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A collage of five women wearing black
Photograph: Ean Flanders

Meet the Ukrainian refugee women who made Liverpool their home

A new photography exhibition captures 36 women who arrived in the city last year

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

When Anastasia Sydorenko landed in the UK from war-torn Ukraine, photographer Ean Flanders was the first person she met. He picked her up at Manchester Airport and drove her to her new Scouse home, to live with her sponsor family. Now, just over a year later, the pair are about to launch a joint photography project in Liverpool, which is hosting the Eurovision song contest on behalf of Ukraine this weekend.

Sydorenko, 33, was working as a nursery administrator in Kharkiv, in north-east Ukraine, when the war started. Now she’s working as an interpreter and has moved into her own place in Liverpool. 

‘I’d compare it to birds flying in the sky, who are suddenly pushed into the water,’ she says. ‘You need to learn everything from nothing. Arriving to a good family helped a lot. But it was difficult to accept a new reality, new rules, new people. Mentally it was really hard – I was also going through a divorce – but at the same time it was interesting to bring something new to the culture here.’

A woman sitting in front of a black background
Photograph: Ean Flanders

Sydorenko’s sister-in-law, Olha Kruglova, 40, joined her in Liverpool from Kropyvnytskyi, a city in central Ukraine, where she was working as a copywriter. ‘It was a hard transition because of my English,’ says Kruklova. ‘And I have never been abroad, so everything was new.’ 

Together with Flanders, the women decided they wanted express their experiences through art. ‘Displaced Ukrainian Women’ is a collection of interviews and photographs of women who have relocated to the Liverpool and Merseyside region due to the war in Ukraine. Kruglova and Sydorenko put out a call to the Ukrainian community in Liverpool, and now 36 women have had their portrait shot and shared their stories of their experiences arriving in the city.

One woman, Olena Malenko, came to Liverpool from Kyiv with her two sons in June last year. ‘In Liverpool we were hosted by our long-lost relatives,’ Malenko says in her ‘Displaced Ukrainian Women’ interview. ‘We found each other after doing a DNA test in 2019. Our grandfathers were siblings in a big Jewish family in Ukraine. Two brothers out of eleven arrived in Liverpool in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The true face of Ukrainian military immigration is a female face

‘They settled and stayed in touch with their family in Ukraine until early 1930s, when any connections were lost due to the severe Soviet regime. The family story repeats itself, nearly 100 years later: two brothers arrive in Liverpool, fleeing war and finding shelter in this peaceful and friendly city.’

Upon arrival, Malenko discovered she was pregnant with twins. ‘Now expecting the twin girls I reassure myself that I made the right decision when we crossed the border,’ she says. ‘The true face of Ukrainian military immigration is a female face. I want the world to see this face powerful, influential and with incredible dignity.’ 

A pregnant woman standing in front of a black background
Photograph: Ean Flanders

Sydorenko says that many of the women found the interviewing process similar to therapy. ‘Behind the camera lens, you need to show your personality, something that’s inside you,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t easy. Not every girl found it easy to talk. I want to show how powerful and strong our women are.’ 

The exhibition coincides with Eurovision being hosted in the city – the first time it’s been held in the UK for more than 25 years. Around 3,000 Ukrainians will be attending the live shows through the Government’s reduced-price-ticket scheme.

‘More and more Ukrainian people are living here,’ says Sydorenko. ‘When you’re walking on the street it’s more likely to see familiar faces and say hi. And more and more people want to share British and Ukrainian culture. One woman is teaching British kids our national Ukrainian dance  – they’ve been very accepting to learn – so it’s interesting to watch us become one unit.’

Flanders, Sydorenko and Kruglova have set up a GoFundMe page to pay for extra costs involved in the project. ‘We’ve been trying to fundraise since last year, but most of the funding streams we approached wouldn’t support us because we’re not an organisation,’ says Flanders. They’ve since borrowed space from a friend and had the photos printed by a local production company, but are still raising money for frames. 

Finally, the pics are on the walls. ‘We are really excited for it to be happening,’ says Sydorenko. ‘When you see it in person, you can really feel something. We want a lot of people to come and see and feel.’

‘Displaced Ukrainian Women’ is on display from May 12 to July 8 at Baltic Creative in Liverpool. Donate to the fundraiser here.

Read more: What hosting Eurovision means to Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ community.

Plus: ‘Drag Race UK’ winner Danny Beard’s ultimate guide to Liverpool.

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