A married couple, who met in Ukraine and now live in Darlington, are at the heart of a mission to bring comfort to soldiers on the frontline of the fight against the Russian invasion. PETER BARRON reports

AS Oksana Syzemko chats in the house she has made home in a peaceful corner of North-East England, the room is filled every few minutes with the sudden sound of a traditional Ukrainian folk song.

It is Oksana’s ringtone, and the tune, Red Kalyna, is known to all Ukrainians because Kalyna is the translation for the Viburnum bush that bears red berries and is a national symbol of their homeland.

“It is our song,” smiles Oksana. “In it, we talk to the bush and promise to take care of it, so that it can blossom and be strong.”

It is a symbol of hope, a reminder that Ukraine will flourish again one day and, when the music sounds, it's usually a refugee seeking Oksana’s help.

“She never stops – she’s my little whirlwind,” says Nigel Scott, her English husband, and her loyal partner in a mission to support the 170 Ukrainians who have so far fled to Darlington.

“Oksana’s a powerhouse, a walking helpline, and the calls come in at all hours because she just wants to help,” he adds, proudly.

The couple are also the driving force behind a Darlington appeal to collect and transport supplies of warm clothing and food to the refugees’ fathers, sons, and brothers who are fighting the Russian invasion back home.

Indeed, Oksana and Nigel personify the bond that has developed between England and Ukraine. The flags of the two countries fly from their home in Kitching Grove, while the cushions on the furniture in their lounge all feature sunflowers – another national symbol of Ukraine.

It is an unlikely love story between a strapping international lorry driver from Darlington and a diminutive English teacher from Kryvyi Rih, the hometown of Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Over the past 30 years, Nigel has driven all over Europe and, in 2011, he hired a translator, called Constantine, to be his guide during a holiday in Ukraine. The men became friends, and it was through Constantine that Nigel was introduced to Oksana.

There was an immediate connection, and the couple went on to get married in Kryvyi Rih in 2017, maintaining a long-distance relationship while efforts were made to sort out the paperwork that would enable them to be together permanently.

Before that process could be completed, the Covid-19 pandemic began, and it wasn’t until July last year that Oksana was finally able to move to Darlington with her two teenage sons, Bohdan and Daniil.

Little did they know then that, within a year, Putin would have launched his illegal invasion, and that Ukrainian refugees would seek sanctuary in the UK.

Oksana and Nigel linked up with Darlington Assistance for Refugees (DAR), and began playing their part by welcoming the first refugees arriving at the town’s railway station in April.

They’ve been involved ever since, with Oksana making invaluable use of her professional experience. Not only does she teach refugee children living in Darlington, but goes online every day to give lessons to youngsters throughout Ukraine.

She also acts as a translator and mediator between refugees and their English sponsors, helping with cultural differences, resolving issues, and organising days out to places such as Newcastle, Redcar beach, and Richmond Castle.

A hub for the Ukrainian refugees has been established by DAR at Well Methodist Church, in North Road. They meet on Monday evenings to share experiences, deal with problems, maintain each other’s spirits, and distribute donations of a range of everyday items, including blankets, pillows, cutlery, pots and pans, crockery, and kettles.

Children, whose fathers are in the thick of the fighting, play happily in the church hall, while their parents catch up over cups of tea. They dream of going home one day, to a peaceful Ukraine, but, for now, it is about working together with their English sponsors to be safe.

“It is strange for them at first because they can be lonely and homesick. Some have gone back, but others are still arriving, and Darlington has been very welcoming,” says Oksana.

“The council’s response has been amazing, the Jobcentre has been very helpful, and so many people have shown kindness. We had a gathering with some of the refugees at a café in the covered market and, when the stallholder found out who we were, he refused to take any money for the coffees.

She is also keen to publicly thank Tesco, which has been a regular source of donations through one of its warehouse employees, Inga Smirnova, who is a DAR member.

The latest focus in on gathering supplies to take out to the soldiers, who are facing temperatures of minus 40 degrees as the Ukrainian winter begins to bite. 

Nigel and Oksana’s home has become the collection-point, so the lounge is covered with fleece jackets, waterproof trousers, jogging bottoms, gloves, socks, Long Johns, and sleeping mats, as well as tinned food, biscuits, chocolate, and throat lozenges.

So far, there is enough to equip around 50 soldiers – all paid for out of donations from Ukrainian refugees – but Oksana and Nigel hope they can collect a lot more before they drive to the Polish border at the end of November to deliver the supplies to a friend who will then arrange for them to be taken to the frontline.

They will also be taking a large “We Stand With Ukraine” flag, bearing personal messages from the families at the Darlington hub. One is translated as: Our dear warriors, we are praying for you, so come home healthy, not injured, and with victory. Another, written by a child, simply says: We are thinking of you – glory to Ukraine.

“We want our soldiers to know they are in our thoughts, our prayers and our hearts, and we would be grateful for any donations of warm clothing or financial help, so that we can protect more of them from the hard winter that is coming,” says Oksana.

Her words trail off as Red Kalyna plays yet again in her pocket – another call of duty for Nigel’s little whirlwind.

  • Anyone wishing to support the Darlington appeal for Ukrainian soldiers, please email oksana27sizenko@gmail.com or leave donations at 9 Kitching Grove, Darlington.