Today is the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal, unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To mark the occasion, Kyiv Post has collected 17 stories to try and convey the breadth and scale of the loss caused to Ukrainians caused by the Kremlin’s aggression.
How did you find out Russia had attacked Ukraine? What was it like to wake up in a war?
I didn’t believe it till the end. The 23rd of February was just a normal day as always, school, (competitive) dance, and homework. I remember myself sitting in my room, playing on the phone, texting my friends, and going to bed like nothing is going to happen that will change my life forever. On February 24th my mom woke me up telling me there’s good and bad news. The good news was there’s no school today. The bad news was there’s a war. I didn’t know what to think or say. I saw unread messages from friends saying they’re leaving Kyiv, asking if I’m okay, and messages about explosions around Ukraine. I didn’t hear or see anything that day. I was just told what was happening. My mom told me to pack my stuff. I had no clue what to pack or what I needed.
Coming to (a village west of Kyiv) I started hearing explosions, and was starting to get scared, but still confused. The lights were off, there was a limited amount of food and internet, but I was close with my family: My dad, mom, uncle, aunt, little cousin, and my cat Martin. After a week my parents decided my mom and I should leave Kyiv and Ukraine.
I was standing in the airport in Poland, saying goodbye to my father and Martin. Explaining what I was feeling at that moment is unreal. I was happy, going to a place I wanted to go my entire life. But on the other side, I was sad. My tears were mixed up with my smile. It was the weirdest feeling that I’d ever felt. But I thought it’s not going to be for a long time.
Sofia’s dad: A Russian cruise missile hit about 800 meters from where Sofia was sleeping on the first day of the war. The village she was in is about 15 kilometers south of Bucha. Before she left, Ukrainian artillery was firing over her uncle’s house at Russian troops to the north. Sofia and her mother stayed with friends for three months in the U.S., then they moved to Britain as war refugees.
What was it like coming to England?
Flying on the plane, scrolling through pictures I took in America with my friends, I was crying, I didn’t want to go. And here I was, in England. I was definitely not happy or excited about it. My mom told me to think about how many good friends I can meet here and enjoy England, too. But I didn’t want to. It was early summer.
The first week in England I was feeling drowned and sad. Sitting on my phone hour by hour every day. England was different. People were different. They were nice. Surprisingly, too nice. Compared to Ukrainians they were the kind of nice I wasn’t used to. Which was weird.
English school definitely wasn’t my dream. But I had no choice but to go there. The first day I was shocked. It was nothing close to Ukrainian or American schools. The kids… weren’t as friendly and supportive as Americans.
The classes were fairly easy, [and] I was surprised to see my weakest subjects in Ukraine were the strongest ones here. I would definitely say English kids like the Ukrainians because they aren’t the same as everyone. So a lot of them were interested in talking to us. They always say good things about Ukraine and support us… The first month I was getting used to understanding the accent and the teenagers’ slang, but eventually I got the hang of it. I would say the other Ukrainian kids are struggling more than me with understanding the teachers and kids, but the school helps them as much as they can. They give translators, so they can use them during the lesson. In English school they have free lunch.
Staying for longer in England, finding more friends, [I saw] it isn’t that bad. School is actually fun sometimes – having quite a lot of good friends I can hang out with, Ukrainians and English. It was all about finding the right people. It took time to find them, but at least I got there.
Sofia’s dad: Sofia learned to speak excellent English at an early age and always was a good student. She and her mother stayed several months with a retired British military couple before finding their own place to live.
You have been a competitive dancer (Latin and Ballroom) at a high level in Ukraine for most of your life. How did the war change that?
Dance is a part of my life I can’t live without. When I came to England my mom and I started immediately searching for dance clubs. The biggest competition (in Europe) for Ballroom Latin dancing is located in England, Blackpool, so I was sure the sport competitive dance was quite developed in Britain. But it wasn’t as much as I thought. Ukraine has many more dancing clubs around compared to England, and Ukrainians are very strong dancers… due to their way of training. [In Ukraine] I practiced five days a week or more. That was in the center of Kyiv. England is spread out. There are some good dance clubs here. We [Sofia and her mother] have to drive a lot but I’m glad I’ve been able to keep on dancing.
Sofia’s dad: On Dec. 31 a Russian cruise missile hit a hotel across the street from Sofia’s dance club in Kyiv. At the most recent competition in Blackpool, Sofia and her partner placed 5th out of 48 in their age group.
How does the future look to you? Your life in Britain is going fairly well. What do you think about Ukraine now?
Most importantly, I miss Ukraine and especially Kyiv. I lived there for all of my life. Only Kyiv feels like my real home. I feel the safest and the most comfortable there. This city and country has all of the greatest and worst memories. I definitely miss the days when I would just walk around the city center and not be scared, when I didn’t have to worry when the air raid warning would go off. And I definitely miss the days I was home. With my family, in our apartment, in Kyiv.
Ukraine is my home. And will be always. Many of my friends stayed in Ukraine rather than moving somewhere else, also some of my relatives. If you asked me, “Do you think staying in Ukraine is better than moving somewhere else?” a couple of months ago, I would definitely agree. I thought that staying home was the best that could ever happen. But when I came home for winter holidays, I saw the reality of living during a war. It wasn’t as I had imagined it. I thought not much would change, but it did.
So now I would say that I am lucky to be in England. Because if I was in Ukraine I couldn’t go to full time school, go dance, go hang out with friends, even play on my phone. But I can in England. I have the opportunity and ability to do almost anything I want. I miss my relatives and friends that stayed in Ukraine. But I not only miss them, I worry about them too. It’s not just that they’re far away, they’re living in a war. It is dangerous.
DISCLAIMER: Stefan Korshak, Kyiv Post’s Senior Defense Correspondent, conducted this interview. He is Sofia Korshak’s father. He added a few comments for reference, but besides that the story and words are Sofia’s.
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