Alex and Ivanna Malik’s car journey from their home in the devastated eastern Ukraine frontline to a sleepy Berkshire village took them through five countries. With their two children and the possessions they could fit loaded into the car, they traced a route through Moldova and over the snowy mountain passes of Romania, following a route picked out on Google Maps on their phones.
They first stopped in Germany. “We thought the war wouldn’t be too long, maybe a month or two,” says Ivanna. “But I don’t speak German, Alex doesn’t speak German,” so they decided to move on and, with the help of a British volunteer they found on Facebook, were offered a refuge by an “incredible” couple who had a little space to spare.
Alex speaks barely a word of English, but Ivanna can get by fairly well – and they are acutely aware that this ability of hers has made all the difference to their prospects in Britain. They are now running an IT business, RepairServiceUK, which has enough clients to support the family.
The pair are among the more than 157,000 people who have come to Britain from Ukraine in the almost one year since the Russian invasion under the government’s visa schemes. Some have been able to get their lives back on track quickly as, unlike the majority of refugees arriving in the UK, Ukrainians have the right to work as soon as they arrive.
While some Ukrainians in the UK are now thriving like the Maliks, others have struggled. They have a friend who was a director of a company back home who is now in London. “She is a good [businesswoman], but she doesn’t know English,” and so – aged 45 and with children to support – she took a job as a hotel housekeeper.
“It’s hard when you were a director and then you go to a cleaning job,” says Ivanna. “If you know you want to emigrate, maybe you learn English, [save] some money. For our people, we [didn’t] have a choice, it was like … ” She mimes her sweater being yanked by an unseen hand.
The pair are also lucky to be able to work in the same area as they did in Ukraine. While 56% of adults surveyed by the Office for National Statistics in November were working, 65% of those were not in the same sector as back home in Ukraine. Half said it had been difficult taking up work in the UK, with language the major factor.
And yet, says Ivanna: “We don’t sit at home. Ukraine is not a rich country, and we work every day, every day. For our people, this is a normal situation. We go to work.”
Back home in Mykolaiv, Alex Malik had a large IT service business with about 20,000 clients that he had built from scratch. “Now all I have is my memories,” he says.
They are a warm couple who laugh frequently, but it has clearly been a huge challenge starting again with nothing. Repeated requests to their local jobcentre for a little help to print business cards or A4 posters were rebuffed, they say, though one or two individuals helped them out with some basic materials, which they have stuck on bus shelters and in local cafes, or a little advertising space.
With this and through word of mouth in their village (where the many elderly residents need help with IT), RepairServiceUK has grown quickly. But because only Ivanna can speak English, every job or visit must be done together while the children are at school.
They will shortly move into nearby Reading, where they were eventually able to find a private landlord willing to rent to them (“Alex said: ‘We are from Ukraine, don’t be afraid of us, please.’”)
What would help? “Twenty-five hours in the day,” says Alex. He usually works until 2am, often on Zoom helping people back home with IT problems for free.
But there is a lot they try not to think about. “I have 20,000 clients at home but hundreds of them have been killed – by shrapnel bombs, killed in shelling of our city,” says Alex. “And I get messages from their families like this: ‘Hello Alex, this is Anatoly’s wife, I would like to inform you that he died.’
“Imagine, I pick up my phone in the morning, open [the instant messaging service] Viber, and read this. I mean, it makes you go crazy. So we don’t think about anything. We just work and live in the here and now.”
With many Ukrainian men joining the military, significantly more working-age women than men have come to the UK – they make up 49% of the total, compared to 15% of men (under-18s accounted for 31%, with the remaining 5% aged 65 and over).
For Nataliia Horbenko, moving to north London from Kyiv last year to set up a business in Britain was her contribution to the war effort. “I am a soldier, not at the frontline of the war, but at the economic front. My aim is to increase the economy of my homeland of Ukraine, and I think I could be successful in this task.”
Back home she was a logistics manager in a transport company and she speaks passionately (“I belong to business – I like logistics”) about the opportunity she saw to do her bit.
“We [Ukrainians] needed to make a decision and be very brave, but we had no choice,” she said. “We need to keep our minds very clear, be focused and do what we are good at. I’m good at logistics. So why couldn’t I help my Ukraine and also be helpful for your country by paying taxes here? It will be mutual cooperation.”
She has started a branch of the logistics firm in Britain, and is trying to develop it as a business – while exploring importing Ukrainian products including sunflower oil, pastries and furniture. “A lot of villages in Ukraine already are suppliers to Ikea. And if Ikea choose us as a supplier, why can’t we find clients here in the United Kingdom?”
Back home before the war, Horbenko enjoyed designing and making clothes, “but it was just a personal passion. But when I came here, I started thinking that I’d need to do everything, because London is a very expensive city. I need to be very, very, very active.”
So she is now also a fashion designer, emailing her orders to a colleague in central Ukraine who makes garments embroidered with elaborate Ukrainian designs. At the same time, she is working with a film producer on what she hopes will be a series of documentaries about the impact of the war. “My aim is to show businessmen in the world, a portrait of Ukrainian businessmen. We are really very brave. We are resilient, we are entrepreneurial, we talk with passion.”
Having found enormously supportive hosts and neighbours in Islington, Horbenko is aware she has been very lucky – in part because she arrived as a single person. Her father is still in Ukraine, “but I have no place at this moment to invite him and support him in the UK. It’s very difficult for old people to just adapt to the situation abroad – it’s a different world. So I don’t know what will be his future.”
They talk very frequently, always determinedly focusing on the positive, she says. “It just helps us to be resilient. So we try to be focused, and speak about positive things about the future, about what we will do after the war ends. It keeps our minds alive.”
Mykola Zinchenko, formerly of Kyiv, now living in Aberdeen, loves the friendliness of his new city, but there are aspects of its culture that he cannot understand. “The surprising thing is that people wear T-shirts when it’s five degrees. We are wrapped up in sweaters and jackets, and you see a guy walking down the street in a T shirt.” He grins. “That is a surprise.”
Having left Ukraine with his wife and young daughter last May, they came first to Edinburgh, then East Kilbride before being offered a flat in the city he affectionately describes as “50 shades of grey”. Aspects of their new life are like a dream come true, Zinchenko says – they even have a sea view from their flat – but this is no holiday.
Zinchenko was an art dealer in Ukraine, and he was determined to get established as soon as they arrived in Scotland, he says. At the hotel where they were originally placed, “everyone was waiting. A lot of people were struggling, suffering after the war.”
In contrast, “I asked for a meeting room. So for a time I had my little office in the hotel, and people went: ‘Oh, what is he doing there?’ I tried to continually [stay busy].” Eight months later he is making a little headway, having exhibited some works at the Aberdeen Art Fair and been asked to participate in another major fair in Glasgow in May.
Most of his work is by Ukrainian artists, but he has recently signed up to represent his first Scottish artist and he says he is “looking around, exploring the opportunities”, while working on a PhD back home via Zoom. “I want more,” he says.
The future, though, is entirely unclear. “When the old year ends, every 31 December, I used to always make a plan for the future. This year it was really hard. Because the life that we had, the plans that I’ve had for several years in Ukraine, I see that now they are [gone]. I need to make another plan.”