The first Ukrainian refugees to step foot on the Island were greeted by the IW Observer and they said: “Thank you, Isle of Wight.”
Anna Savchuk and her six-year-old son, Ivan, finally made it safely here yesterday afternoon (Thursday) following a long and tiring 2,000-mile journey, via Poland, from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
They were welcomed with flowers and chocolates by the IW Observer, before continuing their journey to Bembridge with their sponsors, Chris and Julie Spooner.
They are the first refugees to reach the Island under the government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, and spoke about their incredible journey from the horrors of their war-torn country to safety.
However, despite their new life here, the trip was tinged with sadness because it involved leaving behind Anna’s husband, Olexiy, an IT programmer who has been called up to the Ukrainian military reserves.
Their journey began with the heart-wrenching decision to leave their beloved Ukraine as danger from Russian missiles and shells increased in their home region.
Anna explained: “We were a normal family, living a happy, normal life before the war began; never did we imagine, two months ago, that we were going to have to leave behind my husband and I would have to take my child on a train to Poland, live in a stranger’s house there for weeks, before coming to the UK.”
A chance comment on a Facebook post by Anna saying how she was struggling to rebuild her life in a small village outside Gdansk, for the duration of the war, which began their odyssey to the Island.
At the very start of the war, Tania Williams was among the very first people to leave Ukraine with her British husband, Dan, who was raised in Wootton, and baby, Sophia.
The Williams family began immediately working to help their home country of Ukraine, and, by chance, Tania and Anna had been room-mates and friends in their college years together at the prestigious National Aviation Academy in Kyiv. Tania suggested that her old friend, who she last saw in the summer of 2021, consider applying for a UK visa and joining them in the UK.
Next came the contact with the Spooner family, London-based, but with a holiday property in Bembridge. Anna said: “Tania and Dan had been in contact with the Spooners, who were desperate to help Ukraine and had offered their home as a suitable location for a mother with children. They arranged for Julie and me to talk and we immediately felt like we were friends, not strangers.”
Julie took over the laborious process of filling out the forms for the new government scheme, working with Anna as it went live on March 18 to ensure she was one of the first applicants.
Julie, who drove to Luton Airport to pick up Anna and Ivan, providing a box of welcome toys for the youngster, said: “We feel like it is the very least we could do. Anna and her family are the ones who have made extraordinary efforts. It is her husband who has gone from a good job in IT to defending his country against an invader – they are the only heroes in this story, and they are the ones who have endured hardship and inconvenience; nothing we do comes close.”
Nevertheless, as Anna landed in the UK, she was overcome with emotion and gratitude for the Islanders and those connected to the Island who had made ‘this whole horror a little more bearable’.
She added: “We were in Poland, living in a small village, not knowing how long we could stay in the housing, with work almost impossible to find – to get to even the local town, where there was even a prospect of work or schooling, meant taking three different buses.
“Now we have a chance to get some sense of being settled in our lives until we are able to go back home and rejoin my husband when, hopefully, there is peace in our country. Hopefully Ivan can get into school so he can make friends and continue his education, and I can work to provide for my son and to help support my husband back in Ukraine while he is in the military.
“We have been overwhelmed by the kindness of people – Tania, I knew from college and knew she was an amazing person with a huge heart, but her husband has worked tirelessly to make this possible, and the Spooners have been just beyond amazing.
“Then when we arrived on the Island we found toys, books and a huge box of Lego for Ivan given by people who we know love Ukraine.”
Those people include Glenn Kompanny, who has been a leader of a group of Island musicians and artists who have been performing and raising money which goes directly to feed people in Kyiv, and who arranged for a donation of play-things for Ivan to make him feel more at home.
Other Islanders have reached out, offering assistance with everything from work for Anna, language lessons for both (though Anna speaks four languages fluently, including English), counselling and, in more than one case, activities and play dates for Ivan.
Anna said: “When you are forced to leave behind those you love most and your home, you cannot imagine how much it means to be listened to; to be helped and to be warmly greeted. All we have experienced so far on our journey to the Isle of Wight tells us this is going to be a safe and kind place for us to shelter and live until it is safe for us to return to our homes.”
However, challenges lie ahead – the process for Anna of getting Ivan registered for school and healthcare, and they have only a small suitcase each of belongings, but Anna is optimistic.
Her career began working for Ukraine’s national airline but, after the birth of her son, she switched careers to become a master baker. She hopes to put these talents to work here to support herself and her family.
“We have been in touch with Philippa Daley from IW Community Action. She has been very helpful, and I know she and Dan have met and are going to help us with things like getting Ivan settled in school and us both registered for the things we need here. Then I would like to try and further my dream of becoming a dessert chef; I hear there are lots of hotels and restaurants here, so, hopefully, one has guests who like cakes a lot!”
For now, though, they just want to relax a little, catch up with an old friend from home, and start to explore the Island where they will spend the coming weeks or months.
Dan, who has an environmental business in the Ukraine, said: “The Isle of Wight was my home since I was about Ivan’s age. It is not Kyiv, and none of us can replace the friends and family he and his mother have left behind.
“But people here can, and I am sure will, make it as comfortable as they can for this amazing family who have been through so much. When my doorbell rings with another stranger bringing toys for Ivan, or when I get texts offering help, support, whatever it may be for Ivan or even for us, it reminds me why I had such a happy time growing up here.”