Home » From the fashion designer who set up her own clothes business, to the thousands left homeless and struggling to find jobs: As the world marks two years since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the refugees who started a new life in Britain

From the fashion designer who set up her own clothes business, to the thousands left homeless and struggling to find jobs: As the world marks two years since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the refugees who started a new life in Britain

Ukrainian refugees have told MailOnline their stories of starting a new life in Britain, with some thriving after setting up their own businesses but others struggling to find jobs and housing. 

Today marks two years since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 – prompting more than 200,000 Ukrainians to flee to Britain in the face of the brutal onslaught. 

Most moved in with British families under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, with high-profile figures taking part including Chris Tarrant, Rachel Riley and Tory MPs Grant Shapps, Matt Hancock, David Cameron and Robert Jenrick

Refugees who have triumphed in the face of adversity include Yana Smaglo, a 31-year-old fashion designer who had 15 minutes to flee her home in Ukraine but has now set up her own clothes business in Leeds, and Sandra Zhylinska, a single mother to two children who has a cake making company. 

But life has proved difficult for some, with 9,000 Ukrainian refugee households reported as homeless since June 2022. Others have struggled to find a suitable home, with one couple forced to move into temporary accommodation with their disabled son.

Yana Smaglo, a 31-year-old fashion designer, had 15 minutes to flee her home in Ukraine but has now set up her own clothes business in Leeds 

Sandra Zhylinska is a single mother to two children who has started a cake making company

Sandra Zhylinska is a single mother to two children who has started a cake making company

Alla Maistrenko has settled in her own flat in Byker, Newcastle, with her daughters Sofia, now 15, and Anastasia, 17

Alla Maistrenko has settled in her own flat in Byker, Newcastle, with her daughters Sofia, now 15, and Anastasia, 17

A common problem has been the struggle to find well-paying jobs, with one woman who worked as a chief financial officer in Ukraine taking a role as a maid in a hotel to make ends meet. 

At the outbreak of war in February 2022, many believed the whole of Ukraine would quickly fall to the Russians, prompting millions of refugees to flee across its borders to the west. 

But since then, heroic resistance has allowed large numbers of people to return home to the roughly 80 per cent of the country that remains under Ukrainian control. 

A total of 233,771 visas have been granted so far under Homes for Ukraine and the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allowed Ukrainians to reunite with their families in Britain. 

Out of these, around 66,600 refugees are thought to have left the UK as of June 2023 – with many returning to Ukraine. 

Around 66,600 refugees are thought to have left the UK as of June 2023. Some of these will have left temporarily and may subsequently return, while others may have no intention to return.

The Ukraine Family Scheme closed on Monday, prompting criticism from Labour that it ‘sends the wrong message’ about the UK’s willingness to help Ukraine, but ministers anyone who qualified can still apply to move to the UK under Homes for Ukraine. 

Fashion designer Yana Smaglo, 31, had 15 minutes to pack a bag after Russian bombs began dropping on her home in Kyiv

She travelled by train through Poland and Germany before reaching the UK, where she used her industry experience to set up a company selling clothes made by Ukrainian designers.

‘When I arrived here I started to look for a job but not a lot of companies were ready to take me on,’ Ms Smaglo told MailOnline. 

‘I then had an idea about a business that would distribute Ukrainian products. I had no connections but was lucky to speak to a journalist from the Yorkshire Post who helped with publicity, while local people were really kind and gave me lots of contacts.’

The number of Ukrainians arriving in the UK has dramatically reduced since Russia's invasion in February 2022. The Y axis of this graph shows the number in thousands

The number of Ukrainians arriving in the UK has dramatically reduced since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. The Y axis of this graph shows the number in thousands 

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Ms Smaglo said her company Nenya, which is based in Leeds, is now 'profitable' one year after its launch

Ms Smaglo said her company Nenya, which is based in Leeds, is now ‘profitable’ one year after its launch

Iryna Chupylka, 33, made the difficult decision to leave Kyiv for Britain in February 2023 as the war escalated and began living with a host family in Petersfield, Hampshire

Iryna Chupylka, 33, made the difficult decision to leave Kyiv for Britain in February 2023 as the war escalated and began living with a host family in Petersfield, Hampshire

Ukrainian refugees learning English at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London on Thursday

Ukrainian refugees learning English at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London on Thursday 

Ms Smaglo said Nenya, which is based in Leeds, is now ‘profitable’ one year after its launch and sells clothes wholesale to 86 retail partners in countries including the USA, Canada and France

‘I no longer have the physical shop, but a website and the wholesale business – in January we started working with Debenhams too,’ she said. 

‘On all our labels we say the clothes are made in Ukraine and thank the customers for supporting us. We donate a lot of money to the Ukrainian army and try to help as much as possible.’

Sandra Zhylinska, from Kyiv, has also managed to start her own business in Britain. 

The single mother arrived with her children Matvii, now seven, and Ellianna, six, in May 2022 after their worlds were turned upside down following the Russian invasion.

The family moved to Tynemouth, North Tyneside, where they were put up by a host but they have since moved to their own flat in nearby North Shields.

Ms Zhylinska owned a business in Ukraine that made chocolates and sweets, and has managed to use her skills to set up a company that caters for parties and events.  

Reflecting on their journey, she told MailOnline: ‘We moved across almost two years ago and at first we lived with a family who were really nice.

‘It was hard because I was used to living independently but it was good to experience another culture.

‘I don’t know if I can go back to Ukraine because I want the best education for my kids and my son has learning difficulties so he needs to be here to have the best start in England.

‘I still worry about the people in the Ukraine and I miss so much about it but the people here have helped us a lot.’

Ihor Luhovyi, his wife Maryna, and their disabled son, Mark, have been living in temporary accommodation

Ihor Luhovyi, his wife Maryna, and their disabled son, Mark, have been living in temporary accommodation

Thousands of Ukrainians have been left homeless in the UK after their accommodation arrangements broke down. In some cases, refugees have ended up sleeping rough

Thousands of Ukrainians have been left homeless in the UK after their accommodation arrangements broke down. In some cases, refugees have ended up sleeping rough

Ms Zhylinska had plans to open her own café just before Christmas but they were put back due to a school issue with Matvii.

However, the mother hopes to fulfil her dream by the end of this year and in the meantime she works from the kitchen in her own home baking for others.

‘I did not know if English people would like my cakes and the flavours and I was so nervous about the first reviews but people have loved them so far,’ she said. 

‘I make any sort of layered cakes with fillings but also cupcakes for children’s birthday parties. It will be very good for me when I can open my own café and I have been taking business training courses to help me with ideas.’

Other Ukrainians have also struggled to make a new home for themselves after fleeing their war-torn homeland – with finding jobs and housing often posing a challenge. 

Iryna Chupylka, 33, made the difficult decision to leave Kyiv for Britain in February 2023 as the war escalated and began living with a host family in Petersfield, Hampshire.

She said adapting to her new life ‘wasn’t easy’ but credits her ‘lovely’ host family and the local community for helping her get to know more people and is now working as a volunteer interpreter. 

At the outbreak of war in February 2022, many believed the whole of Ukraine would quickly fall to the Russians, prompting millions of refugees to flee across its borders to the west

At the outbreak of war in February 2022, many believed the whole of Ukraine would quickly fall to the Russians, prompting millions of refugees to flee across its borders to the west 

Russia quickly made inroads into Ukraine after launching its full-scale invasion. This map shows the situation on February 24

Russia quickly made inroads into Ukraine after launching its full-scale invasion. This map shows the situation on February 24

A school is destroyed in a Russian missile attack on Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 17

A school is destroyed in a Russian missile attack on Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on February 17

Ms Chupylka said most of her Ukrainian friends in the UK were now working but some had left to look for higher-paying jobs. 

‘I know one family of five that moved to Germany from the UK to their distant relatives as they could not find a job and housing here in the UK,’ she said. 

‘Additionally, my friend who advised me to move to England in the first place went back to Ukraine one year ago as she was tired of working as a maid at a hotel after being a Chief Financial Officer in Ukraine.’

While most Ukrainians have successfully found sanctuary, thousands have been left homeless after their accommodation arrangements broke down. In some cases, refugees have ended up sleeping rough.  

A total of 9070 households sought homelessness support from councils up to the end of January, according to figures published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC).

Out of these, 6,040 were households with dependent children and 3,000 single people. However, out of the 9,000 total, around 6,000 so far have had their homelessness prevented, or relieved, by councils.

Ihor Luhovyi moved to North East of England in June 2022 with his wife, Maryna, and their disabled son, Mark, but have struggled to find somewhere suitable to live. 

The family were persuaded to make the move by Mr Luhovyi’s peers in the military to ensure toddler Mark had the best chance of safety and continue his treatment for cerebral palsy.

However, they have since failed to find accommodation that suits the youngster’s needs and are currently living in temporary accommodation and searching for somewhere else to live.

‘In Ukraine we were helping with supplies of convoys and we were providing aid but we ended up moving to the UK in the June – my friends persuaded me we needed to make the move for our son,’ he said. 

‘We lived with my sponsor for around nine months and then we found temporary housing, but we are still looking for somewhere that is better equipped for Mark.’

Chris Tarrant and his partner Jane Bird, pictured at a fundraising event in London, are one of several celebrity couples who have hosted Ukrainian refugees

Chris Tarrant and his partner Jane Bird, pictured at a fundraising event in London, are one of several celebrity couples who have hosted Ukrainian refugees 

Rachel Riley and her Strictly star husband Pasha Kovalev, 43, also took refugees into their home

Rachel Riley and her Strictly star husband Pasha Kovalev, 43, also took refugees into their home 

Mr Luhovyi initially worked for a building company during his first nine months in the UK but has since found jobs hard to come by.

‘I have tried hundreds of applications to work for the HMRC but I think they fear that we may not end up staying in the UK,’ he said. 

‘It’s been hard, but many people in the UK have helped us too and some of them even collected things for Mark such as toys. We are very grateful to them.’

All the Ukrainian refugees who spoke to MailOnline praised the warmth of the welcome they received.  

Alla Maistrenko has settled in her own flat in Byker, Newcastle, with her daughters Sofia, now 15, and Anastasia, 17.

The 45-year-old has found work as a professional photographer and also earns money dog sitting for strangers. 

‘My youngest was so depressed at first but they have both settled better and they have a good education now,’ she said. 

‘When you’re looking for work you usually ask people if they know of any work going on, so that’s why it was hard for me to start my work here. 

‘But I’ve found it easier through social media and I now do street photography for fun and I’ve started doing paid shoots for families.

The Countdown star war a blue and yellow football shirt supporting a charity football match for Ukraine as she left Media City in Salford last year

The Countdown star war a blue and yellow football shirt supporting a charity football match for Ukraine as she left Media City in Salford last year 

Despite her success in the UK so far, she desperately misses her partner, Ivan, 50, who divides his time in Ukraine working as a plumber by day and a soldier by night. 

‘He’s in the local army and they hunt for drones in the area,’ she said. ‘We talk with him every day on the internet and he is very proud of us, but he misses us so much and it’s very difficult to be separated.’

Despite the homesickness, Ms Maistrenko is determined to keep making life in the UK a happy one and she still takes English classes four times a week.

She added: ‘I have made both Ukrainian and English friends here and at Christmas we hired a social club and had a party.

‘The people have been really friendly and the children’s teachers have been great to them.’