Larysa's story: my loneliness after arriving in the UK after the conflict in Eastern Ukraine

This content mentions loneliness and trauma, which some people may find triggering.

Larysa talks about her experience of arriving in the UK after the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, not having any friends in her new home in Cardiff and connecting with another refugee from Yemen. Finding someone who knew how she felt helped her start to rebuild trust.

I’m Larysa and I arrived in the UK in 2014 after fleeing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. I arrived with my husband and three children but experienced new feelings of loneliness and guilt after escaping the war.

There are times in life when you feel lonely. But until I arrived in the UK these moments were always short.

In Ukraine, I had lots of friends. But when I arrived in Cardiff my only friend was the English language. I knew no one and it was a difficult time. I didn’t realise I was lonely, but looking back it’s obvious.

Because we had to flee, our vision of safety was turned upside down. We lost the ability to plan, to dream and to do simple functional things. Everything was taken from us. Most of all, our ability to trust was taken.

Photo of Larysa

We were in the asylum process for seven years, and for the first two years, I couldn’t make connections with people. If I spoke to the GP or someone from a charity, I worried if they would keep what I told them safe.

Our own identities were so transformed it was hard even to speak to other asylum seekers. I didn’t see myself in the same situation. Our identities changed overnight - I was a teacher and then I was an asylum seeker.

It eats away

I didn’t feel I could speak to my parents or friends who were still in Ukraine. They were being shelled and their homes were destroyed. I felt incredible guilt and shame at having left, and that feeling eats away at you. I thought that if I’d stayed I could have protected my family and friends. I stopped contacting people. I didn’t feel I could tell them about my life while they experienced the trauma of war.

I didn’t have the words to support them and felt useless. It became easier for me not to contact them. If people messaged me of course I would reply, but I didn’t contact people myself.

Learning about myself

I got a scholarship to study for my master's and took time to learn about myself. I read a lot about trauma and began to understand why I felt shame. I understood it was not my fault that the war started.

I wrote a list of my important friends and decided to call someone each week. I rang them and apologised, explaining why I hadn’t felt able to call. They said to me, “You’re silly for saying that. You saved your children! You didn’t betray us.”

We’re back in touch and our friendship is strong and that means the world. But those two years without connection were very hard indeed.

Wake up call

Mental and physical health is connected. I started having pains in my leg and back - I felt I couldn’t walk. For my first two years in the UK, I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to be reminded of the unfairness of the world. Then one morning I woke up and asked myself who would take care of my children if I wasn’t here. I made myself get out of bed and started to take the first steps.

I started volunteering to help other asylum seekers and refugees. The first month was terrifying - every time the phone rang I was scared. But then I started to feel helpful. I helped people with their English and it was the first time in three years I felt needed.

And on days when I felt low, I knew I was around people with similar experiences.

One day, I was teaching a class and a student from Yemen said “I know how it feels.” They looked into my eyes and I could see that understanding. The power of shared experience is very strong and I started to feel better. I started to rebuild trust and connect with people.

Make steps

No one can help you better than you can help yourself. It’s important to take time to know yourself and to understand how your mind and body work. Understand how things impact you too. I avoid mass media, it’s too upsetting and damaging to see the fake news and awful comments on social media. I use trusted channels to know what’s going on at home and ignore everything else - this approach allows me to function.

It’s important to have days out too. Seeing new places, exploring and spending time with other people is special.

Finding purpose through my work and volunteering has been huge. You can’t just stay in bed thinking about your purpose in life - you need to make the first steps.

When you are feeling lonely, never be afraid to talk. At least one person in the world needs you and you must remember that.

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