'It's like a dream or movie' - Ukrainian refugees on finding safety in Norfolk

Olena Polyvach

Ukranian singer Olena Polyvach and her daughter Victoria, at the Whittington home, where they have found refuge - Credit: Chris Bishop

Mothers forced to flee war to protect their children are among the Ukrainian refugees that have found safety in Norfolk.

The people we spoke with shared a similar story - they escaped to give their young children a better life, parting with spouses and family members in order to do so, and leaving everything behind.

Although the refugees are still processing their decisions and the violence that continues in their homeland due to Russia's invasion, Norfolk has provided them a place of refuge and "calm".

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia, 35, who is now in Diss, has shared the traumatic scenes that compelled her to leave Kyiv to keep her six-year-old daughter Katalina away from harm.

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her family

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her family - Credit: Viktoriia Osmolovskaia

A product manager at an automotive company, Mrs Osmolovskaia fled to the border the day the Russian invasion began on February 24. Her husband, mother and younger brother remain in Ukraine. 

She described waking up at 5am in "disbelief" on the day to a friend crying on the phone before switching on the news channel to find out what was happening.

She said: "War started early in the morning and it was very dark, the sky landscape had different colours because of the bombing. It was like lightning.

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"When we escaped we saw a lot of military airplanes that were flying very close."

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her husband

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her husband - Credit: Viktoriia Osmolovskaia

The mother thought the war would end after one day following conversations with Ukraine and Russia.

"We're in the 21st century," she added. "But it's not finished."

She fled to the Hungarian border with Katalina, her friend Iryna, 29, and her son, six, and later travelled on to Slovakia and then Germany before they applied to move to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship scheme.

The families arrived in Diss on April 23 and are staying with a host couple.

While processing the impact of the war, Mrs Osmolovskaia was struck with further sorrow a month ago after her father died suddenly in his sleep following heart problems.

Katalina with her grandparents

Katalina with her grandparents - Credit: Viktoriia Osmolovskaia

She said: "Under Russian occupation there's a lack of doctors and hospitals and they could not help in that region.

"I left because I have a small daughter and wanted to keep her safe. It's difficult for me."

Olena Polyvach, 34, fled Kyiv for the same reason - for the safety of her one-year-old daughter Victoria.

Olena Polyvach

Olena Polyvach and her daughter Victoria playing on a swing at their new home away from the fighting in Ukraine - Credit: Chris Bishop

The singer was left "stunned" by the harrowing news that a maternity hospital had been bombed in Mariupol on March 9. 

After feeling there were "no rules" in the war, she escaped with Victoria, leaving behind her husband Sergei, friends and family.

Both mother and daughter have been staying in Whittington, near Downham Market, since April 22 after Mrs Polyvach was contacted by Jack Daubney, a musician she had worked with onboard cruise ships, who urged her to get out of Ukraine and stay with his parents Wayne and Angela.

Olena Polyvach

From left, Wayne and Angela Daubney with Ukrainian refugee Olena Polyvach and her daughter Victoria at their home near Downham Market - Credit: Chris Bishop

The 34-year-old said: "The first two weeks were scary. I had spoken with my husband three time about leaving, but two times I didn't.

"Then I decided it was the right thing to do for Victoria because it started to get loud and closer.

"That's not how you want your one-year-old daughter to live."

As of May 30, more than 570 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Norfolk under the scheme.

Mrs Osmolovskaia said that while she wants to return home she is grateful for the community support and peace in Diss, describing the town as "like a dream or a movie about England".

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her daughter Katalina and her friend and son, who have also found refuge in Norfolk

Viktoriia Osmolovskaia with her daughter Katalina and her friend and son, who have also found refuge in Norfolk - Credit: Viktoriia Osmolovskaia

She said: "It has very nice and beautiful houses. I have never seen such narrow roads.

"I like Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, and the Bronte books.

"Norfolk is like that, what you watch in a cinema.

"Ukrainian and British people have a very similar sense of humour and I think people are very good and kind."

Horses -Scarlett and Pepsi - who Viktoriia Osmolovskaia enjoys visiting

Horses -Scarlett and Pepsi - who Viktoriia Osmolovskaia enjoys visiting and says has helped her cope with her anxiety - Credit: Viktoriia Osmolovskaia

And Mrs Polyvach said the local community had been "very supportive", with Victoria being gifted toys and enjoying attending Tiny Tots.

Among those hosting Ukrainian refugees in the county is The Lady Dannatt, HM Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk, and Lord Dannatt, who took mother and son Larysa and Bohdan Bobor, 16, into their Keswick home and have helped them settle into new and "vastly different circumstances".

Adam Hale-Sutton, seated second left, who with Chris Ketley, left, and Sam Thain, seated third left

Adam Hale-Sutton, seated second left, who with Chris Ketley, left, and Sam Thain, seated third left, enjoy a celebration with their families and the Ukranians they managed to help get out of the Ukraine and find homes in Norfolk. Seated from left, Bohdan, 16, from Chernigov; Adam; Sam; Vita from Kyiv; Andrew Macey; Larysa from Cherigov; and Helen Hale-Sutton. Boys back from left, unknown; Sam Hale-Sutton, nine, and his brother, William, 12; and Mykyta, 10. - Credit: Denise Bradley

Lady Dannatt said they has received some "exceptional help" from their immediate community, adding that Bohdan had been given a place at one of Norwich's top schools.

Lady Dannatt

Lady Dannatt, Lord Lieutenant for Norfolk, at her home in Keswick, with Scrumpy and Maud - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

Lady Dannatt added: "The minuscule amount we are able to do in return is utterly humbling in comparison to their collective personal sacrifice."