‘We just hoped to find a future somewhere’ - Oleksii describes his journey from Ukraine to Cambridge
Like many of his compatriots, Oleksii Kravchenko never believed that the Russians would launch a full-scale attack on his country. When the unthinkable happened, Oleksii set out for the UK. Alexandra Buxton tells his inspirational story.
“Sometimes when I wake up, I look out of the window and marvel at how much my life has changed,” says Oleksii Kravchenko, 26. “I feel that I’ve left one world behind and that I’m starting my life again in a new home country.”
Until March this year, home for Oleksii was his family’s house on the eastern edge of Kharkiv, a city attacked by Russia early on in the present conflict. He never thought that just a few months later he would be living in a Cambridgeshire village with thatched cottages and a tea shop.
By a twist of fate, Oleksii had always dreamed of visiting the UK. “When I was eight, my younger brother brought a book about London home from school. I remember looking at a picture of Big Ben. The short English words seemed easier than Ukrainian which has long complicated words,” he says.
“My brother started to teach me English and when aged 13 I began English lessons at school, I surprised the teacher by being well ahead of the class. By this time, I knew how difficult it was to get a visa for the UK.”
When the Russians invaded, Oleksii and his brother moved west to Lviv for safety.
“We took buses across the country while my mother moved in with my grandmother. My brother remained in Ukraine. I got a lift in a car to the Polish border where we queued for ten hours standing in the cold and rain,” he says.
Oleksii’s hazardous journey from his war-torn home to the peaceful village of Linton took more than three months. It was an undertaking made even more remarkable by the fact that Oleksii is profoundly deaf.
When he was six months old, Oleksii contracted meningitis, a potentially deadly condition. He spent a month in hospital with his mother beside him.
“The virus robbed me of my ability to hear. I can’t hear any sounds, however loud, not even bombs or sirens,” he explains.
Oleksii has never let his disability hold him back. He enjoyed his specialist school for the deaf and did well. With help from his mother, he got a job in a restaurant. When the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv began, he was working in a branch of KFC and had plans to see the world.
Ukrainians with disabilities are exempt from the country’s military effort and free to leave the country. However, this group has found it particularly difficult to find sponsors willing, or with the right skills, to provide them with homes.
Oleksii is one of the lucky ones. His host Isobel Blakeley has proved a perfect match.
He says: “When people ask who my sponsor is, I tell them about Isobel, her love of gardening and her dog Molly. I really appreciate everything she does for me.”
Isobel is a retired teacher of the deaf. She says: “I learnt the basics of British sign language when I taught children with impaired hearing. I later became an adviser on impaired hearing education for Suffolk County Council. Earlier in my career I supported deaf students at Cambridge Regional College.”
She signed up for the UK government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme a few days after it was launched. “I live on my own which means I had no-one to consult with apart from myself and I alone chose to take the decision,” she says.
“I like helping people and I felt Linton was a good village because it has an excellent bus route into Cambridge. Molly is a lovely dog, and I know how therapeutic pets can be for people suffering from trauma.”
On a sunny autumn day, Oleksii sits in Isobel’s kitchen with Molly’s head lying across his knees. With the assistance of Isobel as signing interpreter and a translation app on his phone, he shares his story of travelling across Europe with a rucksack on his back and a small amount of money in his pocket.
At the Polish border Oleksii teamed up with seven other deaf people he had spotted using sign language in the queue. Together they made their way on crowded trains to the Netherlands where the Dutch authorities gave them accommodation on a converted boat on a canal in Rotterdam.
“In total we were a hundred deaf Ukrainians all hoping to find a new future somewhere,” Oleksii explains. Every day he trawled the refugee matching groups on the internet to find someone in the UK willing to offer him accommodation. Eventually he was put in touch with Isobel.
She says: “We exchanged text messages and spoke on video using my rusty sign language. I was encouraged that Oleksii had used his time on the boat to teach himself British sign language which is completely different from Ukrainian sign language. Soon we were filling in the forms to get him a visa.”
Oleksii’s talent for learning means that he’s fluent in three different sign languages. He reads and writes in Ukrainian and Russian. On top of that, his already passable English literary skills are improving rapidly.
Even amid the disaster of war, there are sparks of humanity. Isobel says: “I was impressed to learn that KFC, Oleksii’s former employer in Kharkiv, had kept him on full pay for three months. Without that money he would have been unable to buy a plane ticket to Luton.”
For Oleksii, finding work was a priority. Within weeks of arriving in Linton, he landed a job in the kitchen of Millworks, a restaurant in Newnham.
He says: “At the start, I was apprehensive about communicating but the people I work with are so helpful that I quickly relaxed and got to be part of the team.”
In September, Oleksii began an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) course at Cambridge Regional College, learning alongside students from all over the world. In classes, he has one-to-one assistance.
“The people who help me are absolutely vital,” he says. “Without them I’d learn nothing at all.”
In the strange early weeks of his new life, Oleksii found solace in walking Molly around the arable fields surrounding Linton, the colours of the wheat crops and the sky reminding him of the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag.
Ever since he opened his brother’s book about London, he has wanted to travel to London to see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge for himself.
Isobel says: “When Oleksii mentioned his plan of going to London, I suggested I went with him. But he was determined to go alone. I reminded myself that when he flew to Luton, it was his first time on a plane. And he was fine.”
On a hot summer’s day, he took the bus into Cambridge, bought a return train ticket to King’s Cross and, navigating the underground system, visited the historic sites he’d longed to see, including Big Ben. “I came up the steps from the tube and there it was,” he says.
When he needs to ask for help, Oleksii uses a mix of intuition and technology. He explains: “I look around for someone with a kind face and make eye contact with them. I point to my ears to indicate that I’m deaf. I then use an app to communicate with them. I’ve found that people in the UK are generally great.”
While studying at CRC, Oleksii continues to work one day a week at Millworks and hopes to pick up more shifts. He has ambitious plans for the future too.
“Once my English is better, I plan to do a computing course and work on my maths so I can study web design development at university,” he says.
“Everyone who meets Oleksii is amazed by his sheer focus and determination,” says Isobel.
“And no-one has any doubts that step by step he will achieve his dreams.”
- Alexandra Buxton is a volunteer with Cambridge4Ukraine.