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Happy Birthday, we’ve got a war here
Kateryna saw her childhood home hit before her family in the basement. She tells us her story - and introduces us to her students in Manchester
By Jack Dulhanty
Last Thursday was Kateryna Tyshkul’s birthday. Over the years, she’s become accustomed to silencing her phone the night before her birthday so she isn’t woken up in the early hours by messages from friends and family back in Ukraine, which is two hours ahead.
This time she woke up and saw her phone’s home screen alive with notifications. “Happy Birthday,” one said, “we’ve got a war here”.
Kateryna has lived in Manchester since 2006, but she hails from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has seen some of the heaviest Russian bombing since the invasion began. She video-called her mum, Liubov, straight away. Liubov and Olena — Kateryna’s older sister — told her that the bombing had started at 5am that morning and they didn’t know what to do. They were sitting in their flat in south-east Kharkiv, beside a motorway that heads into the city, fully dressed and without a plan. “I couldn't believe what I was hearing,” Kateryna told me.
Months ago, when Kateryna had visited her family for Christmas, war was still an abstraction. Olena, who works as a mobile hairdresser, told her that when the topic came up during her appointments, people would laugh. “Why would you worry? It's never going to happen,” Kateryna recalls people saying.
During her visit, she toured her boyfriend around the local sites, showing him Kharkiv’s enormous Freedom Square and its university, where she studied. Now, the square is scattered with debris after a catastrophic Russian air assault and photos have shown the university ablaze.
After the bombing started, Liubov and Olena, along with Olena’s daughter, spent four days in their friend’s garage. It’s around the corner from their apartment and they calculated that it was less likely to be hit. But as Russian bombardments drew closer — and proved less discriminate than expected — they moved into the basement beneath their apartment building.
At one point, the bombing in Kharkiv was so intense that Kateryna’s friend, Nataliya, called to say goodbye.
All the while, Kateryna became glued to TV coverage and social media. Aware that somewhere in that dark gyre of news, conjecture and panic were her family. Every timeline refresh invited tragedy.
Telegram — a messaging platform that is being used to share news of the conflict — was where she saw a video of her family home being bombed. It’s the apartment block where she grew up — allocated to her family by the state just before the end of the Soviet period. Kateryna saw the damage done to her home before her family, who were sheltering underground, had seen it themselves.
When they emerged, all the building’s windows had been blown out by the blast, and a neighbouring tower block had taken a direct hit. Olena’s ex-husband arranged transport for them to the train station so they could travel to the border, abandoning most of their possessions. When I spoke to Kateryna yesterday, her family had just arrived in Lviv. They had been on the train for 28 hours and were making arrangements to join a cousin in Poland.
Liubov now spends most of the time crying. Kateryna’s niece, who is 17, is struggling with just how completely the conflict has upended her life: “my niece is very fragile, she's just started university, and now it's all gone,” she says.
Kateryna has since received a message from Nataliya to say that tanks had entered their neighbourhood. “Probably my flat and the entire area doesn’t exist anymore,” she says. “I’m just speechless.”
Nataliya is still struggling to leave the country. In the past week, she has learned to tell the difference between the sound of a jet and the sound of a falling shell. “Life just crashed in one single moment,” she told me, via a message to Kateryna. She can no longer sleep, coming to fear silence as much as the sound of bombardment: "when it is quiet, it only means it's going to start,” she writes.
The Saturday school
This morning, I met Kateryna at the entrance to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Cheetham Hill, where she teaches the Saturday school. On weekdays, she’s a content editor for a digital agency in town. “When I close my work laptop, I open my school laptop, I never rest,” she says. In the windows of the centre, there are blue and yellow “Stop War” placards.
Kateryna volunteers as a member of the Manchester branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) and has been doing so for 15 of the 16 years she has been in the UK. The AUGB run Saturday schools as well as traditional Ukrainian dance classes, to preserve Ukrainian traditions and teach young people about their heritage.
She shows me around the building, where classes are ongoing for 109 children aged three to fifteen. In a small assembly hall, children chase one another around while their parents line the walls, surrounded by tiny backpacks. Arseniy Panin, a post-grad student at the University of Manchester, stands having his photo taken amongst the game of tag. Today, he is running a marathon distance — starting from the Cultural Centre — to raise money for Ukraine Aid Manchester.
Pani Maria — “Pani” being the feminine form of “Pan” a Slavic honorific for lord or master — rings a small bell with faded yellow and blue ribbons tied through its handle. The commotion stops. The children line up in two lines down the centre of the hall and the parents that were sitting stand up. Maria, the school’s head teacher for the past 16 years, is 79 years old. Diminutive with tinged-lens glasses that hang from her neck on a chain, she delivers the morning assembly in Ukrainian, and the room says a prayer in unison, everyone crossing their chests four times before beginning, and again afterwards.
During the assembly, two representatives from the Manchester Turkish Community Association enter the hall with flowers. They are ushered to the front of the assembly to deliver the flowers directly to Maria. “On behalf of the Turkish community, we have come to support your rightful struggle for peace,” the representatives say, while the school’s music teacher translates.
After that, the children wave Arseniy away on his marathon, and classes begin. I sit with a year 10 class — ages 14-16 — the Saturday school’s final year group. It’s made up of eight students, who sit at what looks like a dining table in a room scattered with photos of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian poet who has become an enduring symbol of the country’s struggle for independence.
He’s framed on the wall, printed on calendars, and other prints of him punctuate the bookshelf. This class was a geography class, the whiteboard is covered with a map of Ukraine. Last week, a smaller map was added to the corner of the board, labelled: “2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine, 24 February-Present.”
“That’s how we’re teaching geography now,” Kateryna later tells me, by following the Russian invasion through Ukraine’s major cities. All eight students have family in Ukraine and only one was born in the UK.
The teachers are trying to talk to their students about the invasion, while treading softly. That’s harder than it would have been in the past — the older children are watching the bombing of their home country on TikTok. The students describe a welter of emotions. “First, it was shock that it had actually happened,” says Julianna, “then, it was horror, then it was anger, and these feelings just keep mixing together”.
We talk about refugee shelters on the Hungarian border — Julianna’s family members are involved in that. Alex talks about the bomb shelters his relatives must retreat into. Roman tells me about diversanty — pro-Russian agents and saboteurs — roadside bombs and his godfather, who has joined the territorial defence. The teenagers speak so fluently about geopolitics, Russian gas and sanctions, you would be forgiven for forgetting they aren’t even out of high school. “We’re used to talking about this stuff,” Julianna says.
Once the class begins, the students fall effortlessly back into Ukrainian, making each other laugh and showing each other videos on their phones. I leave them just as a side conversation about Russian tanks appearing on eBay begins. Kateryna gives me a fuller tour of the centre: the members’ area that now stores piles of donations, the pre-school classes painting Ukrainian flags, the music class trying to keep up with their teacher’s vibrato, and the dance class where all the costumes are stored in old suitcases.
On our way back to the year 10 class, we stop by Pani Maria’s office. Normally, there’s only one person allowed in at a time, but Kateryna comes in and translates for us, “I won’t charge you too much for translation,” she jokes. Maria came to the UK in 1991, when Ukraine’s independence was declared. She came to find her father, who her mother had been separated from during the war.
When I spoke to Kateryna for the first time on the phone, she told me Maria was utterly heartbroken by the invasion. She had lived through the country’s Soviet era, had seen Ukraine become independent and now watches as that independence is imperilled. Maria’s daughter, Nataliya, is a doctor and refuses to leave her patients in Sambir, near Lviv. All the men in her family, save her great-grandson, have joined the fighting.
Like Kateryna, she has used the school as something to distract herself from the disaster back home. As the days have worn on, morale amongst teachers and parents alike began waning: “Now we're realising it might not end soon,” Kateryna says. Nevertheless, they know they must do what they can from where they are.
As I leave, they begin their preparations to walk from the cultural centre to Piccadilly Gardens, for this afternoon’s demonstration against the war. It’s their second week demonstrating, and the entire school are attending, freshly painted flags in tow. “Wherever the blue and yellow is,” said Kateryna, “is where you will find us.”
🎧 We have made a special podcast about how Manchester’s Ukrainians are coping with the outbreak of war. It opens with a young girl, Diana, asking her dad Vlad when they can visit Ukraine. “One day, when everything will be quiet there,” he says. Listen for free on Apple, Google and Spotify.