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Bishop's Stortford woman Denise Leach on the plight of her Ukrainian guests: 'All the right reasons in the world can’t change the guilt you feel about abandoning your family'



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On May 5, Bishop's Stortford couple Denise and Chris Leach gave a home to three Ukranian refugees. Their predicament and trying to imagine their thought processes inspired Denise to write this...

The 24th of February 2022 is stamped in their minds. Everything about life is before or after.

Before, they were laughing and living just like the rest of us. Two years of Covid disruption and abnormality couched inside normality. It affected life and the economy, and they argued with friends and families about the vaccine, masks, jobs and which of the 52 political parties to vote for next.

From left, Liuba Tetikh, Denise and Chris Leach, Oksana Fuhel and Katya Fuhel holding Roza, adopted from Cyprus
From left, Liuba Tetikh, Denise and Chris Leach, Oksana Fuhel and Katya Fuhel holding Roza, adopted from Cyprus

They woke up to air raid sirens blasting every area of the country and the news that Russia had entered Ukraine. The river of Russian armaments building up at the border had burst the dam and was spilling into their country from the south and the east.

The Ukrainian military jumped to it and surprised the world with their courage and tenacity. They were, and are, fighting a war for us all, because this act of aggression left unresolved will escalate and give power to the aggressor.

But a country is not made up of politicians and military personnel, it is the fabric of its people that make it a country and community. People living their lives, day to day, just like us.

And those people couldn’t get out of bed on the 24th February, slip on uniforms and go and fight. They had to sit at home and watch or listen to the news anxiously, cringing every time the sirens went off, sitting in their flats with no shelter to hide in, no basement to deaden the noise.

They had to lie in their beds at night, the sirens and fear shattering their sleep, hearts racing as they worried for their families, their future, their peace.

Their daily lives just ended. Some essential jobs carried on, but day by day, the jobs, schools, shops and places of work disappeared. Either obliterated by bombs or because the people started to run as the Russians advanced across the country.

The children are terrified. The parents want to protect them, so the conversations start about leaving those areas where they still have some sort of choice. The constant barrage of noise and warning sirens disrupt their lives, missiles are shot down in the skies above their towns, but they haven’t been hit. What should they do?

Chris, Liuba, Denise, Katya and Oksana
Chris, Liuba, Denise, Katya and Oksana

Day by day, life changes. Medicines become harder to get, food prices go up, schools disappear and learning goes online, but who makes them do their work when survival becomes all you think about?

The decision is made to leave. It is bad enough giving up your home, but your husband, parents, friends, families, neighbours and neighbourhood will all be gone too.

You have to face the journey over a war-torn country, trusting that complete strangers are who they say they are and that you will arrive safely – to what exactly?

And to manage that, you have to use financial resources you know your families back home are going to need desperately to survive. You are leaving them; all the right reasons in the world can’t change the guilt you feel about abandoning them.

So you arrive in the country you’ve been rescued by. Relief and gratitude at the kindness of people give you hope and make you smile, and the silence at night is a blessing you can never explain to those around you.

The first days fly by as you try to communicate with those sheltering you and come to grips with the forms and applications you have to fill in to make a life in this new place.

You make some sort of a plan. You can see the need to make a safe base with the right visa, the medical system, the schools for the children and you need to earn some money or sign up for benefits.

All these things are important and take up your mind and your time whilst you get them done, but half of you is still at home with your partner, your parents, the best friends you’ve had to leave behind.

When the administration is done and you are safe, you have enough in your life to be secure now and to get by. You should feel relief, shouldn’t you? But what is going to happen tomorrow? The war is ongoing. Nothing has changed since you made the decision to escape.

Those at home are struggling to find food and fuel. They still can’t sleep at night. They can’t leave. You speak to them every day if you can, but how much can you tell them of your life here? You don’t want to rub salt into their wounds. You dare not post a photo on Facebook with a big smile and a big heart for those who are filling your space today, trying to make you feel good and happy in your new life, because those that know and love you are stuck in a horror they did not choose.

You speak to those at home every day and listen to their worries, you watch the news and cry for your old life. You miss your own life so much it hurts every part of you, yet the relief is also real and floods you. How does one manage both those huge emotions in the same mind and body and function normally?

Then you realise it doesn’t stop here. The war is ongoing. The children are in school, you have found work. You have found some calm, but you are only guaranteed a few months with these people. What if you can’t go home? It is almost certain that you won’t be able to go home this year. So what next? And what happens if Russia wins this war? Ukraine will be behind the Iron Curtain. When you left, you never really considered never coming back.

Peace is not a word you understand any more.

* Denise, 62, lives with husband Chris and their three Ukranian guests – Liuba Tetikh, Oksana Fuhel and Oksana's daughter Kateryna – in Lincoln Close, Thorley Park. Denise attends twice-monthly meetings of writing group The Bishop’s Stortford Scribblers.



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