When Valeriia Oliinyk arrived in the town of Carrick-on-Suir in early June 2022 with her six-year-old daughter, the Ukrainian veterinary doctor struggled at first. Born and brought up in the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, Oliinyk was more accustomed to life in a bustling metropolis of 1.5 million people. Now Valeriia found herself in a small, sleepy Co Tipperary town where she had no one to talk to.
“Those first three weeks were difficult, I tried to speak to everyone I saw. My neighbours were very nice but we felt lonely. I tried to find Ukrainian people in supermarkets and the streets by speaking loudly and created a group in Telegram to help Ukrainian people living in the area.”
One day, Valeriia was on the bus with her daughter when a woman approached them and spoke in Russian. Olga Rudakova had also recently arrived in Ireland with her mother, aunt and daughter. The pair swapped numbers and a couple of weeks later, Valeriia began helping Olga with language interpretation for the dance classes she and her daughter Alina taught in the town.
One month on, I’m speaking to the three women via zoom. Valeriia uses her fluent English to describe how the two families, who had no connection before the war, developed a bond after leaving their husbands in Ukraine and ending up in the same small Irish town. She translates for Olga while 35-year-old Alina oscillates between English and Russian, describing her family’s love of dance and movement.
Before the war, Olga and her husband Vlad spent nearly 30 years running a dance school specialising in ballroom dancing in the city of Kramatorsk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Their daughter Alina, who is a champion ballroom dancer, started teaching at the school in her late teens, specialising in belly dancing.
In February 2022 Alina was living with her husband in Kramatorsk and teaching in the school of more than 500 dance pupils, while Olga was based in Kiev furthering her own expertise in dance.
Both women remember hearing explosions in different parts of the country in the early hours of February 24th. “Everything changed in our lives that day,” recalls Alina. “You could hear sirens and alarms all the time, we had no public transport to go anywhere and all the shops were closed. It’s difficult to express in words what it was like.”
“All our students cancelled their classes, they didn’t want to dance when there was a war happening.”
I woke up on the floor and everything around me was destroyed. My husband texted me and said you need to wait 10 minutes and then run home as fast as you can— Valeriia Oliinyk
Meanwhile, about 200km away in the city of Kharkiv, Valeriia, who was no longer a practising veterinarian but ran an online school for veterinary students, was preparing for the worst. “I had lived in the context of war for eight years, my husband was a soldier and machine gun operator from 2014, so when the war started it felt like ‘okay, it’s arrived’. I think a lot of Kharkiv citizens felt this way.”
A few days after the invasion, Valeriia was knocked unconscious while shopping in the local outdoor food market when a bomb dropped nearby. Her husband Alexi had taught her to recognise the various aerial bombardment sounds and she started running for safety when she heard the hum of a plane overhead.
“I woke up on the floor and everything around me was destroyed. My husband texted me and said you need to wait 10 minutes and then run home as fast as you can. We decided we needed to leave but then my daughter got sick so we had to go to the hospital.”
Valeriia and her young daughter spent the following three days in hospital bomb shelters and were eventually picked up by a friend who drove them west to the city of Poltava in central Ukraine. On the advice of a friend, she started investigating flights to Ireland, a place she heard was welcoming Ukrainian refugees. Her husband also urged her to get out of the country.
“He told us we needed to get abroad quickly, not to Poland but somewhere much further. He said this wouldn’t be a fast war and we needed to get far away.”
Valeriia travelled to Kiev and then Lviv with her daughter and mother. With the help of a friendly French volunteer, she secured a lift for the family in a car driving across Europe to Paris. As they were travelling with the family dog, Sharky, flying was not an option so they travelled to Cherbourg and boarded the ferry to Ireland.
The family were sent to Citywest upon arrival but Valeriia was concerned about her husband. Three days had gone by with no texts, which was unusual. “It was in Citywest that I learned my husband had been seriously injured and was in a coma. He died two weeks later. That was very difficult news.”
Living here now was very unexpected but we’ve found the Irish people are very gentle and kind— Olga Rudakova
While Valeriia grappled with the news of her husband’s death, Olga was welcoming her daughter, elderly mother and aunt to Ireland. She arrived in early March to stay with her sister, who had lived in Waterford for more than two decades. The women spent the first few weeks of April staying in the home of a generous woman in Waterford city before finding an apartment in Carrick-on-Suir.
Olga and Alina distracted themselves from the absence of their husbands, who are still in Ukraine, by giving free belly dance classes in the Garter Lane Arts centre in Waterford city. They recently resumed these classes, for Irish and Ukrainian students, in Carrick-on-Suir.
“Living here now was very unexpected but we’ve found the Irish people are very gentle and kind,” says Olga. “It’s about feeling safe and comfortable here. We will wait here now until the war is over.”
“We like Ireland a lot but I want to get back to my husband,” adds Alina. “We really miss them.”
Valeriia is still trying to come to terms with her husband’s death and spent her first two months in the granny flat of a warm and friendly family near Naas.
“My first month in Ireland I really did nothing. I’d wake up, go for a walk, then come home and sleep. It was a bad time, it was difficult to acclimatise. But then I started doing more sport and yoga and a neighbour gave us bikes, so I felt more comfortable here.”
While Valeriia deeply appreciated the support of her host family, she felt she, her daughter and mother needed to move to a town or city. Eventually, after weeks of searching online and calling landlords, she found an affordable apartment in Carrick-on-Suir.
“It’s not the place I want to spend all my life but I think it’s the best place we can be in our situation,” she says. “My rule is not to plan too big or too much because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I do want to figure out what work I can do here because I need that independence. Being so far away from Ukraine, my mental health feels like it’s going through something new and I’m finding myself again.”