Two Ukrainian mothers, brought to Darlington through the sport of badminton, use the power of technology to speak movingly to PETER BARRON about fleeing the war – and their hopes for the future

WE may not speak the same language, but mums Olga Iliashenko and Lilia Shosheva are explaining, over an evening glass of wine, why they had to flee from Ukraine.

“We hoped the war would end quickly but then, on April 15, a rocket flew into a residential building near to where we live, and we decided very quickly that we needed to get to a safe place with our children,” says Lilia.

Olga takes up the story: “We knew Putin’s forces had gathered on the border but we never thought they would really invade until we heard the explosions and we knew it wasn’t fireworks or thunder.

"In the end, we had to leave everything behind – our homes and our husbands – for the sake of our children.”

Olga and Lilia, along with Lilia’s 11-year-old daughter, Varvara, are guests for the weekend at our home in the peaceful village of Hurworth-on-Tees, where my wife, Heather, and I brought up our own four children, never having to worry about war coming to our doorsteps.

It’s hard to imagine being in the position where our home could be under missile attack from invading forces, and suddenly having to flee for our lives to the sanctuary of a foreign country. There but for the grace of God go we.

Russian-speaking Olga and Lilia know just a little English, while we can speak no Russian whatsoever. However, we are able to communicate thanks to the wonders of modern technology. Using an app called SayHi, we can speak into our phones, press a button, and an immediate translation is played out loud.

Since fleeing from the port city of Odesa, in southern Ukraine, Olga and her 16-year-old son, Ilia, have been living with a sponsor family, Vanessa and Richard Crannis, in Colchester.

Meanwhile, Lilia and her children, Varvara, and son, Ivan, have been given a home by Helen and Dennis Cleary, in Easingwold.

Sport so often brings people together, and the homes were found with the help of links forged between the Ukraine Badminton Federation and Badminton England after the invasion happened.

“We were placed on a database to find sponsors and that’s how we ended up here,” says Olga.

"Everyone has been so kind in this country, and we will never forget our sponsor families.”

The women are visiting Darlington because their children are badminton players, and they have been “adopted” by Hummersknott Badminton Club, run by retired teacher Philip Boyle, whose life has been dedicated to enriching young lives through the sport for nearly 50 years.

Each year, Philip takes the young club members on an international trip that are as much about teaching them life skills than playing badminton matches.

The latest tour will surely be remembered for having a more far-reaching impact than any that have gone before. Thanks to a fundraising campaign, Ilia and Ivan – as well as other young Ukrainian players Nastya Ruban and Masha Ilinska – were able to join their new English team-mates on a tour to Greece and Cyprus.

As well as a series of badminton matches, the tour also featured a reception at the UK embassy in Athens.

That all took place in the summer, but the Ukrainian families have now returned to Darlington for a celebration evening, including the presentation of prizes, at Hummersknott Academy.

“Our children have made new friends for life, and Darlington will always be in our hearts now,” says Olga.

Indeed, her son, Ilia, and Lilia’s son, Ivan, are staying at the Darlington homes of new-found friends during the weekend of the celebration event.

Olga and Lilia were friends before the Russian invasion and, back in Ukraine, their husbands are reserve officers, who could be called up to fight at any moment.

They speak to their husbands every day, often hearing explosions in the background during their conversations 2,000 miles apart. It is something they have had to get used to.

The Hummersknott Badminton Club celebration weekend included a day trip to Edinburgh and, while waiting at the station for a delayed train home, they were able to listen live to developments as breaking news emerged that Ukraine had recaptured the towns of Izyum and Kupiansk, key hubs for the supply of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region.

“We could hear the air raids through our phones because all the Russians can do now is launch their pineapple missiles,” says Olga with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We can see their heels shining as they run away.”

“All we can do is make it as comfortable as possible for our children,” adds Lilia. “They miss home and their fathers, and it is hard, but we are optimistic – we believe that the best will happen.”

Of course, the best would be for the war to end and the families to be able to return to Ukraine. And hopeful plans are already in place for Ukraine to be the destination for Hummersknott Badminton Club’s international tour in 2025.

“It is our hope that we can welcome our Darlington friends in our country one day. We would like that to happen – you must come!” smiles Lilia, through the SayHi app.

In the meantime, our Ukrainian guests have left us with a gift – a packet of sunflower seeds so we can grow Ukraine’s national flower in our garden.

They are seeds of hope.

LIKE Philip Boyle, Tom Nutt is another force for good in Darlington.

A retired customs officer, one of the most distinguished mayors the town has ever had, and passionate chairman of Darlington Town Twinning and International Association, Tom's played a blinder.

Next year, he'll no doubt be at the heart of the 70th anniversary of Amiens, in France, and Mulheim, in Germany, becoming Darlington's twin towns.

And Tom, who's been the twin-turbo driving force behind the association for more than 20 years, is exploring the possibility of marking the anniversary by forging a fresh friendship link, this time with a town in Ukraine.

The seed has been sown and, knowing Tom Nutt, he'll be doing everything in his power to make sure it flourishes.