'I never wanted to move from Ukraine. My friends wanted to, but I never did.'
Last year, we met the Tyshkul family as they arrived in the UK after escaping the war in Ukraine. What’s life been like for them since as refugees in Manchester?
By Jack Dulhanty
Kateryna Tyshkul and her family realise that the old ways of life are over. August is the 18th month of war in Ukraine, their home. It began on Kateryna’s birthday, when she woke up in her flat in Prestwich to a flurry of notifications. One read:
“Happy Birthday, we’ve got a war here.”
She spent the following month orchestrating the escape of her mother Liubov, sister Olena and niece Darina from their home in Kharkiv — a city in the east that has been an epicentre of Russian brutality.
I first met Liubov, Olena and Darina a week after their arrival in Manchester, in March last year. We spoke about their escape, their final goodbyes to family members who had helped them, and what they were planning to do next. Back then, their minds were scattered and the war was only a month old. They hoped to be home by May, a month in which they would all celebrate milestone birthdays.
But that came and went. Now, we sit together in a coffee shop in Prestwich that is closing around us, staff sweeping and dragging in chairs. Outside, rain is falling so lightly it floats. I ask them how they have been since we last met; how they feel? “It’s just the realisation that it is never going to be the same in our lifetime,” Kateryna says, glancing between me and her cup of tea. “We’re never going to see it as normal again, this is what I personally go through.”
After first arriving here — getting their visas, biometric cards and otherwise scaling the bureaucracy required to start their new lives — they spent six months in Kateryna’s two-bedroom flat. They were offered accommodation early on by a local person who was keen to help, but they turned it down because they didn’t want to leave Kateryna.
Five people — including Kateryna’s boyfriend — living across two bedrooms caused some problems. “If I’m being brutally honest, everyone was quite pissed with each other,” says Darina, 19, who at the time was joining lectures for a computer linguistics course at The Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute from her phone because she didn’t have a laptop.
Darina was 17 when she arrived in the UK. When I met her she, like the others, was still pale and bewildered after her journey. She struck me as quiet, like a teenager deep inside her shell, speaking tentatively and asking Kateryna to translate the odd word and phrase.
Now she seems like a different person, and not just because her hair is bleached blonde and she’s dressed in clothes you can tell she wants to wear, instead of those that were cobbled together to replace the winter clothes she arrived in. She’s much more assertive, confident. She has lots to say. She also seems to be the one most removed from her life before the war. “I’m someone who very much sticks to the past, but after the 24th of February, I feel like someone else was living that life.”
Last summer, when her remote studies finished, her life was spent mostly online. She spoke with friends who hadn’t left Ukraine yet and to her father, Dmytro, who stayed as a volunteer for the army, delivering food, driving, and helping to raise funds. “If my aunt or her boyfriend want to donate something, they do it through my dad. He made a lot of connections before the war, and knows people on the frontline,” she says.
Darina hasn’t seen her father since the day she left Kharkiv to take a train towards the Polish border, kissing him on the cheek with little time to say goodbye. They still speak on the phone, but it is hard for them both. Dmytro is losing friends to the fighting and is always sad. “I have to understand his mood is not so stable. It feels unusual to tell him about the things I’m doing when I know he is suffering.”
The same goes for calls with friends, which have taken on a certain repetitive helplessness. One of Darina’s friends is still living in the same district of Kharkiv that she escaped from and she will sometimes just hang up because bombing has started. “You’re always asking: ‘how are you? How are things?’ And she’s getting tired of these questions and I’m getting tired too because I know I can’t help. She’s just like: ‘what can I say? It’s a war.’”
Late last year, Darina started therapy. She was struggling with PTSD and survivor’s guilt. “At Kateryna’s house, I felt like I had taken someone’s place,” she says. The guilt drained her — she remembers a conversation she had with some old friends: “I’ve met people online from my school and my district who didn’t leave Ukraine and they say: ‘oh, you’re in England, how dare you say you’re feeling bad.’”
She has lost friends both to these arguments and to the war itself. A boy she met at a summer camp in 2019 was found drowned after the collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam, which flooded the city of Kherson, where he lived. Some of her closest friends have gone to Russia to escape the war. “I don't know how to feel about it because they were my, like, best friends. And now they are not,” Darina says. Some families in the eastern cities found refuge in Russia. Sometimes because there were no safe routes heading west, other times because they had links there.
As the war continued and the initial shock began to wane, it dawned on the family that they needed to stop waiting for the moment of return, and restart their lives, at least for a while. Darina’s mother, Olena, enrolled in college courses and English classes. She was a mobile hairdresser in Ukraine and is now looking for work. Liubov was the first to move out of Kateryna’s, into an assisted living complex in Bury.
Liubov, who sits with a blue and yellow ribbon pinned to her shirt and blue and yellow bracelets on her wrists, still goes to the weekly rallies against the war at Piccadilly Gardens. The numbers have dwindled from the hundreds that attended last year to a hardcore of about 30 people. She also attends the rallies held by Hong Kongers in St Peter’s Square, feeling a kindred solidarity with their cause.
None of them seem to resent that the war has slipped further and further down the news agenda. Nor do they begrudge Brits who feel resentful that events in Ukraine have contributed to cost-of-living pressures here at home. They have seen how that can create bitterness towards requests for help — arguments in the comments on Facebook when someone posts about the need for families to host Ukrainians (“There are homeless people here too,” etc).
“There’s a saying in Ukraine,” says Kateryna. “Your shirt is closer to your body. Your own life and family matters more than whoever else is suffering. They’re more concerned about their own lives.”
I ask Liubov, who is 71, if she thinks she will see Ukraine again — with Kateryna translating my question. She doesn’t entertain the thought that the war will outlive her. “When the war is over, we'll probably go back.” But she says she feels settled in the UK now. “I had visited Kateryna so many times before the war that I know the way of life here, and feel comfortable here.”
Darina doesn’t feel that way. “I was going to go back in August, but my whole family is afraid of me going so I decided not to.”
“When it is safe, we will all go,” Kateryna replies.
I ask Darina what it was like to have her 18th birthday among all of this. “It was horrible,” she answers. “In Ukraine, celebrating your 18th is a big thing, a big event in everyone’s life.”
“And it was for you!” says Kateryna.
“Ergh, yeah,” says Darina, “but not in Ukraine.”
She says it just felt like any other day. The war has taken some of the colour out of Darina’s life. Happiness is dulled whereas sadness feels bottomless. “My feelings are just numb. I don’t feel happiness like I used to,” she says. “I can’t see my friends. The people I meet here are not my friends, they just aren't it.”
The place she and her mother have moved to is a little out from the town centre, and while it’s a new-build and they’ve made a point of decorating how they like it, it’s still hard to get out and meet people.
“I still don’t have any close friends,” she says. “Many people I have met here, I just thought they were being friends with me because I’m from Ukraine, and they feel guilty. I don’t like that.” Nowadays, she avoids mentioning she is Ukrainian in the first instance, to cut off the flurry of questions at source. She says the most common, and infuriating, question is: “Is the war still happening?”
“Sometimes” Darina says. “I felt like a monkey in a zoo. People are like: ‘tell me this, tell me that,’ and it’s just about entertaining them.”
She started to look for work last year, around the time her mother and grandmother started their classes. She was rejected multiple times from sales assistant positions, so volunteered at Oxfam. This week marked her first year volunteering there. “I will get some award for that,” she laughs. “I’m glad to at least have that.”
When she leaves Oxfam, Darina takes long walks around the city centre, taking photographs. “Kharkiv is bigger than Manchester, so I haven’t found it difficult to get oriented,” she says. She spends a lot of her time in the Northern Quarter and Chinatown, seeing other Ukrainians she has met online.
She has issues with transport — buses that run seemingly on no schedule, cancelled trains — and also with the fact that a lot of the things in the city centre are expensive. But she makes it work. “I know that I can go out and do stuff for free here, strolling around, taking pictures, going to galleries," she says. “It’s not so bad if you’re struggling with money.”
She has aspirations to be a graphic designer after university and has taken some extracurricular courses since arriving in the UK. Her dream is to return to Ukraine, and work from there. Her homesickness is ever-present in our conversations and she conveys it with poetic images. “Ukraine is just good ground. There’s two seas, mountains, deserts, forests, I love it. I never wanted to move from Ukraine. My friends wanted to, but I never did.”
But, while she says she used to think about her future a lot, that’s not the case anymore. It feels destabilised, truncated. “Now, my future is the next two days. Everything is changing, and you don't know what to expect.”
The visas they secured to come here last year expire next March, and there is still a crackle of hope that maybe they’ll return before then. But if not, they don’t know whether they will get them extended or have to go elsewhere.
“I feel like I became five years older,” Darina says, looking back on the past eighteen months. Before, she was the youngest grandchild, coddled and taken care of. Then the war started and, as many found out, being the youngest meant something else: “I had to take care of them.”
During those first few months, her father sent her regular texts, reminding her of her strength, telling her to be brave. “He actually gave me a keychain,” Darina says, stuffing her hands into her bag to retrieve it. It’s a little silver square, not yet worn at the edges. Engraved in Ukrainian, it reads:
“For my daughter: every time you feel low, remember whose daughter you are.”
You can read Jack’s other pieces on the Tyshkuls below: