When bereft mother of six Liliya Onopa walked into the bungalow created for her by a small school community in Chepstow she thought it was a scam. The cozy space has been decorated beautifully with no stone unturned.
“There are even scissors for manicures,” Liliya told WalesOnline, sitting on the sofa in her new lounge after taking her three youngest children to St Mary’s RC Primary School, where she tells us they are settling in well. Her new home is less than a stone’s throw from the school. In fact, the community have worked tirelessly to ensure the house met the standards required to house Liliya and her boys.
“There were even slippers for us all. It’s those little things, ”she went on. “When we came here for the first night there was a hot meal for the children.” After what Liliya has been through in the space of a horrendous few months, little acts of kindness have gone a long way. But at the start she could not believe it, and even now she finds it difficult to understand why. You can get more news like this and other story updates by subscribing to our newsletters here.
READ MORE: ‘I signed up to take in Ukrainian refugees but the stress of it all left me in hospital needing emergency surgery’
Her translator, Julia Dubin, explained: “She kept asking: ‘Why? Is it a scam? I do not understand why people are doing so much for us. ‘ But I keep saying to her that it’s different here. The people here want to help each other and they are desperate to help her. I tell her that there does not have to be a ‘why’. ”
Before Russia invaded Ukraine Liliya lost her four-year-old daughter Liza in a fire at their home in Mar’ivka, in the center of the country. Liliya had already lost 13-year-old daughter Vladochka. So when Russian forces approached, she said that, despite the hostility she could face, she felt she had to risk fleeing the country.
She took to Facebook to track down the creators of the Chepstow refugee bungalow after seeing stories about their efforts online. And that’s how she met organizers of the project and governors of the school, Phil Cotterell and Francis Tindall. As soon as she spoke to Phil she said she knew she needed to try and get to Chepstow.
“We knew how dangerous the journey would be,” she said. “Russian aggressors were bombing every route because they knew people were trying to escape. We had planned to go by Odesa but the route there was so devastated it was too much. We then planned to go by Lviv but then that was targeted.
“Many people were coming to us and offering transport but would then say they no longer wanted to because it was too dangerous. Many were popping up like mushrooms trying to take as much money as they could.
“Eventually we got to Bucharest, writing to Phil and Louise (Pavia – another organizer) every 20 minutes to tell them we were safe. Explosions in Ukraine were going off all around us. My kids are so scared that when we went to see a band this week and there were fireworks they ran away and started panicking that it was happening again. ”
Through tears of gratitude and sadness Liliya explained how life had not always been this way for her and her family. “Before the war started we lived peacefully in our village. The people of Ukraine are peaceful people and we lived well among Russian and Armenian people too.
“I speak fluent Russian and I have never felt any problems there until now. We were building our lives, we had a lovely garden, my son was going to dentistry school. We were looking forward. Now I speak to my friends there and they are fighting in Mariupol. People in [Russian] occupied territories do not have access to clean water, food or medication.
“Just 20km from my village, war is raging. A boy in my village, just 23, was buried this week due to fighting Russian forces. They are frightened every day that Russia will announce war on neighboring countries supporting Ukraine too. ”
The team at Chepstow balanced efforts trying to get Liliya to the UK with time doing up the bungalow – headed by Phil and Francis who have spent hours almost every day there ever since. On Friday Liliya and her boys walked through the school gates, cheered on by pupils at the school who performed a guard of honor to officially welcome them.
Headteacher Rosie Cerqua said the children had “been like little celebrities” since their arrival.
After being formally presented with the keys to her new home, Liliya addressed the community which got her there. “I have been scared, but not as scared for my life but for the lives of my children,” she said. “I am so, so grateful to every single person who has made this all possible, and for bringing us from our home to Chepstow safely. We had issues with our visas which were solved and we are so grateful that we are now able to feel safe again.
“When I first saw the school where my kids would go and when I visited Saturday service in the church everything hit home and I felt so overwhelmed. I have no words to describe how I feel and how grateful I am. I feel so overwhelmed that thanks to all of you we can finally feel safe again in this beautiful community. ”
Details of the family’s difficulties with the UK visa system and delays can be found here. Many people like Phil who are sponsors have complained that the system is too slow with unnecessary obstacles causing significant delays.
As of May 17, 107,400 Ukrainian visas had been issued out of 128,100 applications. Of the 6.3m refugees to have left Ukraine more than three million are in Poland, while Romania has taken in almost a million and Hungary more than 600,000. Germany said as of May 14 it had taken in more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Phil said getting Liliya to Chepstow had been challenging “with many twists and turns along the journey”. He added: “But that journey has seen unbelievable kindness and generosity from so many.”