Tetiana Pankiv from the town of Stryy near Lviv in western Ukraine has made a lot of friends in Tullow, Co Carlow, but since learning that her husband was being deployed to fight in the east of the country: “I cry every day”.
In a way Tetiana, who has three daughters, is luckier than her sister who remains in Ukraine because she would not leave behind her son (20), who was required to stay, explains Jacqui McNabb.
McNabb, a senior executive with Kildare County Council, has been working on a project with Tetiana which they hope will, by the end of August, make Ireland seem a little bit familiar to recent arrivals from Ukraine.
The two women met shortly after Tetiana arrived at Dublin Airport on March 2nd with her daughters Sofia (16), Marta (15) and Yana (5) having fled their home. They did not know anyone in Ireland but Tetiana ‘s “best friend from school”, now a lecturer in Manchester, had advised her to fly to Ireland as visa requirements had been waived for Ukrainians .
Since Christmas, Tetiana’s mother had been telling her “pack your bags and your documents” but until an explosion at an airport near her town on February 24th , she had laughed off her mother’s concerns. “I said ‘I do not believe it. It is not true there will be a war. Do not worry. Everything will be alright.’ The first bomb was near our town at the airport. It was very scary.”
The former supervisor in a printing company soon saw how having to take refuge in the basement every time air sirens went off was traumatising her five year old in particular, and they said goodbye to her husband, a police detective now deployed to the military.
The 39 year old’s UK-based friend bought them plane tickets and they flew into Dublin with the name of one Irish man and no idea where they would go.
Their only Irish contact had seen McNabb’s name on Facebook as one of the founding members of Tullow Friends of Ukraine and he got in touch to see if she knew anyone who might have accommodation for this family of four.
“My mother in law had passed away and her house was in our village. My husband Paul’s family were using it for weekends but we gave it over to Tetiana and her three girls,” she says.
Tetiana’s husband, Volodymyr (“same as the president”), has been driving a security car and operating checkpoints in the west of the country. Having kept up with unfolding horrors in places like Mariupol and Kharkiv, she cannot bear to think of what he is facing. “Now he has a uniform and guns and ammunition. I cry every day because he is going to the east.” Asked if she knows which part, she replies: “Nobody knows.”
She says she keeps sane by focusing on doing something for the people she left at home, and on Saturday Tetiana and about 40 other Ukrainian women joined up with her Tullow friends. Some 250 people spent the day dividing sunflower seeds into 100,000 packets of 50 , which from April 29th will be sold at SuperValu and Centra stores nationwide in aid of the Irish Red Cross’s Ukraine Crisis Appeal.
Supporters are being urged to plant the seeds on the same date, May 19th. McNabb who started the project at her kitchen table, hopes the sight of their national flower in gardens and community spaces throughout the country will make recent arrivals from Ukraine feel a little bit more at home from around the end of August.
“It is very hard to be here, to be safe, to have left your country where people die, and children are seeing horrible things,” says Tetiana. “It is very hard to stay and to do nothing. Jacqui is helping me and other Ukrainian women to feel useful . Without this I do not know what we would do here. We would sit and cry, that is all”.
Her teenage daughters are attending Tullow community school, while Yana (5) has befriended the only other Ukrainian child attending the local St Columba’s primary school.
“To think of travelling all this way to meet your new best friend. They have no English but they talk to each other,” said McNabb.
“She says the ‘Sow Now’ project which it is hoped will raise up to €500,000 for the IRC’s work in Ukraine, is also about making Ireland look a little bit more like home to those that flee.