- Annual Conference Speaker
Written by Anna Azarova, PR Manager, The British International School Ukraine as heard at the 40th COBIS Annual Conference.
First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to Mr Colin Bell and Ms Fiona Rogers for inviting me to the Conference. My thanks also go to Mrs Liz Free, Director of International School Rheintal, who inspired me to come over here.
Thing is that initially I was not supposed to physically attend the COBIS Conference. So, I think you will forgive me for my improvised message, written on the spur of the moment. But quite often, life writes its stories for us. We have just to live these stories. Some would still say that every war has social, political and historical causes and contexts. It is not true, because murdering people can not be justified, and any war becomes very personal, now I know that for sure. It is all about trauma and tragedy of a certain person -- a certain wife, a certain husband, a certain husband, a certain child.
I have made a very long trip to come over here and to address you here today, though a bit spontaneously. It was a trip that lasted two months. But when I embarked on this forced ‘journey’, I did not know that the path would lead me to London. Then, in early March, a friend of mine gave me his 14-year old son and asked me to get out of the country and take the boy with me. The boy’s mum and grandma were staying in the other Ukrainian city, and we were not able to catch up. The roads were already blocked or destroyed or covered with a network of checkpoints, it was immensely difficult and even dangerous to travel across the country.
It took us two long days to get to the border between the Western parts of Ukraine and Slovakia. In the middle of the night, the boy, Arseniy, and I crossed the border on foot carrying a heavy suitcase filled with some things we grabbed and packed in a hurry, including my laptop, which is the most important thing. At that moment, I realised our life would never be the same.
Slovakian volunteers gave us a very warm welcome and offered us a school where we slept overnight. The school was fully prepared to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, with clean sheets and bed linen, clothing and food. For the first time ever, I slept in a refugee camp. On the next day, volunteers helped us get to the railway station and we started moving to Krakow. My school friend was living there and agreed to accommodate us for a while. However, the very next day I had to book a small hotel room for us. As it turned out, Arseniy had some specific needs and my friend (who has a husband and a 4-year old daughter) was not comfortable with that. I did not want to cause any trouble for her, and we moved to the hotel.
In Krakow we stayed for a week or more. We were waiting for Arseniy’s mom and grandma to come over to Poland and pick the boy, but they had some problems with their documents and could not leave the country.
I got in touch with Mrs Liz Free, who sent a letter of support to the BISU, inviting our staff to Switzerland. She herself was accommodating a Ukrainian family of four and recommended Arseniy and me to another host family, her next-door neighbours Monika and Jonas, and their two wonderful daughters Elin and Livia, in a little lovely place called Wangs, not far from Zurich.
Arseniy and I boarded a bus, going from Krakow to Zurich, it took us 20 hours to reach the destination. We were given a very warm welcome, I remember people on the train shaking hands with me when I told them that I was coming from Ukraine. Monika and Jonas turned out to be fantastic people. We really made friends easily and quickly, even more – we became part of their family.
Two weeks later, Arseniy’s mum and grandma managed to reach Baden-Baden in Germany, I handed over the boy to them. Another 3-hour trip by train to Germany, and the Ukrainian family got united in the long run. On my way back to Switzerland, I felt a huge relief – my mission was accomplished, Arseniy’s dad was happy to learn that his boy was not only in a safe place but united with his closest relations. I remember him messaging me, ‘now I have no worries for my son and can fulfill my duty’. His dad is now serving in the Ukrainian Army somewhere in eastern Ukraine, close to the frontline. I don't know where exactly. He is not allowed to say, it is strictly forbidden to disclose the location details. He had already witnessed the first war casualties…
Afterwards, I decided to take part in the UK Sponsorship Programme. It is not that I was unhappy with my Swiss family – on the contrary. And they tried to persuade me to stay with them as long as I would wish. But I thought, being a BISU representative, my place is here, in the UK. Perhaps here I can do something useful for my school and for Ukrainian children, in terms of offering high quality, British style of education, which has always been our school’s mission. Evacuating one boy can be just a starting, pivotal point for pursuing this crucial cause on a larger scale.
Well, I applied for the UK Sponsorship Programme and found a host family, Martin and Janine, who live in East Leake, Nottinghamshire, where I am staying currently. The area is immediately associated with legends of noble hero Robin Hood, which sounds quite symbolic now.
Four days prior to my departure from Zurich to London, we had a chat with Liz and she encouraged me to try to attend the COBIS Conference. If I am here writing to you, it means that everything and anything is possible.
I would like to thank all the British people for the tremendous support, assistance, help, attention and care you have provided and continue providing to Ukrainians. When I walk down Whitehall Street and see governmental buildings featuring, showcasing, I would rather say, Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flags, tears are welling in my eyes and my heart is overwhelmed with gratitude.
Again, my new host family are very friendly, very hospitable, very nice, very helpful people who were ready and eager to take me on. No sooner had I set foot on the English soil, they got me registered everywhere, at the GP, the bank, the local council and even at a library, which means I truly settled in. Staying with them, I already feel at home – home, which I lost in Ukraine. I mean, the notion of home, not a physical building. Though I check every day if my neighbours are still alive, if they are still there...
Yes, I have shared a very personal story with you. But it proves that help can be very effective when delivered to a certain child. Many other Ukrainian children are now experiencing war trauma and suffering psychological consequences. Following my suit, I wish them to find here, in the UK and all over the globe, caring host families as well as have a chance to get quality education. I believe education is a remedy that will help them let go off the past and start a new life. Let them discover another world where they are safe, loved and raised up properly to become global citizens.