From Ukraine to Ireland: Three generations, two families, a shared humanity

Yulia, Lana and Ivan’s story is illuminating for anyone considering opening their homes

The sun is shining in Dublin and Clare, but recently arrived Ukrainians Lana Udachina and Yulia Zadniprovska are reminiscing about much colder weather. They fondly recall a winter fishing trip they took as a family near their home in eastern Ukraine, not long before their world changed forever.

On Zoom, Yulia, in her temporary new home in Glasnevin, Dublin, describes the "10-, no 8-centimetre" hole you have to bore in the ice before dropping a fishing line down. The reward is the small, delicious fish that this accomplished cook likes to eat fresh and fried. Her stepdaughter Lana, who is in Lahinch, Co Clare, joins in remembering the small joy of Yulia finding a glove she had left behind on a previous trip and the fun they had there with her little brother Ivan. Now all three of them are in Ireland, being hosted by Dublin couple Rebecca O'Flanagan and Rob Walpole, Rebecca's mother Elaine O'Flanagan and Rob's son Harry.

There are more than 15,000 Ukrainians currently being given refuge in Ireland and that number is rising steadily. This week it was reported that with emergency accommodation almost filled, tents, prefabs and emergency dormitory-style units will have to be used to house refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

Not everyone has the space or the resources to host Ukrainian refugees. But the story of how Yulia, Lana and Ivan got here, and of the family  hosting them, is an illuminating one for anyone considering opening their homes.

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We might be the people who had rooms and could take them in, but it has been the whole community that has actually taken them in

The family’s journey to Ireland began in the city of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, where Lana, a film graduate, worked in music industry public relations. As the war began, she was in denial. “I didn’t want to believe it,” she says. “I thought people were panicking too much.”

In the city of Izyum, 120km to the southeast of Kharkiv, Yulia, a teacher and her husband, and their nine-year-old son Ivan were also coming to terms with the new, terrifying reality.

Lana might technically be Yulia’s stepdaughter, but with such a narrow age difference – Yulia is 40 and Lana 32 – they are more like “very close” friends. Yulia’s son, Ivan, is Lana’s stepbrother, but they don’t tend to use such labels. “I care for him like he is my own child, I didn’t want him to experience the war, I wanted to get him away from Ukraine,” explains Lana.

In late February, a few days after the invasion began, Yulia’s husband, Oleksandr (52), began urging her to take Ivan, her documents and other essential belongings and leave. “Just think of it as going on vacation,” he told her. “Then when it’s over you can come back.” Oleksandr and his other son, Lana’s brother Serhiy (25), remained behind in besieged Ukraine.

Yuliia Zadniprovska, and her son Ivan, from Ukraine (left), with members of their host family, Robert Walpole his son Harry and Elaine O’Flanagan, in Glasnevin, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

So Yulia set off from Izyum with Ivan to drive more than 1,000km to relatives in Ternopil, to try to find refuge with people she had not seen or spoken to in 15 years. “I had not driven that far ever, my elbows hurt, I did not stop or sleep,” she says. Despite not having an exact address, she found her relatives and stayed with them for several days.

Meanwhile, Lana in Kharkiv went underground to the subway with friends as bombs rained down, realisation dawning quickly that she would have to flee the city. At the train station, it was chaos "too many people, and people who were scared, not thinking straight". Most people were trying to get trains direct to Lviv with the hope they could then make it across the border to safety in Poland. "I decided it was easier to get a train to central Ukraine, then on to Lviv."

While on the packed train, heartsick looking at the children, women, older men and pets squashed into carriages, Lana began trying to figure out ways to get herself, Yulia and Ivan to safety. "I didn't want to live in a place as a refugee, I wanted to work. So I began looking for any offers of accommodation and jobs and I found this guy in Dublin on Instagram. "

The “guy” was Peter Sztal, who runs Cloudpicker coffee with his partner, Frank Kavanagh. They offered Lana a job and promised to connect her with a Dublin family. Lana got the train to Khmelnytsky before boarding another train to Lviv, where a couple of days later she was joined by Yulia and Ivan. After trying and failing to get on a train that would take them into Poland, they managed to find the last three seats on a bus.

Peter had promised them refuge in a relative’s apartment in Krakow and Rebecca and Rob had already committed to paying their air fares to Dublin. It was March 7th. Yulia called her husband – Lana’s father – to tell him their plans. It was the last time they would be able to make contact with him for eight days.

At the Polish border, Lana remembers there were four queues: for buses, cars, trucks and one for the older people, women and children making the journey by foot. “Our bus was number 48 in the queue,” she says. “And next to us all these people walking. Our driver spotted one woman with a disability and allowed her to sit on the bus, to spare her walking any more.”

Back in Dublin, Rebecca, Rob, Harry and Elaine were making plans to receive their new visitors. When I asked why they decided to volunteer as hosts, Rob describes their "visceral anger" at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even before deciding to host a family they had gone to the Russian embassy in Dublin to protest with a sign bearing the words uttered by the Ukrainian soldier, Roman Hrybov, on Snake Island: "Russian Warship, go f**k yourself".

“Hosting a family was one of those decisions, if you thought about it for too long you’d think of a thousand reasons not to, but it just felt right,” Rob says. They used the same protest sign they brought to the embassy when they eventually went to collect their guests from the airport. “Welcome Yulia, Lana and Ivan” it now read.

After a few days in Krakow, the three arrived in Dublinon Saturday, March 12th.

“I could not believe it,” says Lana of her first impressions. “We had run away from a conflict, we were stressed and traumatised, trying to find food. We were treated so well, really looked after. Now here everyone was smiling and asking how we are. Our hosts waited at the airport for us for three hours while we were processed. We went to their house and there was a room for each of us. There was soup. I was thinking, this is like a miracle, we found these people on the internet.”

Rebecca’s mother, Elaine O’Flanagan (85), welcoming Yulia, Lana and Ivan at Dublin Airport

During the pandemic, Rebecca and Rob had moved into Rebecca’s large family home in Glasnevin where she and her five sisters had been raised. They had built a smaller home in the back garden for Rebecca’s mother Elaine, now 85. “That’s how we have enough room for three more people and it’s nice that this is an intergenerational experience too,” says Rebecca. Two of Rebecca’s sisters have also taken people from Ukraine into their homes.

In the days before their guests arrived, Rebecca had contacted local school, St Pat’s, in Drumcondra and secured a place there for Ivan. She put a call out for a uniform. “I must have had 16 offers,” she says.

The young girls living next door decorated their window with heart shapes in the blue and yellow of Ukraine. She recounts all of this to make it clear that when anyone is hosting a family, “it’s a community effort, everybody gets involved”.

“We might be the people who had rooms and could take them in, but it has been the whole community that has actually taken them in …”. She describes Peter and Frank in Cloudpicker as “heroic”, connecting Ukrainians with Irish host families and helping raise money to support refugees.

Everyone – the Ukrainian visitors and the Irish hosts – is taking the experience one day at a time. And both are learning a lot

While there was relief at arriving to safety and quickly immersing themselves in a new culture – on their second day Lana, Yulia and Ivan watched the Ireland vs England Six Nations rugby match in the local pub – their arrival was also fraught. The family had not spoken to Olexsandr or Serhiy for more than a week and were worried for their safety.

“I am a teacher,” says Yulia. “It is my job to calm children down and tell them it will be okay. I am professional in this … I had to demonstrate to my son that I was okay, that it will be over soon. I will never cry in front of him. We cry when he is not in the room”.

When they did eventually get the men on the phone, Yulia says “we cried more than we talked”. She noticed her husband’s voice had changed. He was different. In another call, he told Yulia how one day he had decided not to go to get bread at the usual spot where humanitarian aid was distributed. That day a bomb was dropped in the queue and 40 people died. “I recognised some of their names,” says Yulia, wiping away tears.

She says nine-year-old Ivan is settling in to his new life. "He is like any other boy, does not want to go to school, wants to play games on the phone," she smiles. It helped that Rebecca was introduced, through Facebook. to another woman who was hosting a Ukrainian boy around the same age. "She hadn't found a school place for the boy so I put them in touch with St Pat's. The boys met up in the park beforehand and they were able to start in the same class together on the same day."

With Ivan sorted with school, Lana was determined to find work "cleaning, or in the coffee shop or anything". But when her hosts, television producers Rebecca and Rob had a proper look at her CV they realised her skills and experience meant they could offer her a junior role in their television company Treasure Entertainment.

Rebecca O’Flanagan with Lana Udachina in Lahinch, Co Clare. Photograph: Eamon Ward

The company is currently filming the third season of drama series Smother in Lahinch, and Lana has ended up there in the art department. “It’s been amazing,” she says of learning the ropes with a supportive cast and crew. When the Ukrainians and their host family gathered in Lahinch for St Patrick’s Day, Yulia also got the chance to be an extra on Smother. This week Yulia got a job as a teacher’s assistant at a local girls’ school.

These moments of levity during a traumatic time are welcome distractions. When I ask Lana, a Zelenskiy supporter even before the invasion, how she is feeling, emotionally and psychologically, she describes her feelings as “in a battle”.

“One feeling is relief that I am here and another feeling is guilt that there are people left behind. The guilt is strong,” she says. “For the first time in my life I am feeling ashamed that I am in a better place than my fellow Ukrainians. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make a better life for myself and I feel ashamed that I am reaping all these benefits at the moment. If we didn’t speak English and if we weren’t educated we would be in a much worse position.”

Yulia is upset and worried about her husband and his son, concerned that they will be drafted into the Ukrainian army or punished if they evade the draft. “It is a terrible choice. They either go to kill other people or they wait to be killed. There are people who want to volunteer to fight, but my husband is not one of them, he would be happy to do other work, humanitarian work. But he is just sitting there waiting to be summoned to go kill.” On Putin she says: “He is not well, there must be a diagnosis for him.”

Everyone – the Ukrainian visitors and the Irish hosts – is taking the experience one day at a time. And both are learning a lot. Rob laughs thinking about how he’d never been into the Moldovan shop on the North Circular Road before and how delighted Yulia, Lana and especially Ivan were to find all their favourite brands there. “Ivan even found his favourite sweets,” he smiles.

'We're just trying to make the best of a very difficult situation for these three souls who've come into our lives'

As well as distracting herself with gardening, Yulia has been cooking family meals for Elaine, Rebecca’s mother; and Rob, known for an exceptional mashed potato, has had to relinquish his crown as it turns out Yulia’s mash is superior.

It’s a delicate arrangement, with both parties keen to make the experience as positive as it can be and respect each other’s situation. “They have not chosen to be here,” says Rebecca. “And it might not be our first choice to share our home and our space – I mean sometimes you just want to laze around your house and slob out – but you remember why you are doing it, why you had that instinct. It sounds very corny but it’s because you want to remember something essential about your humanity, that we’re all the same underneath it all.”

“We’ve made a commitment,” says Rob. And there’s an “extraordinary richness in the complexity of that commitment” whether it’s negotiating bathroom routines or helping to open bank accounts.

The couple see it as a “mutually beneficial” arrangement and they are hoping Rob’s son Harry will also benefit positively from the experience.

“It started as a two-month commitment but it’s become open-ended. Lana, Yulia and Ivan have a really strong drive and desire to forge a path independently of us. All we can say is ‘you are welcome and we’ll do whatever we can to support you’. It all came from that initial shock, the slap in the face of seeing all those people displaced. We’re just trying to make the best of a very difficult situation for these three souls who’ve come into our lives.”

Additional translating by Nadia Dobrianska

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast