Interview: Finding Courage and Hope in the Darkest of TimesBack to Blog
Interview: Finding Courage and Hope in the Darkest of Times
Елена Лукина and Ching-Ching Lin
Елена & her daughter, Dasha
In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced a multitude of Ukrainians to flee their countries in a mass exodus. Ching-Ching was connected with Елена through a teacher group called Teachers for Ukraine, a Ukrainian refugee service organized by Kalina Slavova Papadimitriou. Елена is currently living in Cambridge, UK, with her ten year old daughter, Dasha. In her previous life in Ukraine, Елена was a psychologist and had her own businesses in recruitment agency, travel agency, and a company that made uniforms for private schools. She currently works at the Cambridge University’s cafeteria while Dasha attends a university affiliated school.
Through a series of preliminary email exchanges, Елена told Ching-Ching that she would like to work on her reading and writing skills in English. At their first meeting, Ching-Ching decided to use The House on Mango Street, a coming-of-age story about a Mexican American girl growing up in Chicago, to facilitate their conversation. Ching-Ching reasoned that the story would serve as a template for their storytelling. After reading the story together (going over vocabulary words or grammatical points whenever needed), Ching-Ching would share her stories and then invite Елена to tell hers. Since Елена had no computer, Ching-Ching transcribed what Елена said in a shared Google document. Ching-Ching soon found that Елена needed no incentive to tell her story. Елена enjoyed talking and was eager to share her story. Using question prompts from an interview piece, where a Syrian refugee narrated their resettlement experience in Switzerland as a guide, Елена told her story as follows. The writing mostly reflected Елена’s words with slight changes from Ching-Ching to enhance its clarity or logical flow.
Ching-Ching: What eventually made you decide to flee your country?
Елена: It was a very hard decision for my daughter and I to leave our family because we are close to each other. But it was the right decision. It would provide a safe environment for my daughter, as the Russians had been bombing our city more intensively. Even in Cambridge, whenever she sees an airplane fly by with all the thundering noises, she would feel scared. Children are vulnerable. Wars have a very profound effect on them.
Ching-Ching: What have been your greatest sources of joy since you arrived in the UK?
Елена: To know that my daughter is provided with good education makes me strong. Here I know my daughter will have a quality education in the future. Every day when I wake up with news, I worry about my mom and my husband and feel sad that I can’t bring them here. In the U.K., I am all alone. I am constantly tired, even though I have a niece, but she is young and has her own life. When I arrived here, I spent a lot of time providing documents. Now I am feeling a little better. The school has approved Dasha for another year. But I am worried about the next three years. Many British people did not like to rent their flats to foreign people, especially refugees, because they don’t have stable incomes. In England, families with children are protected by laws, but it would be difficult for refugees who only recently arrived in the country to navigate the laws. That is why I am hesitating to change my job.
I have tried to read a lot of magazines and newspapers in order to educate myself about the laws of the UK and know my own rights. I have a lot of support groups through Whatsapp to get information I need.
Ching-Ching: How has been your experience so far living in the UK?
Елена: I don’t feel at home here, even though the British people have been most welcoming. My family name is Лукина and it does not help me as it does not sound English (smiles). However, I understand English well enough to navigate everyday life, but it did not help that I don’t sound like an English person. People would ask where I was from. My grounding factor has been the community of Ukraine that I found in this part of England. I found comfort to speak Ukrainian with them and that makes me feel less lonely. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by kind-hearted, compassionate people. Their presence made everything easier for me.
I have been in odd situations where people ask me how I know about a piece of classical music or fine arts. There are so many misconceptions about refugees. Some people think we are poor. They did not realize that we had no plan to emigrate to England until the war broke out. To those people, I would try to explain that Kiev is a modern, beautiful city, and has a lot of business and agriculture as well. We have a beautiful landscape. Our people travel a lot and enjoy a good life. Unfortunately, that kind of lifestyle came to an end abruptly when the war erupted, forcing my family to leave.
Here I have to start from zero, from finding housing to building another career. I have a responsibility to my daughter and I have to find a quick way to get us resettled.
Ching-Ching: Tell me more about your journey fleeing from a war-torn Ukraine.
Елена: When the war just broke out, I decided to move to my parents’ house near Kyiv, but Russian soldiers had been bombing in that area. My parents had a private house with a basement that could serve as a shelter so that we could keep ourselves safe. But the situation was getting dangerous. My mother said, “if you don’t leave now, you may not be able to leave if the bridge is bombed”. Next day, three cars took us to the western part of Ukraine to stay at my mother-in-law’s house. It would normally take three and half hours from my parents’ house. But it took ten hours instead to get there on that day, because we had to go through a lot of checkpoints controlled by Russians. We stayed there for four weeks. But it was near a big city that was used as a military base so it had become a target of Russian military action. We know we should not stay there for too long. Meanwhile, a lot of countries have opened their doors for Ukrainian people.
Sergiy, my husband, made the decision that my daughter, Dasha, and I should leave Ukraine as soon as possible. We started looking for sponsors in the UK who will provide us accommodation for 6 months. A friend of mine is married to a British person, who told me that the UK had created a lot of programs to help Ukrainians.
Once we received the Visa for entry to the UK, we took a bus ride to Lviv, near the border with Poland. Next day we took a bus from Lviv to Warsaw, Poland, with many people, from where we took a plane to London.
Ching-Ching: What were your hopes or expectations for your new life here?
Елена: The reason I chose the UK is that we needed a place that is safe for us and where I have the language skill to find a job to support my family. I had been to the UK once many years ago to study English, and I was somehow familiar with the people and cultures more than countries such as Poland and others.
Ching-Ching: What are the biggest challenges you are facing in the UK?
Елена: The biggest challenge I am facing is to find an accommodation for my daughter and I. While our current sponsors couldn’t have been more generous with us, we are a stranger in their house after all. I would like for us to have our own flat with our own private bathroom. However, finding an affordable flat in the area of Cambridge seems to be an impossible quest.
While there is supposed to be no ‘discrimination’ against Ukrainian refugees, the British government’s housing regulation seems to have created a situation that makes it impossible for refugees to rent a flat. Things are even worse in Cambridge since students have now returned to study in person on campus. Most places I contacted would give priority to students over refugees, especially over women with children. In addition, most agencies have imposed a high bar for refugees to rent a flat, such as requiring them to 1) present proof of a job contract with a salary over 140% of the rent, 2) make an advance payment for one year (for example, 22,000 pounds a year), or 3) have a guarantor or sponsor who is willing to pledge to cover for one year’s rent. There are “social houses” with reduced rates, but the waiting list is very long, and the requirements are just as demanding.
Meanwhile, I have been looking into government funding, but no agency could give us a straight answer as to the requirements and application procedure. I feel that we have been trapped in a circle.
Fortunately, through her persistence and with help from organizations such as the Cambridge Council and Accommodation Services–University of Cambridge, Елена and her daughter have recently found a one-bedroom apartment for themselves, located in the vicinity of Cambridge. Елена told Ching-Ching that her next goal is to pursue a nursing certificate so that she can find a higher paying job. Ching-Ching is greatly touched by Елена’s strengths and resilience and wish her best in her future endeavors while praying for an early ending of the war so that Елена and her family will soon be re-united. Last and foremost, to the British people who have welcome them with open arms, Елена wanted to express her feeling and gratitude: “Despite all the difficulties that we are going through here, we are very grateful to England and the British for being our friends and giving a helping hand at such a difficult time for us.”
Елена Лукина is an Ukrainian who currently live in Cambridge with her daughter. She holds a B.A in psychology.
Ching-Ching Lin, Ed. D., is currently a teacher educator based in New York City. As an educator, her career spans more than 20 years of experience as a high school social studies & ESL teacher, college ESL instructor, and TESOL & Bilingual Education educator. She served as President of NYS TESOL in 2021-2022. She is a co-editor and contributing author of the following edited volume: Internationalization in Action: Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion in the Globalized Classroom (Peter Lang Publishing, 2020).