From Kyiv to Glasgow: A story of hope and humanity amid a horrific war

21 February 2023

Neil Mackay, the Herald’s Writer at Large catches up with the Abramov family, who fled Ukraine as Russia invaded and found themselves sheltered by a Glasgow family.

Vlad, Natallia and Margo were assisted by Positive Action in Housing’s Room for Refugees Network to reach Scotland.

(Reprinted from The Herald on Sunday, 19.2.23)

Last year, we told how the Abramov family fled Ukraine as Russia invaded. They were aided by Scottish refugee workers who found a Glasgow family to shelter them. As the war’s anniversary approaches, Neil Mackay discovers what happened next ... 

LIKE her country, Natallia Abramov’s stoicism seldom falters. It’s only when she talks of her aching homesickness for Ukraine that her breath catches and her eyes pool. “It’s hard to talk about,” she says. “It’s my pain.”

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches, Natallia is rebuilding her shattered life after fleeing Kyiv and escaping to Glasgow.

Last year, as Putin’s tanks rolled in, The Herald on Sunday told the story of Natallia’s flight to Scotland with her husband Vlad and seven-year-old daughter Margo. Their survival depended on the kindness of strangers: the Smith family in Glasgow, who took them into their home, and Robina Qureshi, head of Scotland’s refugee charity Positive Action in Housing, who helped them flee Ukraine and paired them with the Smiths. 

A year on, this remarkable story of courage, hope, and human kindness continues to unfold.

Since the war, the Abramovs faced one insurmountable problem: Vlad is Russian. That’s why he’s not in Ukraine fighting. He’s a man without a homeland, he says. Vlad detests the Russian government. He’ll never return as long as Putin is in power. A Russian-Ukrainian marriage is as common as a Scottish-English marriage, so there are countless families like the Abramovs.

When the shelling started, the Abramovs improvised a bomb shelter in their hallway. Natallia covered Margo with her body; Vlad covered them both with his. They had to tell Margo what to do if they both died and she survived: call mummy’s family, save yourself.

Vlad speaks excellent English. So as the war began, they searched desperately online for a route to Britain. Fate connected them with Qureshi, a tireless champion for refugees, who swung into action. She had built a list of families willing to house refugees from other wars, like Afghanistan. The Smiths were on that list. They agreed to be the Abramovs’ sponsor family.

The Abramovs raced to Ukraine’s border with the word “child” on their car’s windscreen in case Russian troops fired. They drove for 12 hours straight, with Margo in nappies, as there was no stopping. Once over the border, they travelled through Moldova to Romania, where they endured agonising weeks waiting for Vlad’s visa to be approved because of his Russian nationality.

At one point, as money dwindled, they even contemplated the terrible possibility of Vlad remaining behind while Natallia and Margo went ahead to Scotland. Money from Qureshi’s charity kept them alive. Finally, their documents were approved. 

The Smiths met them at Glasgow Airport and took them back to their Pollokshaws home. It was late. After a glass of wine, they went to bed. “We were exhausted,” Vlad says. “But we couldn’t sleep; we were talking about whether we’d made the right decision. But the next morning, when the light came, we got our hope back.”

Qureshi found Vlad work in Glasgow’s The Anchor Line restaurant. Now 43, Vlad is a law graduate who worked in banking and knew nothing of cooking. “I couldn’t even use a knife,” he jokes. But the owner had a big enough heart to give him a break and train him as a chef. Today, Vlad has his own station in the kitchen.

Initially, Vlad was ashamed to tell colleagues he was Russian, so he just said, “I’m from Ukraine”. It wasn’t a lie. Eventually, he found the courage to tell the truth. They accepted him without prejudice. They tease him, saying, “keep the gas low” so Russia doesn’t get rich, but it’s affectionate.

Natallia works online as an accountant for the Ukrainian gas company which employed her in Kyiv. Its processing plant is near the frontline, though. “Everything could be destroyed any minute,” she says. Natallia’s English has improved enormously since coming to Scotland. “I can now go to the doctor or school without Vlad, and people understand me,” she says.

Margo was treated with enormous kindness at Pollokshaws Primary. No wonder she has fallen in love with Scotland. While fleeing through Europe, loud bangs terrified her, but Margo feels safe and happy in Glasgow. She’s found a home. For her parents, though, the word “home” means pain.

Nevertheless, the Abramovs are more fortunate than many Ukrainian refugees. The Smiths own two adjacent flats and gave one to the Abramovs, so both families have privacy. For others, life with sponsors can mean a spare room. Many live on cruise ships. “We’re very lucky,” says Vlad.

There has been joy, despite the pain. Natallia splashed out at Christmas buying a 12 feet tree. It seemed a great idea until they had to chop it up in January.

Laughter is the Abramovs’ medicine. They chuckle about still getting confused by the Glasgow accent.

Natallia was a huge Outlander fan back in Ukraine – with a crush on star Sam Heughan. That inspired them to tour the Highlands. They found therapy in Scotland’s landscape. Skye remains special to them. “It’s just beautiful,” they say together.

The Abramovs became firm friends with their sponsors and still live in the Smith’s flat. Finding their own home is now an obsession, however. They’re hugely grateful for the shelter but desperate to stand on their own two feet.

It’s tough, though. Vlad doesn’t earn much, and Natallia’s salary from Ukraine fluctuates due to war. They want to stay in Pollokshaws as they can’t face uprooting Margo again. But social housing is hard to come by, private rents are extortionate given their means, and their financial situation makes a mortgage unobtainable just yet.

But they’re saving for an independent future. “We understand there’s a cost-of-living crisis. We don’t want to take anybody’s place; we don’t want special treatment,” says Vlad.

So far, Scotland has been good to them. There’s been no racism. “Surprisingly, we like the weather,” says Vlad. Summers aren’t sweltering like in Ukraine. “You can walk for hours.” They love Scottish lamb. The only disappointment really has been that Natallia couldn’t find Outlander on TV as it airs on Amazon. “How can I not watch this Scottish show in Scotland?” she laughs.

Beneath the smiles and brave exterior, though, sadness runs deep. Vlad explains how he told colleagues why he didn’t stay and fight. “If Russia’s FSB [secret service] found out that a Russian citizen was fighting against them, then my [Russian] family would have a problem. If I was captured, I’d go to a Siberian jail for a long time for treason.”

The couple realise that it will be many years before Vlad can return to Ukraine, the country he loves as his adopted homeland.

“How can I go back after those war crimes and so many dead, even among our neighbours? The people who lived around us, their husbands, brothers and sons, were killed. How can I live among them? How can I look into their eyes?”

Even if Ukraine wins, returning won’t be easy. The couple talk nervously about all the uncontrolled weapons there will be after the war, all the soldiers with PTSD, and what might happen to Vlad for being Russian. “It’ll take a long time to forget,” he says. “It took years to forgive Germany after World War Two.”

Nor can Vlad return to Russia. To do so would mean leaving his wife and child. He hates Putin’s regime. He feels stateless, a man without nationality or a nation. He can barely face talking by phone to his parents in Russia anymore. “They’re old school,” he says. They believe Putin’s propaganda. “They think they’re liberating Ukraine. It’s very hard.”

Natallia’s heart was broken before she fled. Her father died shortly before they escaped.

Her brother, who is 50, is waiting for his call-up papers. He’s told them of watching missiles fly directly overhead in Kyiv. Their stories of life back home are unremittingly grim: tales of winter’s coldness and the constant fear of death.

While Vlad has come to terms with his statelessness, and Margo has found happiness in Scotland, Natallia’s grief for Ukraine is palpable. “For 39 years, I lived in Ukraine, I was born in Kyiv. In Kyiv, there are my friends, my family, my work, and my stuff. My stuff, my stuff. My apartment, our car.

“You can’t imagine how much I just miss driving to work. I close my eyes and imagine I’m sitting in my car, going to the office and drinking coffee like I did every morning. Everything is good here, but I knew what to do in Ukraine – here, I have to learn it all again with a new country new rules. It’s like I’m on standby. I’m waiting. I’m waiting for something. I don’t know what, maybe peace and what we’ll do when the war ends. It’s been stressful for me, and I understood that I could destroy my health if I continued to live like this.”

The Abramovs left everything behind. They were a middle-class family with a home and had just bought land outside Kyiv, where Margo wanted to play with her first pet dog. They still plan to buy that dog when they get their own home here. Margo wants a border collie as they’re smart. She’ll call it Snowy.

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War has taken so much from the Abramovs, and Natallia’s rage toward Russia is profound. “It’s very hard for me. It’s my country. Ukraine may not be perfect but it’s mine. I so hate Russia. It’s weird, as my husband is Russian. I see them on social media saying ‘kill Ukrainians’. How can they believe what they hear on Russian TV?”

There has been no tension between Natallia and Vlad, though. He’s as much a victim of Russian aggression as she and Margo. Vlad says people like his parents just don’t want to believe their country is little better than Nazi Germany. 

Natallia tried to maintain some contact with Vlad’s parents as she was close to them but now it’s too difficult for her. Vlad rings his parents with Margo for birthdays, where the conversation is kept to “kid stuff”. But they can’t talk properly, he says, as “every time we come back to this topic and I can’t stand what they say. They’ve Russian propaganda 24-7.”

Natallia says she doesn’t hate Vlad’s family. It’s Putin she hates. “You couldn’t print what I’d do to him. It’s not humanitarian.” When she talks of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, however, she glows with pride. “I never imagined Ukraine could be so united. We won’t tire. We’ll protect Ukraine to the last of us. We’re so proud of our president. We’re very grateful to all countries like Britain who helped us.”

Their greatest fear is that as the war drags on, and the financial crisis deepens, Western governments will cut support, and Ukraine will be partitioned like Korea. If that happens, they warn, Western democracy is at risk. “Next, it will be Moldova, the Baltic countries; they talk sometimes about parts of Poland,” says Vlad. Natallia adds: “Putin must be stopped.”

The bond between Ukraine and Britain is strong, they say, as the UK went through similar experiences, alone at the start of the Second World War against a dictator. “Your cities were bombed too, your kids were transferred to the country,” Vlad says.

Next week, on February 24, the war’s anniversary, the Abramovs will simply spend the day remembering. “We still remember how Natallia woke me up, telling me the war had started,” says Vlad. 

“Nobody forgets that. It only happens in the movies. Then we’ll focus on positive things – we’ve come this long way, so we can’t be weak. We must be strong for Margo, we must go forward. We’re lucky. We’ve only met good people so far – Robina, the Smiths, the owner of the restaurant who gave me a chance, my colleagues who taught the stupid Russian how to cook.”

Scottish family

“I’VE such admiration for them,” says Dr Rachel Smith, whose family gave the Abramovs shelter. “They’re resilient, lovely people.”

Yet, the Smiths are resilient too. It takes courage to open your home to strangers. However, Rachel insists it wasn’t all that hard as the Abramovs had their own small flat, adjacent to the Smiths. Still, the Smiths took a financial hit as they could easily have rented out the apartment. Rachel simply says: “We don’t feel that’s the right thing to do.”

Rachel teaches linguistics at Glasgow University, her partner is a statistician. Over the years they’ve offered their flat to many refugees. They’re good people who want to give something back. Rachel says other families without the same space would have found sponsoring Ukrainian refugees “much more challenging. We’re in our bubble and they’re in theirs. They can just get on with their own lives”.

Once the Abramovs are able to find their own home, the Smiths will offer their flat to other refugees. Their children became Margo’s surrogate siblings – especially Eleanor. The pair go to Pollokshaws Primary together and their friendship helped Margo acclimatise.

Despite her kindness, there’s an anger in Rachel Smith. She feels Ukrainian refugees have been treated much better by Britain than refugees from places like Afghanistan.

“It’s deeply racist,” she says. Non-Ukrainian refugees are “constantly demonised” by the press and Home Office.

State support for Ukrainians has been criticised. Sponsors get £350 per month to cover expenses; refugees receive a one-off payment of £200. The relationship between sponsors and the state is seemingly negligible. Similarly, with Ukrainians, there’s little contact with the state. The Abramovs were supposed to be visited but nobody turned up. Some sponsors say the system suffers from “administrative dysfunction”.

The Smiths always absorb the culture of the strangers they shelter. They’re very taken by Natallia’s varenyky, Ukrainian dumplings. Having the Abramovs so close has made the horror of Ukraine’s war desperately real for the Smiths. But the sweet times outweigh the dark. They all attended a Eurovision party together. “It was so very heartening to see Ukraine win,” Rachel says.

The campaigner

IT’S not hyperbole to say that Robina Qureshi and her charity, Positive Action in Housing (Positive Action in Housing), change lives every day. She and her staff get people out of war zones and find them homes here. Without Positive Action in Housing, the Abramovs would never have made it to Scotland, and who knows what would have befallen them. “They’re a delightful family. We’re so glad to have been able to help them,” Qureshi says.

While trapped in limbo in Romania, Positive Action in Housing helped the Abramovs navigate Britain’s tortuous visa process and gave them £1500 from emergency funds when their money ran out.

Positive Action in Housing has housed 500 Ukrainian families and individuals. The charity pioneered the idea of ordinary British families taking in refugees years ago. The initiative was effectively the template of the current government policy for Ukrainian refugees. 

“People like Rachel Smith are essential to what we do – they’re the lifeline,” Qureshi says. There are 20,000 families like the Smiths currently registered with Positive Action in Housing. “It’s amazing,” she says.

However, ask Qureshi about the UK Government’s refugee policy and the kind words stop. She’s furious with the Home Office. 

Non-Ukrainian refugees are treated disgracefully, she feels. It’s common practice for those seeking asylum to be reduced to poverty and homelessness. 

“People tell me ‘even the hell we’re in here now is good compared to where they were’.”

Many refugee campaigners feel the UK Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme allowed the state to shirk its responsibilities, offloading the hard work onto ordinary people like the Smiths.

Qureshi says initiatives like the Scottish Government’s Ukrainian super-sponsor scheme, which granted 30,000 visas, were admirable, but where, she asks, will people eventually be housed? Many are on cruise ships. Others, like the Abramovs, struggle to make money to move on from living with sponsor families. 

Some, adds Qureshi, have been told to get out of their sponsor’s home as months dragged on. Ukrainians will now likely be moved from cruise ships into hotels. 
“It’s going to be disastrous,” Qureshi says, “when it comes to homelessness.”

And if things are difficult for Ukrainians, they are beyond desperate for refugees from the Middle East or Africa. Home Office policies, which make it exceptionally difficult to reach Britain, have led to the rise in people smuggling, Qureshi says.

And what about the Abramovs’ future? “I hope they find peace,” she says.
“I hope Britain offers them the opportunity to stand on their own two feet and find a home of their own.”

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