Ukrainians in Leitrim: ‘I have to live for my kids. It is like rehabilitation here in Ireland for them’

Ukrainian refugees are trying to be positive ahead of ‘emotional‘ first anniversary of their country’s invasion

Ukrainians Oksana Berezovska (left) and Caria Liu Bai Shun who now work in The Shed Distillery, Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Eight months after she escaped Kherson in Ukraine, in a line of about 100 cars, Daria Liu Bai Shun sounds like a Leitrim Tourism executive. “Have you done the tour?” she asks on a quick break at her workplace, the Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo.

The 24-year-old sounds content. Her home in the former Lough Allen hotel on the outskirts of the town is “perfect” and her friends “love that I am working here”, she says of the distillery where the famous Gunpowder gin is made.

She is an officer administrator whose brief covers everything from assisting with accounts to communicating with clients. A former English tutor in Ukraine, she doesn’t grapple with the language issue which makes finding a job hard for many of her fellow country men and women.

What she does share with them is heightened anxiety in advance of the first anniversary, tomorrow, of the outbreak of war, that sense of dread compounded by the fact that her parents and many loved ones remain in Ukraine.


“The anniversary is very emotional”, she said. “Everyone is actually scared and anxious. On the special days like Independence Day and anniversaries, something terrible happens. We are expecting a new attack. Something will happen for sure. We just want it to pass as soon as possible.”

Daria’s days are filled now with the hustle and bustle of her job and her evenings in the hotel where hundreds of Ukrainians live with their own story of war.

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Hers involved fleeing Kherson in a car with another young woman and a baby. Explaining that her native city was occupied very quickly, Daria said: “We had a new country with Russian flags, Russian billboards, Russian currency. And everyone was scared – scared to talk in Ukrainian and to show Ukrainian flags. It was very hard especially for men as they were in more danger”. After Kherson was liberated Ukrainian authorities said they discovered a number of torture chambers in the city.

Daria left one morning at 5am, travelling initially by car with her cousin and her cousin’s baby who turned out to be a key asset, as Russian troops at every checkpoint waved them on when they saw the sleeping infant.

The latest data available from the CSO shows that last December the Ballinamore Electoral Area in Co Leitrim, which includes Carrigallen, Dumshanbo and Ballinamore, had the fourth largest proportion of Ukrainians in the country at almost six per cent of the population.

Around the corner from the Shed Distillery is the Drumshanbo Food Hub where six of the eight participants on an accredited “Culinary & Service Skills” course are Ukrainian.

Course coordinator Teresa Cullen says they are “hungry to learn” and she is confident about the job opportunities which will be available to them whether as commis chefs, waiting staff, baristas, bar workers or in housekeeping.

Cullen is touched by the way they strive to integrate despite constant worries about those left behind in Ukraine.

“One sends a parcel home to her mum every single day. I met her in the shop yesterday and she was getting tins of tuna and biscuits.”

Ukrainians (from left) Olena Mironicheva, Krystyna Holovlova, Valentyna Kotrynets, Sereda Oleh, Kateryba Malkovska and Iryna Krokhina who are taking part in the Culinary and Service Skills course at The Food Hub in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

One of her students, Kate Malkovska (34), (“We call her Cait,” said Cullen) sends salt home regularly as since the Russian capture of some salt mining areas in Ukraine prices jumped.

From Mariupol, the port city which some estimates say is 95 per cent destroyed, Malkovska knows her home there is gone. Her three-year-old son now attends the Bo Peep play school in Drumshanbo and still talks about his two cats in Mariupol.

“There is a great atmosphere here but we are mindful that it is hard”, said Cullen. “There are some days in particular when there are bombings and we know everybody has someone belonging to them still there.

“It is amazing to think they come from huge cities and they have ended up in Drumshanbo in Leitrim and it is so tiny and the population is so small. But they love the peace and quiet and nature.”

Erika Yoshchenko lives in the village of Fenagh with her husband and three children, aged eight , 10 and 11. A native of Chernihiv, close to the border with Russia, she worked at the football stadium there which was home to FC Desna, the boyhood club of former West Ham star Andriy Yarmolenko. Before the war, Desna had participated in the Europa League but soon after the invasion, five rockets hit the stadium reducing it to rubble.

A few months later Erika found herself working as a receptionist in the Arigna Mining Experience in Co Roscommon while a her children play soccer with Valley Rovers, a rural club based Geevagh in Co Sligo. “The kids are smiling again. That is what is important to me,” she said.

Recently she was appointed by Leitrim Development Company (LDC) , the agency overseeing the integration of Ukrainians in the county, under the SICAP (Social Inclusion & Community Activation Programme) as a support worker.

Erika recently learned that a rocket had hit her garden in Chernihiv, smashing the windows of her home - but she feels as the first anniversary approaches that she must be positive, especially for her children.

“It is hard. It is unbelievable to think it is a year but we are safe here. Of course nothing has changed there but it is too hard always to think about something bad. I have to live for my kids. It is like rehabilitation here in Ireland for the kids. They saw the ocean for the first time “.

Oksana Berezouska, a music and culture teacher from Lviv, wept as she explained that it was a year to the day since she had last attended class.

A mother of two, aged 20 and 10, she too works in the Shed Distillery putting labels and tops on bottles . “I am very happy. I like this work,” she said, struggling with English to explain that many more Ukrainians could work if there was a better bus service.

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Bernie Donoghue, social inclusion manager with LDC, agrees that language and transport are the biggest challenges facing the new Ukrainian community – even though in nearly every part of the county, locals have been volunteering to be part of the Fáilte Isteach language classes.

Donoghue has noticed a change in mindset among the Ukrainians who initially expected to be going home quite quickly.

Last May when she talked to them about organising school transport for September, they clearly did not anticipate that they would still be in Ireland in the autumn. “But as time went on they realised they will be here for longer,” she said.

Donoghue says that one of the best things LDC did was take on Nataliya Byrlynakova, a native of Ukraine living in Ireland for almost 23 years, as an interpreter and support worker.

One morning this week a queue of Ukrainian women waited outside her office, most of them there to get advice about job opportunities. ”Ukrainians want to work” she stressed.

Mykhailo Kozulin is one of two Ukrainians working in Scollan’s Gala Store in Drumshanbo where customers and colleagues call him “Michael”.

“Everybody knows me,” confirmed the former professional clown who pines for his old circus job.

A father of three, he was no stranger to Ireland when he arrived last year , having worked from 2003 to 2012 as a stable hand for Tommy Carberry, the head of the racing dynasty.

He and his family live at the Lough Allen hotel which was visited by the Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko last month .

The ambassador was in Leitrim to attend a concert in the former Mayflower ballroom in Drumshanbo where local traditional musicians had teamed up with performers from Ukraine.

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George Eggleston, an uileann piper based in Elphin, Co Roscommon, had launched a successful appeal for musical instruments for the local Ukrainians after realising that the cohort included many accomplished performers.

“They had no instruments. I play lots of instruments - take them way and you are taking my two legs and my left arm,” he explained.

As a result he was offered 15 pianos, many gone beyond use, but two ended up in the hotel, much to the delight of a classical pianist from Ukraine who hadn’t played for six months.

“When she saw the piano she burst out crying ,” said Eggleston who was also gratified to receive so many instruments from around the country that “many little rock bands " were also formed in the hotel.

Mykhailo Kozulin said their young people need distractions to help them forget. Even still the children jump when they hear sirens from fire tenders, he said. “They had fireworks for a festival here and the children were afraid,” he said, explaining that even the youngsters cannot forget the sounds of war.