PETER BARRON tells the story of three generations of women from a Ukrainian family, who have found refuge from the Russian bombing, thanks to the care of a housing association in the North-East of England...

AT the same moment, the three women wipe their eyes as they look back on a year they’ll never forget – and forward to being together for a peaceful Christmas, safe from Putin’s bombs.

Viktoriia Nosatova, her mother, Nataliya, and grandmother, Galyna are three generations united by the tears as they tell how they found refuge, thousands of miles from home, in the North-East of England.

Born in 1941, Galyna hoped she’d seen enough of war to last a lifetime but, in February of this year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant she had to flee from her homeland at the age of 81.

“A bomb landed near the house, my Granny was shaking, and I knew I needed to get us to safety,” recalls Viktoriia, who was working as an English teacher while also caring for Galyna in the city of Zaporizhzhia, in south-east Ukraine.

Ten months on, Viktoriia, 35, Nataliya, 59, and Galyna, are living together in a house, provided by North Star Housing, on Middlesbrough’s regenerated Middlehaven site. It is not home but it is a place where, for now, they are among friends, not enemies.

“We are safe and we are together,” says Viktoriia, who speaks reasonable English, has a master’s degree, and taught primary school children back in Ukraine.

Nataliya, who has little English, was a librarian for most of her life until she met an English man who was working in Ukraine. They married in 2009 and she moved to England, a year later, to be with him. Sadly, the marriage didn't work out and, by 2018, Nataliya was homeless. Then, in 2020, she was helped by North Star’s Hestia Service, which provides settled accommodation for women at risk of homelessness.

Former kindergarten teacher, Galyna, doesn’t know more than a few English phrases but repeatedly urges me to “eat” from the snacks that are laid out on the table in the smart, warm house they have been allocated in Pioneering Way.

Occasionally, she breaks into the conversation and Viktoriia switches to Ukrainian to explain what’s been discussed.

She is busy telling of her pride in Zaporizhzhia and showing pictures of her home city before the war. Like Middlesbrough, it's an industrial city yet “green and alive with plants” because the residents like to have flowers near their homes to make Zaporizhzhia beautiful.

“Practically everywhere, there are flowers,” Viktoriia explains. “It’s very rarely you can’t see trees or flowers – it’s impossible because near the houses, every person plants something. That’s why the city is so green…but I don’t know what it must be like now.”

When the invasion began in February, Galyna was very ill with Covid. She was delirious and refused to accept that war had broken out, even when bombs began falling around her home. Viktoriia was by her side, giving her medicine every day.

“The house was shaking. Granny would wake up, I’d give her food, injections, and I told her it’s really war. But she said ‘no, no – you’re lying’. She had a fever and would go back to sleep. This went on for two weeks. I was very happy when she recovered because then we could do something.

“The bombs kept coming and I understand that one time, they can be landing on us. I needed to get away and my mother explained that England have a new scheme to help Ukrainian refugees and we can be with her.”

The two women fled by train to Poland, taking only what Viktoriia could carry, and not even knowing if the border would be open.

“It was really hard, with Granny still being so weak, but I had no choice,” she insists.

After waiting in Warsaw for a few weeks, they were able to fly from Krakow to Newcastle on May 8, and Nataliya was waiting to meet them.

It is at this point in the story – the moment of reunion, with Viktoriia translating as she goes – that the tears of three generations can no longer be resisted.

Luckily, they were given temporary housing by North Star before moving into their new property in Middlehaven last month.

“When we came here, North Star was there with open hugs, and they gave us a roof over our heads,” says Viktoriia. “Without them, we would be outside, I think. They have been our English angels.”

Though the pain of leaving Ukraine remained raw, the readjustment to life on Teesside was made easier by the kindness of local people.

“The first two months in England, I was crying a lot, but I realised I just had to stop reading the news” adds Viktoriia.

“I couldn’t forget about what was happening in Ukraine, but when I went out into Middlesbrough, everybody is so polite, so intelligent. They are saying ‘How are you?’ and ‘Good morning’ and everybody smiles.

“It was very strange to me because, in Ukraine, nobody smiles. Here, it was like sunny weather on everyone’s faces because they look at you and smile.

"I appreciated that nobody wanted to give their bad mood to me, so I felt I must try not to give my bad mood to somebody and just smile.”

With a stock of 4,000 social houses, North Star is at the frontline of supporting the most vulnerable in society, but the conflict in Europe presented a new challenge.

“We’ve never had to deal with war or refugees, so we just helped as much as we could,” says Jan Mohan, who was running the Hestia Service when Viktoriia and Galyna arrived. “We tried to make it as easy as possible because they’ve been through something truly terrible. Thankfully, they’re here now, and being looked after.”

The family hopes to return to Ukraine one day but they don’t know if there will be a home to return to, with Viktoriia fearing that Putin will launch a new offensive soon.

The region is home to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, which is connected to the Kakhovka dam. If the bombing destroys the dam, half the city would be flooded.

There is also uncertainty about those who remain in Ukraine: relatives, friends, and colleagues…teachers who became soldiers overnight.

“They said it was hell in the beginning, and Putin won’t stop now,” she sighs.

So, for the foreseeable future, home for the three women will be in Middlesbrough, and Viktoriia hopes to find work as an interpreter, so she can support the family.

“At least we are in a good place, and it is a dream for us to be together again for Christmas,” she says.

The tears come again – but there is also a reassuring smile for her mother and grandmother