Russian woman opens her Norfolk home to Ukrainian refugees
- Credit: Donna-Louise Bishop
Their countries are engaged in a bloody war with each other.
But Russian-born Olya Robertson and Ukrainian Inna Horbenko show that there is hope among the heartbreak caused by the conflict.
Mrs Robertson, who lives in Norwich, has opened her home to Mrs Horbenko and her son, who have fled the war in their homeland.
The pair are old friends having met at school as young teenagers in western Siberia, where Mrs Horbenko's family was then living.
But they drifted apart and had not seen each other since 2005, at a school reunion.
However, they had maintained a Facebook contact and when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Mrs Robertson - who has lived in Norwich for more than 20 years - made contact to offer her childhood friend a sanctuary.
“It was obvious to us that we wanted to welcome Inna and her family into our home," she said. "When the war broke out on the Thursday, I got in touch to say we could take her in.”
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Mrs Horbenko, 48, and her family were living in Lviv, around 45 miles from the Polish border, which has since been targeted by Russian missiles.
While her husband, Valerii, stayed - as Ukrainian men under the age of 60 are required to do - Mrs Horbenko decided she had to flee with the couple's 13-year-old son, Yehor.
It was then that they received the surprise phone call from Norwich.
Taking nothing but a suitcase each of essentials, Mrs Horbenko, an accountant, and Yehor were able to get a lift out of Ukraine to Poland with a volunteer, who was transporting supplies in a minibus.
They were met at the border by Mrs Robertson, 48, and her husband, Jack, 57, who had travelled out there to collect them.
They moved through various countries for the next month, including the Netherlands and France, and stayed in different accommodations, including with friends. The Robertsons also had to travel back home and return to them when they were able to.
Mrs Robetson, a financial services administrator, said it had been difficult to leave her friend while she waited for her visa.
“I was not wanting to leave them as I was worried they would be sent back to Ukraine," she said.
The Horbenkos' visas were issued around a month later, and they arrived at Mrs Robertson's Ipswich Road home on April 15, Good Friday.
Mrs Horbenko, who currently speaks very limited English, said it was “nice” to be welcomed into the country and on arrival she finally felt safe.
Translated through Mrs Robertson, she added: “We have been very welcomed and it feels calm here. I am so grateful to my friend and the UK for supporting us."
However, she said she fears for her husband and their 19-year-old daughter, Anastasia, who had to be evacuated to another part of the country for safety reasons. She had been in her second year of a military academy in Kiev.
“In the back of my mind, I still am worrying about my daughter, my country, our home, cat and dogs, and my husband who is not allowed to leave the county – like all of the other men still there.”
Mrs Robertson said: “Inna is a very guarded person. She does not share emotion easily but she has been able to describe to us the early days of the war. There were air raid alerts every day and she told us it is as if they had lived another life in those few days.
“As a mother, she has been especially concerned for her daughter there.”
Mrs Horbenko added: “I only felt settled again once when I was in the UK. There has been a lot of help for us.
“Everything is very good, it is just the language which causes me the main problem.”
Since arriving in Norfolk, she and her son have been able to attend support groups, apply for school, and sign up for English lessons. They have also received support from charities.
The pair spoke of the shock and heartbreak of the war.
Mrs Robertson said: “When we were at school, we went there with people from all over. We were all different people living away from home.
“We did not notice ethnicity or religious differences - only as positive traits.
“Ukraine and Russia are absolutely interconnected and the stupidity of what is happening now is beyond me.”
The family will be able to remain in the UK for up to three years but said they hope to return home as soon as they feel it is safe – away from “genuine fear” and “rockets flying overhead”.
“We want to return to our life before the war though – but we know that will not be possible,” said Mrs Horbenko.
Mrs Robertson first moved to the UK in 1999 after meeting her British husband Jack, a financial advisor, four years earlier.
The couple married in St Petersburg two days after Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s president, became the country’s prime minister. They have three children; Zoë, 20, Vanya, 18, and Solomon, 12.