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Fleeing war in Ukraine - and finding work in Cambridge

The resilience shown by Ukrainians fleeing a war-torn country is impressive. Many of those now living in Cambridge have found jobs, as Alexandra Buxton, a volunteer with Cambridge4Ukraine, reports. Some names have been changed.

When 24-year-old Anastasia arrived in Cambridge from Ukraine back in May, her priorities were to complete all the documentation required, look for a job, improve her English and make new friends.

Anastasia travelled here under the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. Under this programme, refugees are sponsored by UK residents who agree to provide accommodation, at no cost to their guests, for a minimum of six months.

Even before Anastasia arrived, her Cambridge host Sarah was struck by her guest’s determination to be independent.

Sarah says: “I offered to pick her up from Stansted. But she insisted on getting the train and I met her at Cambridge station.”

Within a week of arriving Anastasia signed up with Select, an agency that, among its other strands, provides domestic and catering staff for many of the Cambridge colleges.

“I’ve now worked in 10 different colleges,” she says. “I love the buildings at Trinity and Corpus Christi, they are like a museum to me. I really like the team at St Edmund’s, the supervisors are great and lots of people from around the world are working there.”

Anastasia comes from a town near Kharkiv, a city bombed daily since the Russian invasion began. She speaks to her parents every day.

“Their town has been bombed only five times so they decided that they can stay there,” she says. “It’s their home.”

Since March, almost 600 Ukrainians have arrived to seek safety in Cambridge through two government schemes and a greater number have arrived in South Cambridgeshire. Anastasia is just one of many who have found work and are fast becoming integrated into the local community.

Many new arrivals are highly qualified. In seeking refuge in the UK, they have left behind not just homes and communities but also good careers.

Ukrainian refugee Yulia, left, moved in with Helen Llewelyn in Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell
Ukrainian refugee Yulia, left, moved in with Helen Llewelyn in Cambridge . Picture: Keith Heppell

A good level of English is a big advantage. Modesty might lead her to deny it but Yulia, 30, is fluent. With the help of her host in central Cambridge, she quickly got a job with an international language school, organising accommodation for overseas students.

Now she’s looking for a better paid role so that she can rent a flat for herself and Penny, the black-and-white cat who travelled with her all the way from Ukraine.

“If I’m asked at interview for proof of my organisational skills, I will tell them about making my way across Europe with a cat,” Yulia laughs. It was a trip of many stages.

First, the twosome travelled from Kyiv to western Ukraine in a bus driven by volunteers. Next, Yulia took Penny by car across the border to Romania to organise the permissions needed to bring a cat to the UK. Then, it was a plane to Paris and, finally, a road and ferry trip.

Yulia and her cat
Yulia and her cat

Employment is high on the agenda for most refugees. A recent job fair at Cambridge Job Centre, staged to help Ukrainians find work, attracted more than 300 people seeking employment and more than 30 potential employers.

The Job Centre officers who organised the event reported that they were hugely impressed by the attitude of the people who came along to find out more about job opportunities and the determination of even those with very limited English to start work.

Lack of English hasn’t daunted Viacheslav, 47, who left Mariupol after the Russians took the city. With routes back into Ukraine blocked, he managed to travel through Russia to Finland, and on to Cambridge to join his extended family who had fled their devasted city several weeks earlier.

In Mariupol, Viacheslav had worked in a factory repairing metallurgical equipment. A few days after arriving in Cambridge, he landed a job at Zizi, washing dishes, preparing food and clearing tables. Sometimes he works two shifts – 10 hours a day.

Meanwhile, Oleksii, 26, a sous chef from Kharkiv, has joined the kitchen team at Millworks in Newnham. Profoundly deaf, he uses sign language and several apps to communicate.

Soon after the Russian invasion, he fled to the Netherlands where he spent three months in a refugee centre. Waiting to be matched to a UK host, he spent the time online learning British sign language.

His host Isobel, who lives in Linton, is a retired teacher of the deaf.

“Oleksii amazes everyone he meets with his positive attitude. He reads and writes in Ukrainian, Russian and English – and he’s better than I am at British sign language,” she says.

Ukrainian refugee Yulia and her cat, Penny
Ukrainian refugee Yulia and her cat, Penny

“He’s enrolled on an ESOL course at Cambridge Regional College, which is providing learning support, with the long-term objective of studying computing at university.”

Because most Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are needed to defend their country, the majority of refugees are women. Many have children. Tetiana, in her 30s, came to Cambridge after an exhausting journey across Europe with her four-year-old daughter Mariana.

She decided to leave her home in central Ukraine when Mariana became increasingly traumatised by night-time sirens warning of possible Russian attacks.

Mother and daughter travelled 40 hours by bus to Poland, then took buses via Austria to relatives in Croatia. After several months in Dubrovnik, they were matched with hosts in Cambridge through Cambridge4Ukraine.

Tetiana’s hosts have a daughter the same age as Mariana. The two girls now go to school together. “Both my hosts came to the UK from other countries so they understand what it’s like for us,” says Tetiana.

While attending English classes, Tetiana is working part-time in the housekeeping team at St John’s College. She describes her supervisors there, Belinda and Anne, as “perfect angels”.

There are plenty of available jobs in and around Cambridge. But bureaucracy can be challenging. Refugees face unfamiliar systems and employers may be unaware that Ukrainians arriving through the government’s schemes have the immediate right to work.

Viacheslav’s sister-in-law Svitlana, also in her 30s, was baffled by the documentation involved in starting a job in a local supermarket. Finally, she has signed a contract and joined the team stacking shelves, working alongside people from 11 different countries.

Her morning shifts begin at 5am. “It’s hard work and soon I will be very strong,” she says.

Alexandra Buxton is a volunteer with Cambridge4Ukraine, a group dedicated to helping refugees. She is a member of the campaign’s ‘jobs help group’, which assists with CVs and cover letters, and offers general advice on employment. For more information contact jobs.help@cambridge4ukraine.uk

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