In February 2022, Natalya Krasnenkova had never heard of Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. Yet a month later, after arriving in Dublin Airport from Ukraine with her two teenage children, she found herself holding “just our hand luggage and a piece of paper with the name of a hotel in Killarney town”.
“I didn’t know where that was. I didn’t know anything about life there. I only knew about Dublin, but the officials at the airport told me Killarney was a fantastic place, and we would be safe there,” she recalls.
Originally from Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Krasnenkova had been living in Kyiv for more than 20 years, where she raised her daughter (17) and son (15).
It was important for me that my children could continue their education. They have good English, so Ireland was somewhere we thought could be good for us
Krasnenkova worked as a journalist, reporting news stories on Ukrainian television, before changing her profession and starting her own public relations company in Kyiv.
“We worked a lot with NGOs on social issues. We worked with organisations who supported people in Ukraine with special needs, or with Aids. I was happy trying to improve our society in Ukraine and my children were happy in school,” she says.
“When the war started, I didn’t expect it at all. Many people were prepared with special suitcases with their documents and other necessary things inside, but I didn’t believe it would happen right until the last minute. When I woke up that morning I was shocked.”
Krasnenkova and her friends organised “a five-car column with our children and tried to escape Kyiv, which was surrounded by soldiers”, she says.
The 500km journey to a relative’s home near the Polish border took the family 20 hours.
“The way there was just full of children, women and old people. So many people. We recognised our friend’s children and people we knew. When we got there we spent three weeks in my relative’s home in the West.”
Krasnenkova still did not believe she would have to leave Ukraine, holding on to the hope that the invasion would come to a swift end. When it became clear that was not a possibility in the near future, she and her children began making plans to leave.
“It was important for me that my children could continue their education. They have good English, so Ireland was somewhere we thought could be good for us. When we moved here, we didn’t know where we would go, we knew nothing. I just knew I had to protect my children, they are the most important thing in my life,” she says.
Arriving here on March 22nd, the family came across “such kind-hearted people” who, for Krasnenkova, “were a huge example for me for how we should treat refugees in the world”.
We are still living in the hotel but we don’t know for how long
“I was impressed because we arrived on a Wednesday, as one of the first groups of temporary protected people in the town, and on Friday we visited St Brendan’s College to talk to the principal about my son and some other boys from our hotel. By Monday they started their education. I was really grateful for that.”
Krasnenkova’s son is “delighted” because he is in transition year and it is easier for him to settle in a non-exam year at secondary school. He has joined a debating class, plays basketball and is in a drama club.
“He’s happy there. But at the same time we want to return home when the war stops. So we are making sure he continues his education in Ukrainian. It means he is studying in two schools simultaneously, in the Irish school in person and in Ukrainian school online,” Krasnenkova explains.
Meanwhile, her daughter has passed her final exams in Ukrainian online school and enrolled in a sociology degree in a Ukrainian university.
“She has already returned to the west part of Ukraine. I’m incredibly worried about this because she is constantly in blackouts, sometimes there is no water or electricity and two or three times a day they move to study inside a shelter.”
Imagining her daughter in these scenarios is causing “huge stress” for Krasnenkova, but ultimately, she says, it is her daughter’s choice.
“She doesn’t want to live in Ireland because she’s in many volunteering organisations there now and she told me she feels very useful for our country. I wanted to move both of them from the war but she prefers to return home. She’s my daughter and she’s young, so it’s tough, but I respect her decision”.
Krasnenkova’s parents still live in occupied Crimea, while her former husband, whom she separated from before the war, is in Kyiv, and has joined the army.
It has been “strange” for Krasnenkova to start a new life in Ireland, without an idea of how long she will remain here. But she has found ways to immerse herself in Irish life – by learning the history of the country she now calls home, beginning a level-six course at a college in Kerry and writing for a local newspaper.
“When I arrived here, I wanted to share my story with Irish people and I wrote an article for the Kerryman. The Killarney Advertiser saw it and they proposed to me to write a weekly column for them. That was great because it’s very important for me to be like a small ambassador of Ukraine here,” she says.
I am impressed by the mountains and the ocean cliffs. It’s an amazing place. I wish I could be here as a tourist some day
With more than 2,000 Ukrainians now living in Killarney town, Krasnenkova has taken it upon herself to organise community events, to which she always invites Irish people as well.
“We organised different activities in Killarney like an Easter concert, Independence Day of Ukraine concert and we planted some Ukrainian bushes in a local park with collaboration of the mayor. Now we are preparing a Christmas concert in St Mary’s Church on December 11th,” she says.
The group of other Ukrainians she is volunteering with are involving an Irish choir “so the Irish and Ukrainians can celebrate Christmas together and sing popular carol songs”.
“We really feel like we are a small part of this community now. It’s just a small town of a few thousand people, but they are like one big family here – they know each other and help and protect each other, and now us too,” she says.
While Krasnenkova and her son feel welcomed in Killarney, they are fearful for how their situation could change “at any moment”.
“We are still living in the hotel but we don’t know for how long, because I know Ireland has a crisis with accommodation, even before Ukrainians arrived, and now there are thousands of us here too. I don’t know how it will be resolved but it’s a huge problem to find and rent accommodation, especially in a small place like Killarney which is a touristic region.
“Here, they rent places to tourists for one week, not for long periods, or if you can find it, it’s expensive. But I hope I can stay here until the war ends because my son and I are connected with Killarney now.”
As news about the war in Ukraine is “disappearing from front pages and television screens”, Krasnenkova hopes Irish solidarity will not wane.
“I know Irish people are growing tired of hearing from the war. We are tired of it too, but you are more tired and it’s normal. But I hope that Irish people will continue to support us in any case because I think we are a connected people,” she says, reflecting on the experiences Irish and Ukrainian people have shared in common throughout history.
“When I learned about Irish history, I realised we are really close to each other. Irish people starved because of a famine, and Ukrainians too. The British tried to destroy the Irish language and now not so many people use Gaeilge in everyday life. Russia tried to do the same to the Ukrainian language, but thankfully we still continue to use it.”
“And we are common in the incredible landscapes,” she says.
“I am impressed by the mountains and the ocean cliffs. It’s an amazing place. I wish I could be here as a tourist some day, not as a refugee.”