As Ukrainians flee Russian invasion, ordinary Australians are opening their homes


Inna Ilyenko and her eight-year-old son Andrii have fled war in Ukraine not once, but twice.

In 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took over her home town of Donetsk, the family was forced to relocate to the capital Kyiv.

Now, eight years on, the mother and son have just touched down in Sydney after Russia began bombing the country in February.

“The further away from the war we are, the better,” Ms Ilyenko told The New Daily through an interpreter.

The 45-year-old mother had wanted to come to Australia for years, particularly to meet her online friend Anastasia Cortez, a Ukrainian-Australian in Sydney.

However, her visa application had been knocked back every time until now.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, her friend, Ms Cortez, raised money to pay for the mother and son’s airfares.

But first they had to escape to Poland under the cover of night.

Three million people have fled from Ukraine, according to the United Nations. Photo: Supplied

“What you see on TV is far from the truth. It’s actually a lot worse in reality,” Ms Ilyenko said.

She said people don’t realise the psychological impact war has on children, even after they’ve fled.

Ms Cortez said she felt it was her duty to host her newly arrived friend until they could sort out some longer-term accommodation.

“They are beautiful people. She’s a hard-working woman,” Ms Cortez said.

“To go through that as a 45-year-old, to pack her whole life into a suitcase, without her husband, without any means to support herself – just bravery – and to give her son a better future so he doesn’t have to keep running away from war … I think it’s just incredible.”

Ms Cortez stressed she is just one of many Australians stepping up to help newly arrived Ukrainians.

Another Australian welcoming Ukrainian refugees is Canberra resident Julia, a public servant who asked to keep her surname private.

Julia was browsing Reddit when she came across the website Ukraine Take Shelter, where people around the world can list their homes as being open to hosting Ukrainian refugees.

The website was created by Harvard students Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

About 100 Australians have listed their homes on the website.

Julia has set up her spare room to host Ukrainian refugees. Photo: Supplied

On Thursday, Julia received a call from a Ukrainian community group saying that a mother and her two daughters from Kyiv had just touched down in Canberra with nowhere to go.

“We were the only people listed as being available to take somebody in Canberra,” she told TND.

“We were a little bit underprepared, so my husband had to frantically go out and buy beds, and I had to clear rooms with one arm while holding a baby in my other arm.”

But, she added, “it’s what anyone would do”.

Julia was born in Ternopil, in the west of Ukraine, and speaks the language.

Other Australians who have posted on the website don’t necessarily have a connection to Ukraine, but were moved to help after seeing the news.

Local services in Australia have also been set up to help newly arrived refugees from Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Council of NSW is assisting people with coming to Australia, and the organisation is also collecting things like clothes and bedding to give to displaced people.

Australians are opening up their homes via the Ukraine Take Shelter website. Photo: Supplied

But as masses of people flee across the border into Poland, Romania and Moldova, very few of them will make it to a faraway country like Australia.

It’s not an easy process, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put a ban on men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country last month.

Some Black and brown residents even faced racism and were turned back by European border authorities, regardless of their citizenship.

The Australian government has pledged to send visa applications from Ukrainian refugees “to the top of the pile” after the Russian invasion.

More than 4000 visas have been issued to Ukrainians since the war started in February, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Most of these visas are temporary, and many applicants have existing connections to Australia.

Ms Ilyenko, for example is on a tourist visa.

This means she’s not allowed to work, and her son can’t go to school permanently.

She now hopes the government will be lenient enough to let her start a life here, at least for the time being.

Because of these obstacles, many Australians who have volunteered to open their homes might not end up hosting anybody.

The UK government, on the other hand, is paying households $630 (£350) per month to host refugees from Ukraine.

“The Australian government isn’t really making it easy for Ukrainian refugees to come,” Julia said.

“In some ways, understandably – because a refugee’s a refugee regardless of where you come from – there’s going to be queues.

“But considering that the Australian government hasn’t really made it very easy for people to come, I just wonder whether we’re going to be the exception rather than the rule.”

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