On a cold Friday night in Leith I meet Hannah and her daughter…
Around us it is buzzing, people winding down after a long week, making plans. 11-year-old Stacey, tall for her age, wolfs down slices of pizza. From a distance, we must look like anyone else. However, Hanna and Stacey are different from everyone else in the restaurant. They are refugees from Ukraine and live on a ship called MS Victoria docked in Leith.
Just over a year ago, they lived in a nice apartment in Kharkiv, a city not far from the border with Russia. Stacey went to a good school, and her favourite subject was art. Kharkiv is a big city, and from the pre-war videos Hanna showed me, it is pretty. They had a good life. Then everything changed at 4 o’clock in the morning on 24th February 2022.
The Russians attacked, beginning what has become the worst conflict in Europe since the end of World War Two. Hanna and Stacey spent the next few days in an undergroun d bunker, petrified about what might be happening around them. On her phone, Hanna showed me photos of what became of their neighbourhood - smashed to pieces and looking like scenes (at least to my eyes) from a post-apocalyptic film. Except this was Hanna and Stacey’s reality. The YouTube films of Kharkiv under blue skies just before the war had become relics of a past world.
In her worst dreams Hanna never imagined she and her daughter would be separated from her husband, forced from their home, and that in a few months they would live in France and Poland before ending up on a ship in Leith docks. Hanna had never been to Scotland before, and now here she was - trying to improve her English, taking a course at Edinburgh College, worrying about school options for Stacey, where they were going to live once the ship left, if her husband and family were okay, how she could find a job.
But observing them together, the strong bond between mother and daughter was obvious. They were supporting each other through unprecedented personal challenges, overcoming obstacles one at a time.
Stacey has her own worries. She misses her cat, her old schoolfriends now scattered throughout Europe, her dad, her toys - things no 11-year-old should have to endure. Stacey does her best to like Leith, buying stylish clothes and toys in local charity shops and enjoying her primary school. But she wants to go home, back to her dad and the family home. However, Hanna does not think it is safe to do so, a heart-breaking decision for any parent knowing whatever choice is made, there are risks for her own child’s future.
A few days later I attended an event in St Cuthbert’s church to mark a year since the Russians attacked. Hundreds of Ukrainians filled the church, many of them living on MS Victoria. The former ferry boat which has been hired by the Scottish government to help cope with the number of Ukrainian refugees arriving here. The Lord Provost was there doing his thing, and talented Ukrainian singers and musicians kept us entertained. There was a sense of sadness, but the overriding impression was of a determined and resilient community.
It is hard to fathom how, in just a year, millions of lives, futures and dreams have changed (around 8 million Ukrainians have left their country). Over the last few months, I’ve met several of the people living on MS Victoria, and they all had their own harrowing stories of what happened when the war broke out, followed by often dangerous journeys to get away from the Russian attacks. Every age group is affected, and they all have their own unique problems. However, those I met seem determined to get on with their lives.
Some who arrived on the ship found jobs or enrolled at college within days. Kids have joined local schools and adjusted quickly. If I was forced to leave my life behind and live on a ship in Ukraine, I suspect I’d go under pretty quickly, but the Ukrainians in Leith display a steely resolve. They have also been welcomed by the existing community in the city, centred around the Edinburgh branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (UAGB) on Royal Terrace.
For Stacey and other children, their futures are at stake. No one knows when or if, they will return home, so they have to navigate their way through local schools with all the challenges that means for any ‘new kid’ with a strange accent. Those with particular talents - tennis, gymnastics, football, art, music - find their dreams curtailed, not sure if they will have to move again, unable to afford clubs or classes, in a kind of limbo land. Many log on in the evening to continue studies at Ukrainian schools despite having spent all day in a Scottish one.
The older generation face different challenges. In the English classes on board, there are women in their late 60s and 70s having to start again in an unfamiliar country when they should be spending their twilight years with loved ones back home. Instead, they live in cabins, sometimes struggle to make themselves understood, and face uncertainty about what to do in the years left to them.
The refugees on MS Victoria are not the only Ukrainians to arrive in Edinburgh and Leith in the last few months, but the presence of the ship has attracted the most attention. Some of it is negative, centred around how much the government is spending on the ship. However, a surprising number of local people I meet are unaware 1,000 Ukrainians are living on a ship nearby.
My first visit to the ship was certainly odd. Having lived in Leith for a while, it was strange to get on a bus, check in with a security guard, go through a security gate and enter on a shuttle bus the vast dock area that most Leithers have never visited.
The ship itself is impressive. It is not a luxury liner, but a car ferry that was meant to carry people for one or two nights. That means the cabins are small, but the facilities are good - a big restaurant, a stage for performances, conference rooms, and a bar. There are children everywhere, and it feels like a summer camp. Some are perched in alcoves doing their homework, and others run around playing games. When I attended a Halloween variety show by the kids onboard, I was blown away by how talented they were.
This is a female-dominated community as men cannot leave Ukraine except if they are exempt. Mothers can struggle on their own to look after young kids, however they have also formed new support networks on board. Hanna and her friends babysit for each other, organise schoolwork, and share information on housing, jobs.
New friendships are forming between people who would never have met each other before the war, living on different sides of Ukraine. I suspect some of these friendships will last for the rest of their lives. Some live in a strange hybrid world – living on the ship but working remotely for their employers thousands of miles away in Ukraine.
The language barrier is an obstacle to finding jobs but some Leithers are helping. Three of my friends now volunteer each Friday giving English lessons on board, just one example of the goodwill shown by many locals to their new neighbours. Some Ukrainians have had to adjust expectations. Highly qualified professionals cannot find equivalent jobs here so become cleaners or deliver food. This is not bad work, but it can be difficult to accept such drastic changes.
It raises a delicate issue: how much are refugees allowed to care? Can they fight to get their kids into the best schools or get better housing or benefits when so many others are already in the queue ahead of them? The odd local has told me ‘those refugees’ should just be happy with their lot and be thankful they are safe. But what would you do if the positions were reversed and you knew the future of your kids might depend on what happens to them now and that no one else is looking out for them?
Others on the ship told me of their experiences over the last year. When the war broke out, Olena had gone in a car with her husband and son to rescue their son’s best friend who was stuck in a local town. The location was Bucha, now notorious because of the massacre of civilians by Russian forces that took place there a few weeks after the fighting began. Olena and the rescue party found the boy and took him back to Kyiv.
This brave woman has health issues and her nerves were badly affected by the trauma of the early months of the war. She tried to settle in Spain with a sister, but it was not for her and she ended up in Leith. She loves the place, has a real enthusiasm for learning about Scotland and its history, and has even begun attending a Catholic church here.
Other women, some understandably upset, told me of their own traumatic escapes, seeing Russian tanks, of ending up sleeping on the floors of distant relatives in foreign cities they have never been to before. One woman ended up in Poland, taking illegal cleaning jobs in the suburbs, worried about her personal safety when she turned up at houses and knowing her young daughter depended on her to return each day.
And what of the impact on Leith? The Ukrainians have changed us too. Local kids have Ukrainians in their classes. Students at local colleges now have Ukrainians alongside them learning English or vocational skills. Ukrainians are getting jobs in the community, playing in sports teams, and putting on cultural shows.
They are determined for the sake of their country’s survival to keep the war in our consciousness lest we forget. But what will happen when MS Victoria eventually leaves and local homes cannot be found for them? Many may be uprooted again, and face difficult decisions with few real options available to them.
Some may stay, perhaps for years, and create a small but important chapter in Leith’s long history. ■
A treasure hunt for the kids on The Shore; Hannah’s photos of her hometown Kharkiv