The FCN volunteers helping the people of Ukraine

The war in Ukraine – 12 months on

On 24 February 2022 the world watched in shock as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine. Attacks by Russian forces were swiftly reported in major cities across the country. Over the last 12 months Ukraine and its people have defended themselves valiantly, inspiring support from across the globe, and unifying nations in calling for peace.

Much has been written in the past year of Ukraine’s role as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, being one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat. More than half of Ukraine’s land area is arable land, and its agricultural products account for over 40% of the country’s overall exports. It therefore comes as little surprise that supply chains have been heavily impacted by the war in Ukraine, which has led to global food shortages and fuel prices skyrocketing.

The ripple effects of the war stem from its roots in Ukraine. Domestically the people of Ukraine live under constant threat of invasion and attack. Families have been separated and displaced, and refugees have fled to safer havens elsewhere while the conflict continues. Many within the UK and beyond have shown solidarity by adopting the now-iconic blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, hanging it proudly from homes, flagpoles, pub windows and in busy city centres. The flag has for many become a symbol of peace, democracy, strength, and national pride.

Some have been in the position to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees; particularly those in the farming community, who have immense respect and understanding for the long-standing agricultural heritage of Ukraine and the country’s vital role in providing food for countries and people around the world.

Support for Ukrainian families

Volunteers from The Farming Community Network (FCN) are among those providing safety, shelter and support to Ukrainian refugees. As a charity supporting people in agriculture and allied industries during difficult and often challenging times, FCN’s volunteers understand farming life and its pressures and ‘walk with’ farming people, helping them find a positive way through any issues they may be experiencing.

Geoff Sansome has been an FCN volunteer in Worcestershire since 2015, supporting on a wide variety of difficult cases. On 24 February 2022 – the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – 37-year-old Vika and her 10-year-old daughter, Katya, fled their home in Kiev. After living temporarily with 16 others in a small house in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, they made the 2,500-mile journey to England. There they found safety, security and comfort in Geoff’s home.

Geoff previously worked in agricultural transition projects in Ukraine for many years and has a personal, deep respect and love for the country. Vika and Katya are relatives of people he worked with in the past, and he felt compelled to do his part in helping them.

“It has been rewarding, but it’s also a challenging experience for both parties when you are sharing a family home,” Geoff says. “It also gives you quite an insight into some of our own administrative/bureaucratic processes in terms of helping them get registered/established/supported with our various agencies and government departments.”

While living with Vika and Katya has been an educational experience and there are cultural differences, the strong sense of family and community in Ukraine are very familiar indeed.

“Food is a big part of their culture, and their sense of family is strong,” Geoff explains. “Education, although it is very traditional in Ukraine, is a huge focus for them. Many families have only one child and see them as their future. Vika is working and sending some money back to Ukraine to support her grandparents who are in difficult circumstances.”

Farmers around the world learn from one another, with many benefiting from opportunities to visit and work in other countries to explore different systems and approaches to food production and animal welfare. Wherever farmers live and work – even thousands of miles apart – they face many of the same challenges: from animal disease and challenging weather conditions to rising input costs and other financial pressures. This engenders a strong sense of community in agriculture around the globe.

“Ukraine is a great agrarian nation and many of the issues our own farmers are facing now result from the conflict in terms of input prices. Anything we can do to help, we should,” Geoff says.

Vika and Katya are looking to establish their own home in April 2023, though the road ahead will not be without its challenges. They have made the difficult but understandable decision to not go back to Ukraine until things are more stable and safer – which, sadly, could take some time. In the meantime, Geoff and his family are helping them with plans for the next school year, which Katya is looking forward to.

“We are very, very grateful for England’s help. Geoff and Ann are now our English parents,” says Vika.

Photo, included in this article with permission, shows:

Revd Jo Musson, Vicar of Claines; two British Legion standard bearers (with flags); Chairman of Claines Royal British Legion; and centre Katya with the Ukrainian flag. She marched with the Legion flags for the Claines Remembrance day parade

“We are reminded we are not alone”

Margaret Herbert and her husband Bob have also taken in a Ukrainian family. Margaret, an FCN volunteer in Worcestershire since 2006, is Coordinator for the Group and works closely with other volunteers in the county, including Geoff.

In June 2022, the Herberts took in husband and wife Oleg and Olena; their three children, eldest daughter Oleksandra (17), son Vitalii (13) and youngest daughter Anastasiia (5); as well as the family cat, Kasya.

In May they fled the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, which has come under fire from Russian missile strikes, and headed West. They arrived in England by car in early June.

“Every day we are worried about our friends and family back home,” says Olena. “But the people of Ukraine are strong, and we continue to fight for our country and our homes.”

Margaret and Bob used to run Red Deer Farm in Worcester. Over the years they employed and hosted many students from Eastern Europe who visited England to work and learn about our agricultural methods. Being familiar with the hard work ethic of the Eastern European people and their strong focus on family and community helped them make the decision to open their doors to the family during this difficult time.

“We are fortunate enough to have two things here – peace and space,” says Margaret. “Our local Council and community have also been very supportive in welcoming the family and helping them to find their feet.”

Margaret has found the experience rewarding, learning much about Ukrainian culinary traditions and eating a lot of borscht – a distinctive red soup eaten in many Eastern European countries.

And Christmas celebrations last year lasted longer than they are used to, with the Ukrainian Christmas and New Year lasting well into January. This photograph shows the family celebrating last month with their Christmas jumpers on.

From L to R: Anastasiia, Olena, Oleg, Oleksandra, Kasya the cat and Vitalii.

The family have also learned much from their time in England. The children have picked up English quickly and are doing very well at school. On weekdays Oleg works, having secured a job shortly after arriving in England, and Olena is teaching English to other Ukrainian mothers. On weekends they like to visit historical sites and explore local heritage together. On their travels, visiting towns and villages in England, Wales and Scotland, they often encounter the Ukrainian flag, hung proudly as a mark of unity with the people of Ukraine.

“This support reminds us that we are not alone,” Olena says. “We have been made to feel very welcome in England and love exploring the culture here. Margaret and Bob are like family, and we thank them for everything they have done for us. Their support at this time has been incredible.”

Oleksandra is looking to study Modern Languages at university, and the family are hoping to move into separate accommodation later in the year.

The family is also continuing to do their part to support the war effort back home, working to collect 100s of sleeping bags as well as blankets, warm clothes and portable cookers, which they are sending back to Ukraine for soldiers on the front line.

Local community initiatives

Across the border in North Wales, FCN supporter Paula Sells is helping to coordinate an initiative to supply Ukraine with much-needed generators. Paula recognised that a generator could make so much difference to farms, community halls and isolated smallholdings in Ukraine as the conflict there continues – as well as to soldiers on the frontline, army medical centres for the wounded and to hospitals throughout the country.

Following a conversation over a coffee with some acquaintances from Ukraine in a local town, Paula felt compelled to do her part to help. “It was heart-breaking hearing about the war conditions; the children making candles in old food tins and the older women knitting white camouflage covers for the army,” said Paula.

A lorry to and from Ukraine visits their local area every month, picking up from various towns from Chester to Llandudno. The initiative hopes to help to repurpose old or spare generators from around Denbighshire, Flintshire and Cheshire in the Chester area by repairing and reservicing them, and helping to get them delivered to the Ukrainian people who desperately need them.

Photographed is a generator recently unloaded at a frontline army medical facility in Ukraine. It was donated from Cil Llwyn, Llandyrnog just before Christmas, transported to Chester and on to the Polish border by HGV, then fast-tracked to the army, arriving on 26th December, 2022.

Paula’s’s project is an example of a local community initiative that hopes to see people banding together to support their fellow farmers in Ukraine. There are many such initiatives taking place throughout the UK.

Volunteers at the heart of FCN

FCN volunteers play a vital role supporting the agricultural community. They have been called a ‘lifeline’ and help thousands of farming people each year. They listen, support and help people with a wide variety of issues – from mediating during difficult family disputes to coordinating social events for people who may have limited opportunities to meet others and share experiences. 

Farmers are the backbone of the UK, ensuring we all have food on our plates and that our idyllic countryside is maintained and cultivated. Those growing up or living in urban environments may have limited exposure to farming, and perhaps see over the farm gate without ever passing through it. But all benefit from their hard work and dedication tending to the land and their livestock.

For those growing up on farms or living in rural areas, farming is a way of life, unlike any other. The sense of community, of family, and of heritage in farming is unique, and these themes are embodied through the strength of the Ukrainian people. As the war in Ukraine sadly rages on, we hope the people of Ukraine can remain strong and continue to strive for peace and freedom.

Slava Ukraini.

  • Alex Phillimore is Head of Communications and Development at The Farming Community Network. He is an accredited PR practitioner with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and a member of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists.
  • We would like to thank Margaret, Geoff and Paula for taking part in this feature.
  • We give special thanks to the Ukrainian families for giving us permission to tell their stories.
Share this page