Watching my country at war from my London flat: The Ukrainian women that keep me going

The life of Ukrainian student Lana Kozak has been turned upside down in recent weeks. Here, she calls for you to welcome a refugee into your home

topshot   a view of damaged building  following a shelling in ukraine's second biggest city of kharkiv on march 3, 2022   ukraine and russia agreed to create humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians on march 3, in a second round of talks since moscow invaded last week, negotiators on both sides said photo by sergey bobok  afp photo by sergey bobokafp via getty images
SERGEY BOBOKGetty Images

I wake up at 5am and reach out in the dark for my bedside table. My phone lights up and I squint before my eyes settle. No message from my best friend, who has been waiting at the Polish border for two days now. I check my messages, text friends who have spent the night in bunkers or underground stations. I check the news. Picture after picture of blown-up buildings, dead children, streets that I walked on only months ago completely destroyed. I no longer need cold water to wake me up anymore. This is my new morning routine.

I’m adjusting to a reality where, between doing house chores and schoolwork, I’m making calls to work out how to get my family to safety. Frantically refreshing Telegram, Twitter and Instagram, waiting for the notification that the air sirens have gone off in my hometown. It’s surreal to experience this war through my phone. What keeps me going is the sheer strength of our people - especially the women.

No message from my best friend, who has been waiting at the Polish border for two days now

A few days ago, I attended an auction organised by students to raise funds for our army. I was moved by the beautiful music performances by Ukrainian artists, but what really struck me was the live call with Daria, a woman fighting on the frontlines with the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine in Kyiv. Sitting on a pile of sandbags with her gun beside her, surrounded by the awful grey of rubble and ruin, she told us about the abrupt transition from her normal life to her current one. The cycle of going to work and coming home replaced with the duty of defending her country. Daria said goodbye with the words “glory to Ukraine”, and the room chanted back “glory to our heroes”.

She is one of many women in the army, but of course this is not the only example of a heroic Ukrainian woman. I’m thinking of the women preparing molotov cocktails in my hometown. Of the elderly woman screaming at a Russian soldier who has just invaded her village. Of the woman who carried her old German Shepherd 17 kilometres to the border.

topshot   volunteers hold a basket with hand made cocktail molotovs  during a self defence civilian course on the outskirts of lviv, western ukraine, on march 4, 2022   the russian army occupied on march 4, 2022 the ukrainian nuclear power plant of zaporozhie south, the largest in europe, where bombings in the night have raised fears of a disaster as more than 12 million people have fled ukraine into neighbouring countries since russia launched its full scale invasion on february 24, united nations figures showed on march 4, 2022 photo by daniel leal  afp photo by daniel lealafp via getty images
DANIEL LEALGetty Images

Then, there are the women in my life. I spent the first few days of the war calling my best friend, Yulya, who lives in a village near Lviv. We tried to keep it light, dancing around the fears at the back of our minds, but a sudden noise and the phrase “it sounded like fireworks” bring the fears right back to the front. Now she has been in a 30-kilometre line at the border for three days in a packed car with her family. They have no food or water, but thankfully nearby villagers make tea and sandwiches for the refugees. As soon as she reaches Poland, her brother and dad will have to turn back. Men of conscription age, aged 18 to 60, were banned from leaving Ukraine after the Russian invasion on 24 February.

My mum stays in Lviv with our little dog

With barely any internet connection, Yulya sends me a picture of people travelling on foot throwing their clothes on the sidewalk to make the journey to the border easier. I message her constantly in hope of an update. I am desperate to read the simple words: “I made it.”

Another friend, Maria, continues her day-to-day life in Ukraine, interrupted by the occasional air raid siren. Her boyfriend has joined the territorial defence, and she refuses to leave him or her life there behind. In the same town, my mum stays with our little dog, Chocky. She tells me that Chocky, our mini dachshund who always barks bravely at any unknown noise, is scared and hides between her legs when they hear planes overhead.

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DANIEL LEALGetty Images

As I think of these women, I want to urge you to help them and the country they are defending. The UK government has announced the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, meaning that anyone in the UK can take in Ukrainian refugees. Housing Ukrainians, doing the research to donate to the right organisations, and volunteering at local donation centres, can make all the difference right now.

For most people, this war is a horror on the news that can be easily switched off, a choice that eludes Ukrainians wherever they are. If you choose to house a refugee, understand that they have endured incredible trauma and will be physically and emotionally exhausted. Hosting those who have just lost everything is more than just offering shelter, it is an exercise of compassion and empathy. Research their culture and make them feel at home, when their own homes could be destroyed any minute. Whether you are in a position to house a refugee or not, there are ways to support Ukrainians. It’s easy to feel powerless when watching the news, but we can harness the outpouring of public support to mighty ends. Remember, this is not the time to be indifferent.

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