Former Leeds university student and journalist Maria Romanenko who fled Ukraine says British public are ‘incredible’ and ‘accepting’

A former Leeds student who fled Kyiv for Manchester has praised the “incredible” and “accepting” attitude of the UK public, who have given her free meals, gifted flowers, and offered up accommodation.

By Georgina Morris
Tuesday, 8th March 2022, 4:30 pm

Ukrainian journalist Maria Romanenko, 29, landed in Manchester last Wednesday after a 23-hour trip through the Polish border with her British boyfriend.

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Ms Romanenko told of how she was given a free meal at Indian restaurant Dishoom in Manchester and given a hug by the waiter when he recognised her from UK news coverage about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Former University of Leeds student Maria Romanenko, right, and her British boyfriend, Jez Myers. Picture: PA

“They offered to cover our bill because they recognised us from the media, and I just started crying again,” Ms Romanenko said.

“To see the restaurant pay for it was very, very touching, and I was like, to the waiter: ‘Can I give you a hug?’

“He said: ‘Yeah, this is the least we can do.’ It was very touching and unexpected.”

Ms Romanenko, who studied maths and Russian civilisation at the University of Leeds, was given a visa waiver document by the British Government.

She was able to fly from Krakow to Manchester where she is staying with her partner, 44-year-old Jez Myers.

Having now acquired a six-month visitors’ visa, Ms Romanenko detailed more of her experience in England so far.

“A neighbour gave me flowers when we returned and there was another neighbour who came with his five-year-old son, they brought me a drawing his son made saying: ‘Welcome home’ with Ukrainian flags – it was very sweet,” she said.

“On a general public level, it’s been incredible… it definitely feels like the British people are very accepting.

“I’m getting messages on Twitter… people who I’ve never met saying: ‘I’m in Cambridge, let me know if you need accommodation,’ or: ‘I’m in Sheffield, let me know if you need anything.’

“There’s a couple of places locally that have said: ‘Pop into our cafe and we will give you a free coffee’, or: ‘Pop in and we will give you free cakes.'”

Ms Romanenko has left behind family and friends in Kyiv, including her 59-year-old father who has enlisted to fight in Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Force.

“It wasn’t news to me,” she said. “There would be no talking him out of it because he’s very firm and decisive like that.”

She described how she has not “processed” events from nine days ago when the invasion began.

“The first eight, nine days, I didn’t even cry once – for me, it was like watching a film because everything was moving so fast… I didn’t have the time to understand that this is happening to my country, to my family, to me,” she said.

“The first time I cried was a few nights ago when we were having dinner and Jez showed me a video of a neighbourhood near Kyiv being completely bombed – buildings turned into ashes. And I just started crying.

“Since then, every single small thing could trigger me into tears.”

Ms Romanenko’s boyfriend, Mr Myers, regularly works and lives both in Manchester and Kyiv.

The pair had flown to the Ukrainian capital just days before Russia invaded on Thursday, February 24.

They fled west that morning and had reached the Ukraine-Poland border by the next day thanks to a lift from a friend of Mr Myers’, who lived in the city of Lviv – 43 miles from the border.

“We started driving at 4am… there was already a queue of cars, traffic that wasn’t moving at all – a standstill,” Ms Romanenko said.

“When we joined the queue, at first it seemed quite a joyous moment, and people were relaxed.

“After hours of standing there, it was getting harder and harder because it’s so crowded… imagine being at the worst kind of concert, you can’t move, you have to put your head up for fresh air.

“We didn’t have any water or food, and there were no toilet facilities.”

Ms Romanenko detailed how she excused herself from the queue and collapsed after experiencing “shivers” and feeling “really, really sick”.

“I was just like: ‘I don’t care what happens, I just need to get myself out because otherwise, I’m not sure if I will be alive,'” she explained.

“I just (lay) on the ground for 10 minutes, just breathing… and eventually I got up and joined the queue.”

Ms Romanenko and Mr Myers arrived in Poland 23 hours after they initially joined the standing queue in Ukraine, where they were greeted with cheese sandwiches and coffee.

Mr Myers explained the long-term plan will be to return to Ukraine, but complained of the “lies” from the British Government when it comes to waiving visas for incoming Ukrainians.

“There are people who are fleeing from a war, and the Government is simply not doing much,” he said.

“It claims to be pushing a line of virtuosity and generosity – it is simply a lie, there is no two ways around it.

“They could be doing more and they should be doing more.”

The Home Office disclosed on Monday night that just 300 visas from Ukrainians have been issued out of a total of 17,700 family scheme applications that have been started, 8,900 of which have been submitted.

Protests have been staged around the country since the conflict began to call for an immediate end to the war and more action from the British Government.

Around 500 people turned out for a protest in Leeds on Sunday, with the crowd marching through the city centre before speeches outside the town hall.

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