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From war-torn Kharkiv to surfing in Bundoran: Ukrainians find refuge from war in a Donegal town

The population of the coastal town has increased by almost 50% from the influx of refugees since the Ukraine-Russia war began two years ago

It’s a February morning in the Donegal town of Bundoran and blue skies are emerging from behind the dark rain clouds that shroud the northwestern coast. Valeria Klavkina and Olena Reshytniakova, both from Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv, are getting ready for a quick surf before lunch.

Neither women ever surfed before they arrived in Ireland but now love the sport.

“Surfing was my dream all my life,” says Reshytniakova, who works as a housekeeper in a local hotel. “I’ve had an excellent experience, I had such a high feeling after my first lesson.”

Nearby, Olena Tarasova gently leads her elderly mother Nina along the Bundoran promenade. Both women are well-dressed for the blustery conditions, wrapped in woollen hats, scarves and socks.


“I’ll miss this sea when I’m gone,” Tarasova says wistfully, while her mother, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s, looks towards the horizon.

Asked if they plan to return to Ukraine, Tarasova smiles sadly and shakes her head.

“No, but hopefully we’ll go back one day,” she says. “And when we do, I’ll miss this view.”

Tarasova and her mother are two of the estimated 850 Ukrainians living in the Donegal tourist town of Bundoran. The population of the town – 2,124, according to the 2022 census – has increased by almost 50 per cent since the first Ukrainians arrived on St Patrick’s Day 2022.

Donegal is hosting 7,613 Ukrainians out of the total 104,870 who have arrived in the State since the war broke out two years ago this weekend.

Moya Gallagher, a 30-year Bundoran resident, says decades of tourism prepared the town for Ukrainian arrivals.

“We have had every nationality here even before the Ukrainians came; it’s quite a cosmopolitan place,” says Gallagher, who helped set up a Speakers’ Corner for Ukrainian refugees.

“A lot of people came here from the North too; you’ll find people from all over the world living here now.”

John O’Connell, chairman of the local tourism partnership Discover Bundoran, says the town is “better placed to absorb” refugees, given the large stock of tourist beds and accommodation. He disputes claims that tourists are now struggling to find beds.

“There are people who will tell you it’s impossible to find a room on a Saturday night in high season, but it was like that before the Ukrainians came,” he says.

Their arrival has also led to the refurbishment of some derelict buildings, he adds. “These buildings have been repurposed and that’s made a positive impact on the streetscape.”

Local hotelier and developer Conor McEniff refurbished one of these buildings. The owner of the Allingham Arms Hotel, famous nationwide for hosting country music events, McEniff also owns four Bundoran properties where almost 200 Ukrainians are staying. However, the hotel is just for the tourism, he says.

He admits, in light of recent arson attacks, he would hire additional security if he decides to refurbish another building for refugee accommodation.

“I don’t believe anybody would try to burn down an occupied building,” he says.

McEniff strongly rejects claims that the town’s tourism has suffered since Ukrainians arrived and says most summer revenue comes from day trippers visiting arcades, the funfair and cinema.

“We need immigrants in this country, otherwise our economy, especially the hospitality industry, wouldn’t survive. There’s a lot of Ukrainians employed in the town in hospitality and I believe they’re a large benefit.”

Karina Rozumna fled Kharkiv with her teenage son and was on the first bus to arrive in Bundoran in March 2022. She found a job as a cleaner in one of McEniff’s amusement arcades within a week of arriving.

“I’ve never done such a job before,” says the former hotel administrator. “It’s hard but it’s okay.”

She is grateful to be working but would prefer a job where she communicates with others and can practise her English. She has tried convincing her elderly parents, still in Kharkiv, to join her but they won’t travel.

“Older people don’t want to move. They don’t have enough strength,” she says.

After two years in Donegal, Rozumna remains determined to return to Ukraine as soon as the conflict ends. “My parents are there, my husband is there, I am here because of my son. But my heart is with my family.”

Dr Hanna Balytska, who came to Ireland from Odessa in March 2022 with her mother, her sister and their two dogs, was also among the first Ukrainians to arrive in the town. The 29-year-old neonatologist says she came to Ireland because of the English language.

“I thought it would be much easier for me to find work as a doctor because the first step to finding a job is the language,” says Dr Balytska.

The Ukrainian doctor, along with her sister and the local GP, helped set up a twice-weekly Ukrainian health clinic for refugees in the town.

Dr Balytska has registered with the Irish Medical Council and hopes to begin training as a paediatric doctor so she can eventually return to working with newborn babies. She would like to return to Odessa in the future but “if nothing changes with the war I’ll probably stay”.

For now, she works as an interpreter and receptionist at the Bundoran clinic where, she says, locals can still easily secure appointments with the doctor.

However, Eamon Barrett, a local auctioneer and businessman says some residents who spend part of the year in Bundoran have struggled to see the doctor. He is accommodating 50 Ukrainians in the recently reopened Slieve League hotel.

There is also a need for more English-language classes for new arrivals but the impact of Ukrainians on the town is predominantly positive, he says.

The local secondary and primary schools are full for the first time, supermarkets are benefiting from higher footfall during the winter months and hotels have more staff for the high season, he says.

“Bundoran is a tourist town, it’s welcoming and that’s how people who grew up here behave. Of everyone, we should be able to accommodate such a diversity of people. We have a sewerage system with a capacity of 10,000 that can be ramped up to 15,000 for the holiday season. We have the facilities.”

Locals also remember the arrival of Northern Irish people across the Border during the Troubles, says Joleen Kuyper Machado from Donegal Local Development Company (DLDC).

“With that situation ongoing in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, people here have more of an understanding of what it is like to live under those circumstances, where you are constantly living in fear and need to escape somewhere safe.”

Similar to the Poles and Slovaks who arrived in the early 2000s, Ukrainians are willing to work as “cleaners, kitchen porters, waitresses and cleaners”, despite qualifications and degrees in other areas, she says.

She believes many Ukrainians will stay in Bundoran, even if the war ends.

“People have started to build a home here, two years is a long time. And it’s another year until the temporary directive ends. At that point, children will be growing up here, this will be home,” she says.

Juliia Melnyk, an economics professor from Sumy in northeastern Ukraine, who is now a DLDC community links officer, admits she never imagined spending two years in Ireland.

Melnyk, who lives in Bundoran with her two daughters, knows of the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of Ireland but says she’s always felt safe and welcomed in Bundoran.

“Lots of strange foreigners appear in one place, people may not like that. But we can’t just disappear, we’re here legally. We have an opportunity to be here under temporary protection, it’s an opportunity to save our lives,” she says.

Ukrainians in Ireland understand why the Government is set to restrict accommodation to 90 days for new arrivals and reduce welfare payments, she says.

“I think that’s been successful. There’s less people arriving now.”

Those still arriving have run out of options, she adds. “They say they stayed as long as they could in Ukraine, but now they can’t stay any more.”

All Ukrainians hoped the war would end within a few months, but those who ended up in Bundoran feel lucky, she says.

“Earlier a Ukrainian woman came up and asked me what I was doing,” she says. “When I said I was waiting for a journalist, she said: ‘Tell her I am so thankful to the people; we’re happy here’.”

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