Alyona Holubinka felt she had to act after witnessing an explosion outside her home in Kyiv in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
She filled a bag with bare essentials and within 30 minutes was out the door with her seven-year-old son, Vova, towards an uncertain future. But now they are now sharing a home in Fermoy with Sandy and Maggie Blackley and Alyona’s friend Liena Zverova and her son, Vlad, who turned five after their move to Co Cork.
Alyona (36) has a vivid recollection of the horror of the early days of the war, which left her feeling as if she had no choice but to leave, initially fleeing to Poland and then Ireland.
“I opened my eyes [in my house in Kyiv] and [outside the window] I saw an explosion,” she says. “When I went out to reach my car, Russian helicopters were circling above my home. Within 30 minutes we were gone. I didn’t have time to collect my stuff. I just took all my essentials and left.
“We arrived in Ireland on April 6th ... Me and Liena were in Citywest for three days and we were begging for any kind of accommodation at all. We said we would go to any village, any field, whatever. We were offered nothing at all. We started to look for accommodation for ourselves.”
Liena (35) at first feared they had made a “bad choice” in coming to Ireland because there did not seem to be anywhere to stay.
“It was very difficult. Especially for the children,” she says. “They were sleeping on the chairs and on the floor in Citywest. Then I wrote to friends who know some people in Ireland, and then we found this lovely family. We are so grateful.”
The two Ukrainian women became friends eight years ago, meeting through their husbands, who had known each other since university. While they are adapting to life in Ireland, Alyona says the worry for loved ones still in Ukraine and the soldiers fighting against Russia’s forces is constant.
“Every morning we take our phones and write ‘Are you okay?’ to all our beloved friends and family who stay there,” she says. “Every single day we don’t know what will happen in a minute. Now we can sit and smile and chat but in a minute that can change for us.”
Liena is married to a journalist, and Alyona’s husband works in a small business with his father. They could be called up to serve their country at any time.
Both women are grateful for the support of the Blackley family and also Grange National School in Fermoy, which has pulled out all the stops to make the boys feel welcome. Alyona says Vovar told her to mention that he has made “16 friends” in Cork.
“The teachers are very kind and they have a lot of friends in the school. Two days a week a mother drops them home,” says Liena.
“The lollipop lady at the school is very kind to our children. She always gives them some sweets and she is worried – ‘Are they okay? Are they fine?’ If it is wet or cold she always says, ‘Maybe I can drive you to the house’.”
Due to the speed at which they left, Alyona says Vova did not manage to pack any of his Lego collection. She travelled back to Ukraine briefly during the summer and returned with “whole suitcase with Lego”. Vova wants to become an architect when he grows up. Liena laughs and says Vlad may have more difficulty fulfilling his wish to breed dinosaurs.
Alyona says the boys desperately miss their fathers. “We try to call on video chat, and Vova’s dad tries to read stories about Harry Potter but sometimes they don’t have internet or electricity so the connection is not always possible. But we are trying to do our best.”
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Their hosts, Sandy and Maggie, recall meeting the women and children four hours after they agreed to take them into their home. Sandy rushed to Grange school that day to enrol the boys before the Easter break and was heartened to see welcome signs already hanging in the windows in Ukrainian and English.
Alyona says she felt at ease with the Blackleys from the outset. “We had a long and nice conversation. I didn’t feel lonely or shy in front of them. We had a very warm welcome.”
Having previously visited Northern Ireland, Alyona had some idea of what to expect here but Ireland was all new to Liena. “Before I came I knew it was a beautiful and green country. That is all,” she says.
The women and their children went back to Ukraine for two weeks to see their families in late December. Ahead of the trip, Alyona said she had mixed feelings. “We won’t be going home because it is not safe. We will stay on the west side of Ukraine. I am doing this because I promised Vova that he would see his family. I am worried so much about the situation. Anything can happen.”
Liena also had reservations but was looking forward to surprising her mother by turning up out of the blue. “I am scared she will have a heart attack. They say it is so stupid to come back to Ukraine now. No electricity. No connection. But I want to see them.”
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The Blackleys say that although it is not easy for the women being so far from home, they “make it work with humour and affection”.
They have made some happy memories in Ireland – outdoor yoga in the summer, learning English and joining a knitting group – while Alyona has been able to continue to work remotely with a Ukrainian IT firm.
“There are 450 in the company, 300 still based in Kyiv. We do Zoom calls. I first started to work remotely during Covid,” she says. “We have two cats in our office. I miss them a lot. Often we have a situation where there is a Zoom call and people have to go to the basement because of the sirens. Sometimes they work from a basement or bathrooms.”
Alyona hopes to see Ukraine at peace again sooner rather than later.
“Every day I hope the war ends. It is about keeping the children safe. If I didn’t have Vova, I would have stayed at home. I would do anything I could to help our soldiers and stay at home. Ukrainians are very resilient. Bakeries keep going. Coffee shops keep going.”
Liena recently sold crafts at a fair in Fermoy, as they are always looking for ways to “to give back”, and one customer asked her what the situation was like in Ukraine. “I said it is very bad but all our restaurants are working and the children who are there are going to kindergarten or school. She was so surprised. But Ukrainians couldn’t stop and do nothing.”
Sandy says the solidarity locals have shown Ukrainians is heartening, noting the “great community support”.
He says he would urge other Irish people to pledge accommodation for Ukrainian refugees as he and Maggie have adored having such wonderful people staying in their home. For the majority of hosts he has spoken to, the experience has been a positive one.
“The head of Helping Irish Hosts told us that she took in two families of Ukrainians in to her house very early on and within a week she had five neighbours signed up, including an elderly couple who were a bit reticent about it,” he says, but the couple ended up taking in a concert pianist and would throw open their windows so he could play to the street outside.
“It has been an enriching experience for us and a privilege to have them.”