One year on from the Russian invasion, Rebecca Brahde meets a couple who fled Ukraine and have now settled in the Isle of Man. They tell her why they had to leave their homeland.

Today (Friday) marks 12 months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A remarkable Ukrainian family have now shared their experience of what happened and how they came to be in the Isle of Man.

It was February 24, 2022, when Yuriy and Nadiya Khadzyysky were woken up at 4am by the sound of bombs.

The couple lived in Berdyansk, a port city in the south east of Ukraine, not far from Mariupol.

Yuriy was a politician and Nadiya was director of culture in the district, but she also would organise and lead protests, even before the invasion.

The couple’s daughter, Anastasiya, along with her husband Krasimir and their daughter Mia, were living in the Isle of Man, having been here for almost seven years at the time.

Anastasiya and Krasimir had moved from Georgia, after Krasimir was offered a job here.

In our two-hour meeting, the family conveyed hope, despair, anger, sorrow, pride and gratitude as they opened up about their experience over the past year.

Krasimir and Anastasiya translated for Yuriy and Nadiya, as they do not speak much English.

Yuriy said: ‘We were about 95% sure that a full-scale war would start.’

Three days before the Russian invasion, Krasimir had called Yuriy and Nadiya, asking the couple whether they should leave the country for some time.

Yuriy added: ‘We were considering it, but we decided it is unfair to the other people of Ukraine and we are patriots of Ukraine, so we felt we should stay there.’

It was when they heard a bomb in their port that the couple knew that a war had started.

On the third day of the full-scale invasion, the Russian forces entered their city, Berdyansk.

Nadiya said: ‘We met them face to face, they were wearing military clothes, they carried machine guns and they had RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) on their backs as well.

Yuriy added: ‘The city was empty at this time. There was nobody on the streets, it was not that nobody was in the city, but everybody was scared.’

‘The first Russians who entered the city were part of the special forces that had to occupy and enter cities.’

Nadiya said: ‘I tried to convince them that they are wrong. They are occupiers, nobody actually wants them to be there. It is not like we were waiting for them.’

The couple described the tense atmosphere. A few Ukrainian civilians were shooting at the Russian forces to stop them from entering Berdyansk.

At first, the Russian forces were careful as they didn’t know if Ukrainian forces were nearby, so they would fall into silence, and would keep their distance from civilians.

Yuriy said: ‘They even told Nadiya, “woman just go home, we are here incognito”.’

It was after this, that Nadiya and Yuriy, told local people that they would meet, and protest in front of the city hall.

Nadiya said: ‘The next day ordinary women met there and started singing the Ukrainian anthem in front of them.

‘We understood that the only way to stay safe is to gather as many people as possible, so the more we are the less bad things could happen to us.

‘So we started calling people, we started gathering more people and we started shouting at the main square Berdyansk wake up, Berdyansk defend your city.

‘We had never seen so many people at the protest in Berdyansk. Thousands of people were there on the first day.

‘After this, from our group men gathered and went to the Russians, and told them “let’s negotiate what you are doing here, because we don’t want you to start shooting and killing a lot of people”.

‘We told them that we are not going anywhere, we are staying here, and then they launched some artillery from the city port at this moment, when all of the people were gathered at the main square to scare the people.’

Russian forces started shooting at the protesters, but the protesters ran towards the forces.

Eventually the Russian forces retreated.

‘We gave them some space and they retreated’ Nadiya said. ‘We were shouting bad words about Putin, about them as well, that supported our spirit.

‘That was a small victory for us on the very first day, and that boosted our spirits and we started coming there everyday.’

Yet the tensions in Berdyansk continued to escalate.

Nadiya added: ‘Then they turned off all the facilities that we had, so there was no electricity, no gas, no heating, no water, and then they turned off the mobile and internet connection as well.

‘We told the active Ukrainians there that every single day, at 12pm, we will meet there at the city hall, and share information. When everyone is together at this point of time they can actually share what they know, what is happening in the city.

‘There was no internet, there was no other way of getting any news or updates.

‘Then the Russians started stealing people, not at the protests, but they started identifying people that were mostly active at those meetings, came to their houses and took them and started torturing them.’

Anastasiya, Yuriy and Nadiya’s daughter, added: ‘After the 12pm gatherings, they with their friends decided to go to a cafe to discuss what was going on.

‘My mum and dad went to grab some food for their cats, and when they came to the cafe, everybody had been attacked.

‘Everyone was cut and tortured and went missing for a few weeks and they didn’t know what happened at all.’

The family showed me a photo of one of the protests, and explained that the man in it, one of Nadiya’s friends, was taken and tortured.

After a week, a video emerged of him, his face battered, and cut.

In the video he said ‘let’s stop protesting and let’s start negotiating with the Russians’.

They said they reached a turning point when they saw someone in a desperate plight.

The man they knew was physically and morally very strong.

Bu he could then barely tell night from day. It seemed like he didn’t know what was going on.

Yuriy said the Russians knew they were politically active.

Nadiya added: ‘The Russians had three lists of people, the first two of them for active people, and the third for active people that needed to be wiped out.’

Yuriy said: ‘We had internal information that we were part of all three lists.’

The couple were told by Ukrainian forces on the front line, that if they didn’t leave in three days, their names will already be on all of the checkpoints controlled by the Russians.

Anastasia explained: ‘In fact they told them don’t leave them such a present, if they find you they are going to kill you.’

So three weeks after the invasion, the couple packed a small bag, brought their cats and left.

They were told not to bring much so they could run if they needed to.

On the way out, they saw destroyed shops, smashed civil cars and buses with children’s toys, and clothes on the seats.

Nadiya said: ‘I remember a huge man on his knees at the side of the road crying “What for? What for?”’

Nadiya and Yuriy managed to escape to Bulgaria, where Anastasiya was at the time.

They stayed in Bulgaria for three months, as Krasimir, their son-in-law is half Bulgarian, half Ukrainian, and had a network there, whilst they waited for their visas, and the logistics of the cats to come to the island.

Since June, Yuriy and Nadiya have been staying with Anastasiya, Krasimir and their granddaughter Mia.

Nadiya said: ‘We love the Isle of Man and love the people here.

‘Everybody is so friendly and helpful and it feels as though they feel our pain as their own pain, which is very important for us.

‘Your support and the way you treat us is like medicine to us.’

The Manx government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme encourages residents to open up their homes to Ukrainians, with the cabinet office providing money to do so.

Ukrainian refugees have been given the right to stay for three years, and whilst they are here, they have access to healthcare, education, benefits, and have the right to work.

Anastasiya said: ‘Everything that the Isle of Man could do, it did, and it did very well.’

Krasimir added: ‘The government actually cooperated with the Ukrainian community here.’

Anastasiya said: ‘I was in Bulgaria when the war started, and I saw how it could be difficult for a government to act fast, and from my perspective I think the Isle of Man did a very good job.’

Yuriy said: ‘We are getting such great support from the Isle of Man, not just mental support but financial support, health support, and we understand that you guys are sharing with us and that can’t be easy so we want to say how much we understand this, and how much we are thankful for this.’

Krasimir said that before the invasion, there was a very small Ukrainian community in the island, he said there were about 20 Ukrainians living here. Since the invasion, this number has grown to more than 100 Ukrainian people.

The family thanked Cafe Lingo and the Isle of Man College for the English lessons, the Isle of Man Government for the help they have provided, the hosts who have opened up their homes to Ukrainians, and the people for being so welcoming.

The only thing that was mentioned that could be improved was the job situation.

Krasimir said: ‘The language barrier is an obstacle for some Ukrainians. I would probably urge people, if there are jobs where language is not important, maybe they could reach out, because I am pretty sure there are a lot of Ukrainians who still haven’t found a job yet.’

If you want to help, through jobs or in any other way, there are three support groups on Facebook for Ukrainians which are: Manx Support for Ukraine, Isle of Man friends of Ukraine, and Isle of Man Support Ukraine.

The family are active in providing aid for Ukraine, and they help bring generators, warm clothes, vehicles and other items to Ukraine.

Although the family are safe, the reminder of the war impacts them every day.

Anastasiya explained: ‘The year has just been horrifying, our people are still dying and we don’t know when the war is going to end

‘I would say, the cure for every soul is just to go on, every day you wake up and think what can I do next. You do something to help because it matters.

‘Even if it is a drop in the ocean, but you do something, this is how you can get through it, otherwise you can enter a deep dark hole, where you don’t want to be, and that is not helpful for you or for anyone else.’

Krasimir said: ‘The main thing is that nobody lost hope, although we see a lot of tragedies happening every single day, everybody stays hopeful.

‘We all know that the victory will come, and the only way we can bring the victory closer is by not letting ourselves be too emotional.’

Yet for Yuriy and Nadiya, whilst they too remain hopeful, their experience is different.

Yuriy said: ‘The Isle of Man is such a safe, amazing, cosy place and it feels good here, but we are half not here, because everyday we live with what is going on in Ukraine from inside and outside.’

Nadiya added: ‘Our bodies are here, but our soul is in Ukraine.’