Alina Chernivska, 21, was woken by the sound of shelling in Odesa, her hometown, in the early hours of February 24 this year. Now, just a few months later, she’s cycling around Cardiff, a new life well and truly begun, even if she wishes she could have her old one back
Alina was in Odesa at the start of the war before she made the decision to leave with a friend. “That first day, February 24 around 4am I woke up. There were explosions and my first thought was that I completely didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “I was in panic, I didn’t know what to do. The first reaction was panic.”
Alina said she remained in the country for around six more days before leaving Ukraine with a friend. She said the days before the two left were “terrible.” You can get more Ukraine news and other story updates by subscribing to our newsletters here.
“I lived with my friend and when the war started we decided to move to her boyfriend’s parents because they lived in a safer place. But actually, that was a terrible time because there were lots of air sirens and we spent a couple of nights in a bomb shelter. I was nervous all the time, I didn’t know what to do. We started to think about leaving Ukraine from the second or third day after the war had started.”
Alina said her friend then received a phone call from an aunt to say that they had a car with two spaces to take them both out of the country. You can read more stories about Cardiff here.
“We were thinking not for a very long time, it was a kind of spontaneous decision,” said Alina. “Previously we were thinking about the idea of leaving Ukraine, but when we got an offer – like today and now we are leaving Ukraine – we thought ‘Yes, ok. We agree.'” Alina and her friend set off in the car the next morning to leave the country, travelling to the Czech Republic to meet her mother.
Lat month, eight people died in an attack on Odesa during Easter celebrations, including a three month-old baby. Speaking in a news conference from the platform of a Kyiv metro station, President Zelensky said Russian missile strikes on the residential building in Odesa showed the “barbarism” of President Vladimir Putin’s army. Read more here about the Ukrainian people settling in Wales and those who have opened up their homes.
Alina’s father remains in Ukraine in the city of Nova-Kakhovka, which was occupied by Russia, and she also has friends who have remained in the country. In the Czech Republic, Alina signed up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme, matching her with Cardiff resident Beth Arthur, 33, through the Opora website.
Beth, a biomedical scientist, said she had been debating signing up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme a few days after it was announced. After putting a post on Facebook saying she was thinking of signing up, Beth said friends and family responded with messages of encouragement.
Beth received an email from the Opora website after registering to say that someone was interested in the room she was offering, showing Alina’s profile. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘I really want to help this girl,'” Beth said. “I need to make sure that I do it safely and not in a way that scares her off and if she talks to me and decides she doesn’t want to live with me, that’s ok.”
After the two were connected through the website, Beth reached out to Alina over email and WhatsApp to introduce herself with some information about herself, the room she was offering, and Cardiff. “Because [Alina] studies German as well, I also did a greeting in German because I speak a little bit,” Beth added.
“I’m privileged enough to own my own house, I have a spare room, and I live in fairly central Cardiff, so I’ve got a really good location,” Beth continued. “It’s actually a really good place for somebody if they don’t have a car and it’s good public transport links and there’s the entire city centre. I was just like, ‘I’ve got a good location, I’ve got an empty room, I can help somebody – why shouldn’t I?'”
Within half an hour, Alina replied and, after speaking on WhatsApp for a couple of months, she applied for a Visa for Ukrainians along with her mother. Beth met the two at Heathrow Airport in London, taking Alina back to her home in Cardiff. Alina’s mother travelled to Yorkshire to stay with a sponsor she had found there.
Alina said of her mum: “We’re chatting all the time, every day. Of course, I miss her but we are in the same country and I can come to her if I want.” However, she said that while visiting the UK had been a dream for her, she didn’t want to have had to come to the country under her current circumstances.
“When I came to the UK I had mixed feelings,” Alina said. “On one hand, I’m in the UK – that was my dream, to travel there. But on another hand, I didn’t want to come to the UK under these circumstances, fleeing from war.”
Alina said she enjoyed her life in Cardiff and that the city reminded her of Odesa. “I found a couple of similarities – universities, sea, people,” Alina said. “People are very, very kind and generous, and just amazing people here. Everything is good. I’m still getting used to a new culture, new everything. Everyone helps me a lot, especially Beth.”
Since coming to Cardiff, Beth has taken Alina out cycling around the city. “I learnt my directions in Ukrainian pretty quickly,” she said. The pair have also made borscht, a sour soup which has its origins in Ukraine, which they said was “good fun”, and have spent time learning about each others’ cultures. “We’ve had three separate people ask if we’re sisters,” Beth added.
Beth and Alina have been attending a protest at the end of Queen Street every Sunday, which Beth said had been “invaluable” to them both. “I’ve been able to meet Ukrainians in Cardiff that have lived here for years, Ukrainians in Cardiff who have just moved here,” Beth said. “Alina’s been with me to the last two and has made loads of new friends.”
Prior to leaving Ukraine, Alina was studying for a BA degree in linguistics from Odesa I.I. Mechnikov National University and was working in a call centre for an American outsourcing company. This month, she will finish her degree virtually and plans to look for a job once she has graduated.
Beth added: “I definitely want to big up Cardiff Council. They’ve been absolutely brilliant with us, they’ve been really, really helpful. I think Alina was a little shocked on the day we were doing all the admin why everyone was being so nice to her. I know it’s not the same for all councils, but I think we’ve been quite lucky with Cardiff.”
She continued: “The crowdsourcing for information among the hosts in Cardiff has been brilliant as well. I’ve made friends with people in Cardiff I’d never have met otherwise, so this is beneficial for both of us.”
Beth said she’d encourage people to “just be friendly, be open to people who are coming here and not knowing the culture and wanting to know the culture and the language” She continued: “Be supportive. Just a bit of patience with someone who doesn’t know much English is worth its weight in gold to be honest.”