August 24 marks six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. A conflict that the world hoped would end quickly following the initial invasion on February 24 has continued, reportedly taking the lives of more than 10,000 people. It is estimated that 12 million people have fled their homes both internally and internationally, desperate to escape the ongoing conflict.
While the attention of the public and the news cycle may be shifting, the devastation caused by the war is far from over for those who have fled as well as those who remain trapped in the conflict.
One of those 12 million who have escaped is Anna Merchuk, a 17-year-old woman who fled her hometown of Stryi, in western Ukraine. This is her story, as told to Lauren Crosby Medlicott.
The morning Russian forces began attacking major Ukrainian cities, I woke up to an empty house. My family – my dad, mum and older brother – had already left the house for the day. Finishing my morning routine, I left our house to walk five minutes to my school. Right away, I knew something was wrong. The streets were void of people, an oddity. I quickly checked the news on my phone and in an instant it felt like my world came crumbling down. War had started in my beloved Ukraine.
Since the start of 2022, rumours spread like wildfire about the looming possibility of war. We all talked about it – some believing it wouldn’t actually happen and others fearfully expectant for what was to come. I was one of the ones who doubted the inevitability and held out hope it would blow over.
Life for me before the war was blissful. I spent my time studying, with career aspirations of becoming a politician. I was and continue to be a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister. My family is very close, often gathering to play musical instruments together. On weekends, myself and a close-knit group of friends organised events for other youths to attend. Life was good.
But life changed on 24th February. Instead of continuing to school, I sprinted back home to phone my family and closest friends. They were safe. I found my mind just switched off – like I was in a dream and would soon wake up from this reality. That night, I put in my headphones, listening to music to send me to sleep – to drown out my anxious thoughts.
Overnight our community changed. So many people left immediately, trying to get out of Ukraine. Our family stayed. Since my dad and two older brothers are men over the age of 18, they were not allowed to leave – they had to be available to fight. My mother and I couldn’t bear to leave them, not yet.
No one, including myself, attended school. Instead, my friends and I volunteered wherever we were needed. We sewed pillows, made net coverings to disguise cars so Russian troops couldn’t see them and prepared dumplings for Ukrainian soldiers. I didn’t slow for weeks, constantly trying to make myself of use.
Multiple times a day, a siren would ring through the town, alerting us to the possibility of danger and warning us to find safety in shelters. It was incredibly stressful and after two months of living in constant threat, my mother and I decided we would flee to Canada, where there was a scheme to settle Ukrainian refugees.
I packed a backpack and roller suitcase with a bracelet gifted to me by friends, clothes and personal journals, and my mother did the same. On 30th April we were surrounded by friends and family who had come to the bus station to bid us farewell.
In the last few months I've felt waves of guilt for not being in Ukraine to help at such a time as this.
For the first half of the six-hour bus journey to the Polish border, my mother and I wept, overcome with the sadness and grief held in for so long.
The following month after our escape, we stayed in Warsaw in a hostel that felt quite dangerous, hoping we had what we needed to get to Canada. But then we found out Canada required COVID vaccinations to enter the country. I hadn’t had mine. We got back on the bus and headed home, where I planned to receive both vaccinations.
On the way back to Stryi, we met a volunteer who told us about the British scheme to settle Ukrainian refugees. He was getting the word out to Ukrainians to make the UK a viable escape option. When the bus arrived back at our home, my family decided the UK would be a better option, offering better opportunities and support for Ukrainian refugees. The following day we got back on the bus to Poland with our new plan. It was so much back and forth, so much I felt I had no control over.
When we crossed into Poland again, we stayed at a volunteer centre, where we met our UK sponsor and a group of people who helped to get us our visas. Only two weeks later the visas arrived and we immediately began the three-day car journey to Milton Keynes. It was a really fun drive, an unexpected surprise in the midst of such trauma. Our sponsor drove us and the whole time we were either talking or listening to rock music.
We arrived at our new 'home' – a house bustling with life. Our sponsor’s family and two other refugee families filled every corner of the house, bringing me so much joy and distraction.
That night, I felt pleasingly calm and slept so well.
But my family and friends still living in Ukraine are not safe. Thinking about it makes me anxious. I feel it bubbling up, even when I try to suppress it. In the last few months I’ve also felt waves of guilt for not being in Ukraine to help at such a time as this.
Because I can’t do more there, I’ve thrown myself into doing what I can here to help. I’m part of Homes for Ukraine, made up of a group of people who aim to make the process of relocating to the UK simpler and safe for displaced Ukrainians. All of my time, often from the moment I wake until dinner, is spent on this project. Without it, I’d feel lost. Without it, I’d feel depressed. But with it, I know I’m helping, and that gives me the strength to carry on.
In September I’m starting my A-levels. I haven’t decided what I will focus on yet but I am thinking maths, history and English. It’s the first step to my long-term goals of going to university and eventually going back to Ukraine to build it up after the war.
Russia has stolen my childhood. I’ve been forced into an adulthood I didn’t ask for.
But I won’t let Russia steal my future.
Homes for Ukraine is continuing to hear from Ukrainians who want to flee but as the war has gone on they are not seeing as great an uptake of people volunteering to be sponsors. At the moment, they need sponsors for 150 people eagerly trying to get out of Ukraine. If you are interested in sponsoring, reach out for more information about how you can get involved.