At Sanctuary Convent in Cork, a very different Mother’s Day for Ukrainian refugees

Refugees speak of their gratitude to Buttevant community for the warm welcome

It may well be a long long way from Kyiv to here but amid the serene setting of the former Convent of Mercy in Buttevant in north Cork, where locals organised a special Mother's Day event for Ukrainian refugees, thoughts inevitably turned to their homeland and to loved ones left behind.

Svetlana Nabiach had been living in Kyiv where she ran a business school teaching Russian, but she is originally from near Sumy in northeastern Ukraine, just 25km from the Russian border. The town, where her elderly mother Polina still lives, quickly found itself in the front line of the conflict.

Surveying the lawned grounds of the former convent, Nabiach tells how she is concerned for her mother.

“My mother was trying to make soup but all the pots and pans started jumping off the cooker from the vibrations from the helicopter because it came so low over her house.They are using the helicopters to protect the tanks,” she said.


Her ex-husband Vadim is Russian but he is so opposed to the invasion he has joined the Ukrainian territorial defence forces. Her two sons, Serge (36) and Vadim (34) are both humanitarian volunteers helping people find shelter and refuge in her homeland.

The owner of the convent, Tom Coughlan, offered to make it available to accommodate refugees, and the local community managed to get the place ready within eight hours.

Terri O'Gorman told how she got a call from a member of Buttevant Community Council at 6pm last Friday week to say the convent needed to be made ready. She set to work mobilising volunteers, only to be told at 10pm that they were arriving at 2am.

“I put out a message on a Whatsapp group we had set up and the response was the same ‘I’m on my way’. It was incredible the way people rallied around with mattresses and pillows and duvets. It was chaotic at times but we had the place ready for them by the time they arrived.”

Operating as Sanctuary Convent, it is now home to more than 60 refugees and, as the local community began hosting a special Mother's Day event for the many mothers in the group, project manager Vanessa Clarke told of some of the challenges.

"About five people have very good English so they help with the translations for everyone else, but we don't want to take up their entire day translating so we've started using Google Translate – we just type what we want to say and it translates for us and it's working perfectly."

Among those with perfect English and helping translate is Anna Sheliia, who arrived with her mother, Marina, and their chihuahua, Teo following a journey from their home north of Kyiv to Romania to catch a flight to Ireland.

For Marina, who was born in Georgia, it's her second time fleeing war as she fled her native home in 1992 when Russians began shelling in support of Abkhazian separatists. She fled to Russia to join her Russian-born mother in Moscow before moving to Ukraine in 2007.

“It’s the second time in my life that I have had to flee from Russian shelling,” said Marina. Her husband Mykhailo has left their home and bakery business to move near Lviv in western Ukraine.

Her daughter, who wants to move to Dublin and hopes to use her skills as an academic manager to obtain work at an Irish university, said they are anxious and worried about her father but at the same time are grateful to be in Ireland.

“We decided to come to Ireland because we knew we would feel safe here as it is far from Russia,” said Sheliia. “I think the Irish people understand us because they too value freedom but the welcome and support we have received here in Buttevant has been incredible and we are so grateful to everyone.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times