We sit down with 12 Ukrainian refugees who are among the first to find shelter on the Northern Beaches in Sydney. This is part of a wider story covering the issue from a local perspective, which you can read here.
“On the day the war came it was meant to be the happiest day,” Yana Zakharchuk told Manly Observer. She has been in Australia, having escaped Ukraine via Romania with 11 others, for a bit over a fortnight.
“I own and run an English school in the western part of Ukraine, and we were finally returning to normal after closure from COVID. I had just hired new teachers and the future was looking bright.
“This year was meant to be like the best ever in Ukraine in the recent three years, because we were a bit out of caring about COVID so much. My husband’s mother (my mother-in-law), owns a wedding dress manufacturing business and we were expecting so many happy weddings this year, because those restrictions were finally easing for the business.
“When my husband called to say the war was here, I didn’t believe him at first. Then I saw the petrol lines, and traffic jams… then there were beds in schools, kindergartens. So many hiding and there are these sirens that go when there are dangers…
“The bomb shelters are just dirty and not ready for people as they are from World War 2; we didn’t think it would happen again and so were not ready. And there are little children dirty and hiding in there. The parents are so worried. It is so bad.”
What followed is now a well-worn story of Russian invasion under the claim of saving Ukraine from apparent ‘fascism’, and corresponding with Russia’s perceived threat of the West.
Meeting the families
I was invited into the home of long-time Australians (albeit Ukraine-born) couple George and Taiga (“Tracy”) Gorda last week. They are the ones hosting Yana and four families in their Frenchs Forest home – a dozen people including babies and children – all relatives in some form.
Yana made me a pot of tea and popped down some biscuits on the table. After a few minutes of talking, I was joined by the hosts and eventually everyone in the house sat across from me to watch, including a very large and important looking cat called Boris.
George and Tracy have four of their own children, all adults but two still at home, with son William (far right in black) tasked with organising visas and helping the dozen guests with urgent visitor visas to come to Australia.
Yana translated on behalf of those who do not speak English. “People I think wonder why we came here instead of somewhere in Europe, but we don’t have anyone else to go to in Europe. Here we have an uncle (George). And there are so many refugees already in Eastern Europe.
“Our town is in the west, near the Romanian border, and so many people have come there fleeing from some of the places hardest hit already like Mariupol. Our town went from a population of 250,000 to a million. There is no shelter; there is no food on the shelves.”
“My English school…” Yana began but trailed off. She began crying and I’m not far behind her.
Host Tracy showed me footage from Mariupol, in the southeast. Mariupol was invaded in late February, with more than 5,000 killed.
There are dead bodies in blankets piled along the corridors; someone opens a blanket to reveal a dead infant. I think the umbilical cord is still attached. I lowered my tea and we all sat in silence.
She held the phone under my nose and together we watched film footage of someone walking through a hospital. It appears to have been bombed but I didn’t ask for a translation. There are dead bodies in blankets piled along the corridors; someone opens a blanket to reveal a dead infant. I think the umbilical cord is still attached. I lowered my tea and we all sat in silence.
While I do not have any verification and context for the footage, and others I am shown, I’ve read enough on the conflict to know it is a plausible account. Those arriving from Ukraine, whether from the cities already invaded, or those towns further west waiting for ‘the inevitable’, bring significant traumas.
“I still hope that maybe it stops soon,” Yana despaired. “I still have hope, I am still paying rent for my English school. Maybe it’s impossible, but I hope that it ends…”
Sat quietly across from me was 18-year-old Daniel – coincidentally, my son’s name. Daniel and many of the other men in the room were able to leave, just a few hours before those over 18 were forced to stay and fight.
“They are handed a gun and given maybe half an hour to show them how to use it.”
“Some of my friends, also 18, they are fighting,” Daniel revealed. “They are handed a gun and given maybe half an hour to show them how to use it.”
Host George intercepted, “It’s very different from when I had to fight in Ukraine under Soviet rule, then everybody received training.”
How did they all escape?
Here we cannot assign quotes to one particular family member, they all finished each other’s sentences:
“We had help to gather money for flights. George of course helped some of us to get here. We crossed the border in Romania. Some took a train, others took a car.
“We had to leave our car by the side of the road. So many people just left their cars and started to walk – at the border there are a couple of kilometres of cars abandoned.
“Then we joined the other refugees lining up for visas, for processing. It was expensive but we managed to get flights to Australia.”
And now they are here. Overwhelmed, uncertain of what comes next, traumatised. But safe.
I am invited to join them around the table and eat some Ukrainian food. It’s vegetables and rice wrapped in cabbage and bloody delicious, whatever it is!
With the help of hundreds of Northern Beaches locals, I brought a large shop of essentials – groceries, toilet paper etc – with me before the interview. But there are many in the Frenchs Forest home and I realised it won’t last long.
So, I called the head of One Meal Northern Beaches, Kim Williams, and asked if they could help set up something permanent, since so far there is no communication from the Australian government about available support.
Technically the Ukrainians are still registered as visitors, not refugees after all.
Within a minute Kim arranged a regular supply of groceries to the family, like his charity does for many others in our community.
Yana was very grateful. “We are so thankful Australians have given us this help. It is really appreciated,” she said.
I explained how I put a call out for help from locals and received an overwhelming response, plus offers of local café vouchers, and various extensions of support.
“We can’t do much about the bigger issue,” I sympathised, “about war in your homeland, I don’t think, but we can do whatever we can to help you while you are here.
“We’ve got your back.”
For more information and resources about how. you can help visit https://ukrainians.org.au
For our more in-depth article about our recent arrivals read here