A special Christmas gathering, organised by the Red Cross, took place in Skibbereen last weekend, where Ukrainians who have made their home here expressed their gratitude for the warm West Cork welcome
UKRAINIANS who are staying in various hotels and homes throughout West Cork had the opportunity to meet up at the O’Donovan Rossa GAA Club in Skibbereen on Sunday to enjoy a Christmas gathering organised by the Red Cross, while their children visited Santa.
Most of the adults were women, with less than a handful of men present, and while they all had a different story to tell, they clearly shared one characteristic.
‘All Ukrainian women are very strong,’ is how Nataliia Sarzhaniak smilingly described that very characteristic.
Nataliia is a 40-year-old divorced mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 14, who has hit the ground running by taking up employment in the bar at the Drimoleague Inn.
In Kharkiv, Nataliia worked in administration at a five-star hotel. Her passion for cooking has also been put to good use as she occasionally helps the Irish chef to prepare meals for the 21 adults and five children staying at the Inn.
Although they didn’t know each other in Kharkiv, her friend, Halyna Solianyk, a 39-year-old divorced mother of a boy aged 11, and a girl, aged eight, smiles and says they enjoy the food even if there is ‘very many potatoes’.
The ensuing conversation with these two strong women takes many twists and turns. Being asked questions in pigeon English didn’t help, but they smilingly picked up their mobile phones to translate and search for the right word to illuminate their replies.
‘Empathetic,’ is the word Halyna displays. It is the word she uses to describe Irish people, while Nataliia, dressed in sunshine yellow, touches her chest and opens her arms to express how Irish people have an ‘open soul’.
Halyna used the word ‘destroyed’ to convey her feelings for the state of her country, and the very act of leaving it, but she admits she was ‘very happy’ to arrive safely at City West in Dublin on May 1st.
She and her children were sent directly to Drimoleague, where, she said, the accommodation is good, as they each have a family room.
Nataliia said her eldest is in Germany, but the children generally are doing well, even if her 14-year-old is finding meeting new people a bit difficult. It doesn’t help, she adds, that Irish people speak so very fast. ‘Sometimes we get very sad because every day we look at Ukrainian news,’ said Nataliia. ‘It is very bad news and we speak about it every day. I am very sad without my country, my people, my friends.’
It is at this stage in the conversation that Halyna reveals that she had only moved into her new home one month before the Russian forces invaded.
But instead of dwelling on it, she is focusing on her job, as a cleaner, at the Top of the Rock pod park in Drimoleague. It’s a job she said that is made all the better by the ‘lovely people’ who employ her.
They are enjoying discovering West Cork. Nataliia declares Inchydoney ‘the best beach’ but they love Schull too, and Clonakilty, and Kerry.
Meanwhile, a conversation with widow Olena Hubska and her 15-year-old Daiana was similarly buoyant in terms of their sense of determination in facing things as they are, but it ended on a rather raw, powerful note – a plan to pay it forward.
Olena believes they were lucky to have been approached with the question, ‘Do you want to go to Ireland?’
She said she didn’t hesitate, and seven months ago her luck held out when she arrived in ‘the best’ of circumstances, a home provided by the wonderful Trish and Clinton in Ballydehob.
‘I had no money, no clothes, no nothing, not even underwear,’ Olena said of their hasty departure. Here, the Copithorne family, ‘give me everything – home, food, love, understanding.’
She said she thanked God and cried for two days out of a sense of gratitude. ‘Now,’ she added, ‘if I have the chance, I will help someone. It is a very big lesson.’
Olena said her widowed mother (65) did not want to leave her homeland. Her stepson (24) also stayed behind and she phones them every day to make sure they are safe.
Daiana is more circumspect in her replies. When asked if she likes it here, the 15-year-old replies, ‘50:50.’
She likes the place, the people and the students at Schull Community College. But – and it is her mother who answers for her – the other ‘50’ relates to having ‘a problem with English.’
Daiana is demure and so softly spoken that it is hard to hear what she has to say, but there is still that steely, female Ukrainian determination about her.
Her natural reserve has not stopped her throwing herself into home economics, her favourite subject at school, or into her part-time job at Centra.
Olena didn’t lose any time getting a job, either. Within 10 days, she said she had secured employment at Ceramicx in Ballydehob and is very happy to declare ‘Frankie, the best boss.’
When asked if she needs anything, she doesn’t hesitate. ‘I don’t need anything, because I have everything,’ she said.
But there is a ‘but’ in all of this and it has to do with the time that she will have to find a home of her own. She worries that the cost of living in Ireland might prove too expensive.
‘Rent costs too much here,’ she said. ‘Electricity, rubbish, the internet too.’ All of this would, she fears, take all of her wages, leaving her with nothing to send back home to help her family.
‘Of course, I want to stay here, but we will see what happens,’ she says stoically.
Galina Atamaniuk is living at the Parkway Hotel in Dunmanway.
She is living in a room with her husband Andrey, their two-year old son Andrey, their daughter Alisa, and 10-year-old Angelina.
She said she has no need of anything because all of their needs are being met. Each of the 27 refugees living in the hotel are, she said, making the very best of their situation.
While she personally finds Dunmanway to be ‘small’, compared to her native city in Ukraine, she said, ‘It is better than Ukraine, where there is no light and it is very cold.’
Having said that, the Atamaniuk family, like the other families taking shelter here, are all dreaming of the day they can return home to Ukraine.