Jade Wright meets three young Ukrainian mothers spending their first Christmas away from their homeland

Great British Life: Nika Cherhinets, Iryna Tyshchenko, Alexander Tyshchenko, Yevhen Kramarenko, Kira Cherhinets and Hanna KramarenkoNika Cherhinets, Iryna Tyshchenko, Alexander Tyshchenko, Yevhen Kramarenko, Kira Cherhinets and Hanna Kramarenko (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Iryna Tyshchenko  

No sooner had Iryna Tyshchenko discovered she was expecting a baby than Russian troops invaded their home city Kherson, in a series of devastating attacks.

The port city, on the banks of the Dnipro river near the Black Sea coast, was a key target for Russian forces, wanting to annex it as a gateway to Crimea.
As soldiers stormed in, Iryna was alone with her daughters; her husband Yevhen was out of the country, working as a long-distance lorry driver on a trip across Europe. So as the invading army wreaked destruction, she took their daughters Ann aged 19, Kira, aged 13 and eleven-year-old Veronica, and family cats, Mia and Arnold, and fled the country.

‘First, we went to Poland by car, with volunteers, and then to Germany, Belgium and then to France,’ she says. ‘We could only take what we could carry, but people were very kind. Everyone was in the same situation.’

They met Yevhen along the way and found out about potential hosts Melissa Roberts and Paul Lavin, who live in Tarporley.

‘They helped us and made us so welcome,’ says Iryna, aged 38. ‘We travelled through the Eurotunnel and we were able to bring our cats, which was so good, because they had only ever lived indoors in an apartment. Now, they get to go outside for the first time. They think they are very lucky cats.’

The family arrived in Cheshire in May, and their son Alex was born in October.

‘He is doing well, a very happy boy,’ says Iryna. 
‘It was different to have a baby here. At home, we go into hospital before and stay for days afterwards, but here you are in and out so quickly.’
Thankfully, she has plenty of willing helpers at home. 
‘My daughters are very happy to have a baby brother,’ she laughs. ‘They are very good at taking care of him.’

Great British Life: Baby AlexanderBaby Alexander (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

The girls have settled well at school and Iryna hopes that when Alex is bigger, she can look to work again as a sales manager. Yevhen is keen to start driving again – particularly as there is still a shortage of lorry drivers – but will need to pass a UK HGV test, and instructors and test dates are in short supply.

‘It is frustrating, because we have always worked, and we want to be able to look after ourselves,’ says Iryna. 
A return to Kherson, although newly liberated by the Ukrainian army, looks unlikely in the months ahead. 

Even refugees looking to go back to more peaceful parts of the country have been urged not to attempt travel until at least next spring, to help ease pressure on the energy system. President Volodymyr Zelensky has said air strikes have destroyed more than a third of the country's energy sector, and blackouts look likely to continue through the cold, dark winter months.

Now the family are looking forward to their first Christmas away from home. The festive season is different in Ukraine, There, Christmas starts with Holy Eve on January 6,  marked by the appearance of the first star, and a feast of 12 dishes representing the 12 apostles.

They last until the Feast of Epiphany on January 19.

‘This year we will celebrate Christmas in December and in January,’ says Iryna. ‘Our daughters are looking forward to a UK Christmas. They love it here.

‘None of us know what will happen, but we are so grateful for the many good people here. We could never have imagined what would happen and that our son would be born in Cheshire, but we are thankful every day to have such kindness.’

Great British Life: Anna Yakhno, now living in CheshireAnna Yakhno, now living in Cheshire (Image: Kirsty Thompson)
Anna Yakhno

When President Zelensky appealed to world leaders for help after the Russian invasion of his country, he told a heart-rending story that encapsulated the human cost of the war like no other. It was about four-year-old Sasha Zdanovych, who along with his grandmother drowned when the boat they were travelling in sank as they desperately tried to flee the advance of Vladimir Putin's armies. The brutality of the conflict may be a world away from Sandbach, where Sasha's mum lives with volunteer host Kiera Walker, but Anna carries the agony of the loss of 'her only joy' with her wherever she goes.

It’s all the more painful because Anna, 25, had taken Sasha, her only child,  to safety away from Kyiv, with his grandmother in a village 30 miles away while she returned to the city work as an IT recruitment manager.
But as Russian troops advanced, the village was cut off, with no heat, power, or running water. Anna and her husband (also named Sasha), couldn’t get to their son, as the village was surrounded on three sides by troops, with the Dniepro reservoir on the other. They celebrated his fourth birthday with a video call, watching as he blew out the candles on his cake, with a promise to meet as soon as they could. Days later, Sasha and his grandmother joined the villagers who were escaping in two boats, across the six-mile-wide reservoir.

Both boats set off, but only one arrived at the other side. 
For 26 days, Anna waited for news, hoping their boat had landed elsewhere or they’d been rescued and were unable to get in touch. 'I was praying every day,’ explains Anna. ‘He was my only joy.’

Great British Life: Anna Yakhno with her beautiful four-year-old Sasha ZdanovychAnna Yakhno with her beautiful four-year-old Sasha Zdanovych (Image: Anna Yakhno)

They launched an international appeal, hoping that fleeing refugees had taken Sasha to safety in another country, but on April 5, Anna heard the news she had been dreading. Her son’s body had been found. 

‘My heart is broken. I would give anything for my son. Every day is very hard. I don't know what to do with myself. How can this happen? I don’t understand. My life has lost all sense,’ she says
Initially, she and her husband stayed in Ukraine, feeling closer to their son's memory, but Anna was plagued by nightmares about what had happened. ‘I had very bad nights in Ukraine. I was afraid to close my eyes. I could not sleep at all.’

The couple made their way through Poland to Germany, and then accepted an offer to stay with Kiera Walker in Sandbach. ‘We were staying in Berlin with friends, and our dog, Misha,’ Anna explains. ‘They helped us get to the UK, but there was a problem with our dog’s paperwork so they said we could not bring him. Our friends took him back to Berlin, and now we are asking every day for our papers so we can go and bring him to us.

'Every day I talk to him on FaceTime. He looks so sad.’ Anna has been trying to keep herself busy, painting pictures to celebrate Sasha, and donating them to charity auctions. ‘I want to make sure he is never forgotten,’ she says. ‘He was such a wonderful little boy. I paint pictures about Sasha. One had a little boat, and under the boat, a little heart.’ Anna’s last painting was bought by a well-known Ukrainian actress. ‘I feel that I need to tell Sasha’s story, to make sure the world does not forget my son.’

Anna wears a necklace, with a photo of her son. 'It was sent to me by a friend, and it means he is close to my heart. I wear it all the time. 
‘My heart is back in Ukraine. Every day I watch the news and I see my home. I like it here very much. It is an amazing country and I feel safe here.
‘Kiera has been so kind. We cannot thank her enough for everything she has done to help us.’ 

Follow Anna here instagram.com/shine4.me

Great British Life: Milliner and fashion stylist, Lilia ZhukovaMilliner and fashion stylist, Lilia Zhukova (Image: Kirsty Thompson)
Lilia Armach 

When Lilia Armach and her daughter Zhanna arrived in the UK they packed up as much as they could carry – prized personal possessions, their chihuahua Bonita and as many hats as they could cram into a huge suitcase.
Lilia, 42, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated milliners, hoped that wherever their travels took them, she would be able to use her skills to make sure they always had enough to eat and somewhere to sleep.

‘When they bombed our home in Kyiv we moved into my studio,’ she says. ‘But that wasn’t safe and we were frightened the studio would be bombed too.’

So, carrying what they could, they fled for Poland. There, they made contact with Eric and Shirley Rose, from Upton in Wirral, who offered them a safe place to stay under the Homes For Ukraine scheme.

‘The hardest part was getting Bonita’s paperwork so she could join us,’ says Lilia. ‘There was no way we could leave her. There were stray dogs everywhere in Ukraine when we left. People had to leave in a hurry and there were a lot of strays running free. It was the same in Poland too... so many dogs left behind.

‘We have been so grateful for the warm welcome we have been given,’ says Lilia. ‘Everyone has been so kind. 

‘Zhanna loves school here, and she is very excited to experience a UK Christmas. She will have St Nicholas’ Day on December 19 – the children’s festival when Father Christmas comes – then UK Christmas on December 25, then Ukrainian Christmas on January 7.’

Great British Life: Lilia Zhukova at work Lilia Zhukova at work (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Lilia is spending the run-up to Christmas at craft markets across the county, selling her beautiful handmade hats. Each one is individually created, including a series of transforming designs, which give different looks depending on how they are worn. 

‘I am lucky that I came to England; here people love to wear hats,’ she laughs. ‘Whether it is warm winter berets or wide brims to keep the sun off for summer parties, it is a good place for a milliner.’

She is determined to stay upbeat despite the challenges. Like all of those who have travelled from Ukraine, she has found there is a lot of paperwork, from registering with a dentist to finding a school place, but she says Shirley and Eric have helped with everything, even taking her to craft markets and supporting her fledgling business. 

‘I am so grateful to Shirley and Eric and their whole family for making us so welcome in their beautiful home. I have never seen a house like it, and the garden is so beautiful. I know we are so lucky to come here.

‘We cannot know what will happen next, or when we will be able to go back home. But I do know that Ukraine will win this war. Whatever it takes, we will win.’

Great British Life: Hats by Lilia ZhukovaHats by Lilia Zhukova (Image: Kirsty Thompson)

Lilia's hats are available at instagram.com/lilia.moda


Cheshire's helping hands

Dr Ann Williams spent her career teaching languages at the Sorbonne in Paris and at universities across France. When she heard that Ukrainian refugees would be coming to Cheshire, she quickly mobilised a group of friends who also had experience teaching languages, and with the help of the Rotary Club of Tarporley set up English classes in Tarporley Community Centre.

'I teach complete beginners, and I have students aged between six years old and their 75-year-old grandmothers,' she says. 'It's wonderful, quite honestly. I have learnt so much. Rotary very kindly gave us a grant for books and materials, and there has been a great deal of muddling through, as I don't speak Ukrainian, but some of the more able students act as interpreters. 

'It's so different from my academic career, but I am learning so much.'

Ann also helped to organise The Spirit of Ukraine, an evening of opera, poetry and art, in partnership with the Ukrainian Cultural Association in aid of children's hospitals in Ukraine, with performances from Rozanna Madylus, Elena Xanthoudakis, Alla Sirenko and Maryam d’Abo.

'The way everyone has come together has been wonderful,' says Ann. 'There's a long way to go, but I can't thank everyone enough for the support and hard work to make all of this happen.'

How to become a host

Across Cheshire, hosts have shown huge generosity in offering homes to Ukrainians escaping the conflict in their homeland. More than 350 sponsors have offered accommodation in Cheshire East alone, under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, through which the area has received 615 Ukrainian nationals. 

If you would like to become a sponsor but do not know a Ukrainian refugee who wants to come to the UK you can register an expression of interest with the Government.

The charity Reset Communities and Refugees has been officially appointed to help register and match refugees from Ukraine with sponsors across the UK.

Find out more at  gov.uk/guidance/homes-for-ukraine-scheme-frequently-asked-questions