Dramatic escapes, bombed houses, fallen relatives and friends – I’ve heard so many moving stories when speaking to Ukrainian war refugees in Greater Manchester. I’ve met them through my reporting and interpreting work here, on the free walking tours of Manchester I lead in Ukrainian, and in my day-to-day interactions. I understand these people well because I’m a Ukrainian war refugee myself.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, I was living in Kyiv and working as a journalist. After the invasion, I was one of the first Ukrainians to come to the UK, arriving on 2 March 2022. It was a couple of weeks before the Homes for Ukraine and extended Family Visa schemes were announced and it took me and my British partner Jez Myers a week of pressuring the Home Office to receive official permission to enter the country.

I was supposed to have been issued a tourist visa, but with the start of the full-scale invasion, the visa was lost by the British authorities. The Home Office said it couldn’t reissue it, and I couldn’t reapply because the tourism visa route was closed for Ukrainians following the invasion. With significant pressure from British journalists invested in my story and the Manchester MP Andrew Gwynne, I secured myself a visa waiver.

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And that’s how my first year in the UK began: at Manchester Airport, where I was detained and questioned by the UK’s counter-terrorism police after 29 hours of queueing at the border with Jez. After two-and-a-half hours spent in detention at the airport, I was allowed to go outside where I was greeted by three camera crews.

“Can we just have you both exit the airport again?” one of the sleepy journalists waiting outside the airport asked. To be honest, we didn’t mind walking in and out again, we found it funny – a symbol of what was to ensue for me in the coming days and a reason for a little laugh after experiencing the invasion of my country.

It wasn’t just the three camera crews greeting us outside, a taxi waited for us, too. ITV’s Good Morning Britain had invited us to go on the programme the next day and, because my visa waiver was tied to that specific flight from Krakow to Manchester, where I would be living, we needed to be driven straight to London.

Ukrainian refugee Maria Romanenko with her British partner Jez Myers
Ukrainian refugee Maria Romanenko with her British partner Jez Myers

In just one week I had been through war, a frantic crush of refugees at the Ukrainian-Polish border, detention at the British border, and a scheduled appearance on Good Morning Britain. Life definitely felt strange.

The following weeks weren’t easier: giving interviews to numerous local, national, and international media and writing several articles describing my experience at the border.

I was keen to connect with other Ukrainians in the north of England, and in April 2022 I had an idea. I had fallen in love with Manchester in May 2021 when I was in the UK and took a friend who visited on a free walking tour of the city. Since then, I’ve known that Manchester was special, and I felt compelled to let other Ukrainians here know this. And so, after contacting the Free Manchester Walking Tours company, I co-launched free city tours for Ukrainians with them. And the tours are really free, we don’t ask for tips at the end.

So far, I have introduced more than 400 Ukrainians to Manchester, telling them about the city’s part in the suffragette movement and the Industrial Revolution, about the Peterloo Massacre, Alan Turing, who was based at Manchester University after the war, and the famous Hacienda club. Some topics are more popular than others, and I can see Ukrainians become livelier when they hear about the subjects they can relate to, such as the idea of communities uniting after tragic events.

Ukrainian refugee Maria Romanenko has been much in demand as a speaker, at Manchester University, at poetry events, at synagogues
Ukrainian refugee Maria Romanenko has been in demand as a speaker, at Manchester University, at poetry events and at synagogues

I have also given numerous talks: I was invited to speak about my country and my experiences at the University of Manchester, at poetry events, in synagogues. And I signed up with a couple of interpreting agencies to interpret for Ukrainians in the north of England. I thought that using my skillset and my knowledge of the country (I did my A-Levels in Oxfordshire and my degree at the University of Leeds) to help my country’s people was the least I could do. And having experienced nothing but overwhelming generosity since stepping onto British soil, I knew it was important to give back.

The hardest thing is not to cry when I hear Ukrainians in the UK describe what they have been through: a woman saying during my interpreting assignment that her husband is fighting on the front line; a mother and a daughter recounting a dialogue between them when they were fleeing Ukraine’s occupied north in the first days of the full-scale war – after hearing such stories, sometimes I just can’t hold back tears.

And then there have been my own losses. First losing my friend and former colleague the photojournalist Maks Levin, who was killed by the Russians in spring 2022, and spending the day being a ghost of myself as a result. And then losing my 92-year-old Grandma, one of my closest family members left behind in Ukraine, on Christmas Day last year. That was the worst Christmas, spent away from home and with the news of her passing.

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But I am safe, and that is supposed to give some feeling of consolation. Though, in reality, most of us feel guilty about being safe when our friends and families aren’t.

Of course I, like most Ukrainians who have come to the UK, will go back to Ukraine when the war is won. We will help rebuild the country with our skills gained in the meantime. The Ukrainian students I met at Manchester University told me they were definitely going back after their studies to implement their acquired knowledge.

And I will go back too, to continue reporting on what’s happening in Ukraine. My partner Jez will help bridge the UK and Ukraine with his networking and problem-solving skills. And I will see my family and friends, hug them, and look again upon the streets of my home town, both familiar and unrecognisable.

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