АвторAuthor: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Viktoriya Morokhovets
11 October 2022
Before the war, Vira Tolmachova worked on Odessa television and didn’t plan to leave her home country whatsoever. But russian aggression made its adjustments to the life of the journalist. Vira now lives in a small town in the north of Ireland and bakes bread from Ukrainian flour. The “War monologues” spoke to Vira about the difficulties faced by refugees abroad, and in what way Irish people are similar to the Ukrainians.
When the war began, I had been working on local TV in Odessa. We continued airing throughout March, even though our office was located on the coast and russian warships were spotted in the Black Sea. The war united us all very much, we tried to provide information as quickly as possible and helped one another. When we were told in April that the channel was shutting down, it came as a real blow to us. I realized that if I wasn’t able to find another job right at that moment, it would be hard for me even to survive.
I never wanted to leave Ukraine, I thought that I should be in my place, in my country, but there was the war. Leaving Odessa was really not an easy decision, I doubted it for a very long time, but there wasn’t any new job for me at home. It was difficult for me to leave, like probably, for many Ukrainians. But I had to survive and help my family somehow. I decided that moving abroad is a temporary solution, but it was necessary.
At that time, there were already many displaced people from Ukraine in Poland or Germany, so I chose Ireland to move because it is in Europe, but further than other countries.
In May, together with my friends, I reached Europe by train: from Odessa I went to Poland, then to Berlin and from there I had a plane to Dublin. Along the way, I felt how strongly Europe supports the Ukrainians: every step of the way Ukrainian flags were flying.
At Dublin Airport, we were immediately sent to a separate terminal, where they began to interview us: why we decided to come to Ireland, whether we really had been staying in Ukraine during the war, since February 24. Right after that, still at the airport, we received a residency permit, it is issued for one year.
On my way to Ireland, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I read some information on the Internet, I only knew that housing was provided free of charge. Upon arriving, we did not know where we would live or whether we would find a job, but we knew that we would not be left without a roof over our heads.
After the airport, we were taken to the town of City West, where the distribution center was located. There, social workers search accommodation for refugees: it may be a hotel or a hostel, but you never know where exactly you will be allocated to. Sometimes Ukrainians are even accommodated in ancient castles. In Ireland, there is a housing crisis in general, but for the sake of the Ukrainian refugees, the state is opening many different places.
After the distribution center, we were accommodated in a gym for a week: we were sleeping on folding beds. On the seventh day, we were approached and told that we were finally going to our permanent place of residence — Litrim County, in the north of Ireland.
I got to a village called Balinamore. In fact, it is considered a town here, but by Ukrainian standards, it is still a village. Balinamore is situated far from Dublin and is home to approximately 600 people. We were told that we would live here for six months.
We were accommodated in a hotel that hadn’t been in service before — it was specially prepared for the Ukrainian refugees. Due to the fact that no one lived there before, we first had problems with water, with doors, with locks. But now everything is more or less in order.
This is the only hotel in Balinamore, completely filled with Ukrainians. People don’t stay here as tourists, it’s only us who live here. We have hot water supply schedule and meal hours. We don’t pay for anything here: breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the accommodation. We can, of course, buy food if we want something else to eat, but every day a chef cooks for us. Our Ukrainian girls also work in the hotel: they clean, wash dishes — they got a job here.
We have formed a type of Ukrainian community. We have met many Ukrainians from Kharkiv, Mariupol. Some of them have nowhere to go, because their apartments have simply been destroyed. We’re trying to support each other and our hotel has become a kind of an association. I can’t complain about anything.
The first month in Balinamore we had one hour of English every day. Irish volunteers who are not teachers of English by profession, provided free language lessons to Ukrainians on their own will. They told us how it is customary to communicate in Ireland, gave us some basic colloquial sentences. It has really been a very sincere support.
Moreover, here we were provided with free fitness lessons for three months. I think it was also a personal initiative of one of the coaches.
The Irish are generally very friendly people. It is even customary for them, when you make eye contact with a person in the street, to stop and ask how the things are going. That is, many people greet each other without being acquainted. At the beginning, it was a little uncomfortable for us, but then we got used to it.
In Ireland, public transport is not popular, everyone has their own car, so it is very difficult to go to other cities without your own car: you need to ask someone to give you a lift or order a taxi. Buses are not frequent and you have to catch them in time. That is, in comparison with the Ukrainian transport system, here the road routes are much worse, even though buses and trains themselves look better. There is also very developed electric transport in Ukraine, and here it seems to be non-existent, except for Dublin.
Speaking of the medical care, it is also quite problematic in Ireland: pharmacies and hospitals are only open until 6 p.m., and you can wait for your appointment at the doctor’s for several months. One of our roommates had heart problems, and he was waiting for an appointment at the hospital for three months. The ambulance is also not very developed here: it costs 130 euros per call and only comes for something very serious.
From the beginning, we needed to constantly update our documents. We applied for medical services, a bank card and a Public service card (this is a type of our ID).
Europe is Europe, and Ireland is no exception, so there is some bureaucracy. That is, everything is done via paper documents, not via the Internet. Refugees need to use ordinary postal service and send papers simply in an envelope. You also need to receive documents by post. In such a way, even a bank card and its PIN get sent. Doing everything via the post service, of course, it takes longer than in Ukraine.
In most cases, refugees can be assisted in the social protection service, it is called Intreo. Volunteers work here in the field to help guide you through the paperwork you need to do.
Of course, it is impossible to learn about everything at the same time and sometimes there are mistakes. In this way we decided to get the documents in the town where we lived in the gym, but all in vain: our social benefits started getting sent to an address that was not our permanent residence. So when we arrived in our county, we had to wait a very long time for the financial aid. We hadn’t been receiving it for probably a month, and it all happened because of our mistake.
In general, there is a very clear payout system in Ireland and the money is due to come every week. Refugees receive unemployment benefits: an adult is paid 208 euros per week; Ukrainians aged 18-25 get 117 euros; parents receive additional 40 euros per child per week. As far as I know, these are one of the best payout rates in Europe, but you have to consider that prices in Ireland are higher than those in Germany, for example.
When you find a job, of course the payouts are taken away from you, because these funds are first aid assistance from the state, to get adapted to a new place. If you work part time, you also receive partial payouts, but they are small – everything depends on the number of hours and days worked.
Office work in Ireland is difficult to find, even locals look for it for a very long time. If you used to work in an office in Ukraine, you can forget about it here. More often than not, refugees are seeking employment in bars, supermarkets — these are the positions that are mostly unpopular with Irish people.
If you are getting a job, you need to know English, this is one of the main points — without it, most often foreigners are not accepted. It is customary for the Irish to print a CV and just walk around and hand it in anywhere. My friends and I did just that. But it really is a long process.
It is easier to find a job in Dublin, whereas in small cities it is quite difficult. In our Balinamore, for example, it is very difficult to find a job.
There are basically few places where one can work: several pubs and supermarkets — that’s all.
We just went everywhere and left our contacts and resumes. We only got a call from one supermarket. That’s where I got my job, after about a month of arriving here. Probably, this is not so bad, because some Ukrainians cannot find a job for three months.
Remuneration in Ireland is per hours worked. I get a weekly schedule where it says how many hours and days a week I have to work. Once in seven days I send my written report by mail to the capital of the county.
You have to work a minimum of 18 hours a week. If there is a lot of work, then all extra hours are also paid The minimum salary here is 10.5 euros per hour. I get paid every week, the same way as I receive my social benefits.
Now I am working in the kitchen in a supermarket — it’s something like our Bakery departments in stores. We bake bread of our own production, make sweets, breakfasts and lunches. I was gradually taught to do it all. This is a very interesting process, because the Irish cuisine is different from the Ukrainian one: they have a lot of fried food and not a single day without potatoes.
I was taught not even how to cook, but the features of the Irish vision of breakfast or dinner that locals usually like. From bakery, for example, they prefer rye bread to wheat bread. By the way, Ireland buys flour from Ukraine, because wheat doesn’t grow here. Thus, I bake bread from Ukrainian flour.
Honestly, I didn’t use to cook very much at home, and I never baked bread at all. When I got this job, I knew it would be a whole new experience for me.
This is the first time I’ve cooked in a large kitchen where you have to do everything at the same time. Several times I burned potatoes, sometimes I had too runny dough for bread. But the Irish are very good-natured, and they have a good sense of humor, so my boss just told me that was a lesson for me, next time I would definitely not burn potatoes.
The Irish have their own special accent, and they call some things in their own words. So even though I learned English, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out what they’re saying. There were funny cases when I couldn’t understand a person at all. I re-asked about ten times and then still called some Irish girl to help me. But in general, you can get used to everything over time.
When the Irish heard my accent, the first thing they asked where I was from, and when they realized that I was from Ukraine, they always wanted to know if my family came with me, because in Ireland family ties are very valued. Additionally, people asked which region I came from.
When people find out where you are from and what the situation is like in your country, they are very compassionate about it. For example, when I was passing the interview at the supermarket where I am working now, the HR manager just burst into tears, and I burst into tears along with her, because the war is a really painful topic.
Recently, I was asked at work if I missed any Ukrainian dishes. I said that I missed borscht and dumplings, but I explained what they were. But the Irish were not very impressed with borscht, because they do not understand how one can eat beetroot soup — they do not eat a lot of soup. But in general, they are interested in our cuisine.
In many ways, Irish people are similar to Ukrainians: they had been also fighting for their freedom for centuries. And this very love for freedom, for creating your country is very noticeable here: at every turn there are memorial signs dedicated to the fighters for the independence of Ireland. Even in our village there is a monument with photos of fighters who defended the Republic, because we are in the north, just on the border with Great Britain. It was here that the frontiers of those battles took place, even in the 90s of the last century. They understand us very well, because they’ve also gone through a liberation struggle.
When we arrived in Dublin and were going from there to City West by bus, I was just looking at the trees and realized that it was like being in Ukraine, because the nature here is very similar: green fields, lakes — all resembles home.
Irish people are similar to Ukrainians in hospitality and a sense of humor. And I don’t think an Irish man without a sense of humor is Irish at all. Everyone here cracks jokes every step of the way, everyone is very good-natured, just like us in Odessa.
The war feels the same way here: I constantly read the news, I worry about what is happening. The first thing I miss, are our people, my friends and my family, the Odessa atmosphere. I wish I could sit somewhere with a cup of coffee on Derybasivska Street or in the City Garden. Odessa is a special city with a special atmosphere and only there I feel at home, and don’t think this will change one day.
I consider my relocation as a temporary experience of European hospitality. I do not lose myself, I just move on, develop myself, and in this way I can gradually help my country, my relatives. Even from Ireland, my friends and I are trying to support the Ukrainian army, by constantly donating.
Of course, I want to live and develop in Ukraine. I would really like the victory of Ukraine to happen as soon as possible, so I am doing my best to help my country in this.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Vera Korolchenko | Translation: Viktoriya Morokhovets