, and intend to stay in Ireland,” Natalia says.
“Some of those lost their homes and have nothing to go back to.
“Others can’t wait for the victory so that they can go home.
“Some of them have psychological problems. They close down and don’t want to talk to anyone, remembering their past life.”
Until the day of the invasion, 23 February, Svetlana Ivanova didn’t really believe that war would break out.
With Russian forces mounting an from Belarus in the north, Svetlana and her sister fled their Kyiv home for the west of the country and spent a month there
before coming to Ireland.
“My sister and I were scared,” Svetlana recalled. “Every day you hoped the war would end, but the first months, no one knew what would happen.”
The world now knows what was happening. In Bucha, a town north of Kyiv, Russian soldiers were torturing and massacring civilians during those dreadful days last March, the crimes only coming to light when Ukraine’s army beat them back.
A trained child psychologist, Svetlana and her sister lived in Galway for a month before the offer of work as a Ukrainian support worker in Donegal came up and they moved to Muff last summer.
Svetlana had only a little English when she came here, but her sister has been learning it all through school and has found it easier since moving here.
In addition to her Monday- Friday job of finding accommodation for Ukrainians, Svetlana spends Sundays holding clinics in Carndonagh for children who have been affected by the war and their relocation to Ireland.
“We play, we talk,” she says of her sessions. “I like it. I enjoy playing with the children and helping them.
“All the children want to go home. They miss their friends, their families and their schools. And some of them don’t realise their homes are gone.”
Twelve months ago, Svetlana was living comfortably in Kyiv and visiting Ireland wasn’t even an idea in her mind.
“I couldn’t thank Ireland and Irish people enough for what they have done,” Svetlana says.
“They’ve been very kind, and given great support. Not just material, but moral support too.
“People have been very kind.”
So where does she see herself in 12 months’ time?
“I hope to be here, but I don’t know” she says. “My sister (17) goes to school in Moville Community College, and she likes it.
“She’d like to go to university and study here.
“I have a problem with [speaking fluent] English, but my sister has none.
“Before the war, I had a really good life in Kyiv with a good job and a nice office.
“Maybe I will stay here, maybe I will go home. I don’t know.”
Like Natalia, she’s in touch with her family back in Kyiv by mobile phone. Each morning she sends a message to her mother, checking that’s she’s OK.
“When we talk, I worry when I hear antiaircraft siren in the background,” Svetlana says.
This time last year, Natalia didn’t believe a war would break out.
“I couldn’t believe that anyone would do such things in 2022,” she said. “I thought it was just words and threats.
“The soldiers the Russians sent aren’t normal. Some are prisoners, and how they behave is inhuman.”
Losses have been heavy with both sides losing tens of thousands of troops, and Ukrainian civilians have also been killed in their thousands with their cities and towns flattened under Russian bombardment.
There’s no end in sight, but how does the war finish?
“In victory,” Natalia says defiantly.
And can Ukraine win?
“For sure. One hundred per cent.”