They fled Ukraine as war broke out. Now they’re throwing their homeland a party | CNN

Liverpool, United Kingdom

Nine months after she fled Russian rockets in her pajamas, carrying only her passport, Iryna Shevchuk finally arrived somewhere vaguely resembling home.

Then, exhausted and overwhelmed, she collapsed. Her first memory on British soil was the sight of paramedics, buzzing below an airport ceiling. “I just cried and said: ‘I’m from Ukraine,’” she recalled. “They said: ‘You are safe now.’”

Shevchuk, 33, is one of 122,000 displaced people housed in the UK under a government program to help some of the millions who fled the Russian invasion of her home country.

And this week, five months after Shevchuk arrived, her adopted city of Liverpool is playing host to Ukraine’s biggest celebration since the Russian invasion. Had circumstances been different, the Eurovision Song Contest might be taking place this weekend Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, or Shevchuk’s home city, Donetsk, which she left for Kyiv after fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists in 2014.

But Ukraine – which won the 2022 contest on a wave of European solidarity – is in the grips of war. The UK, the second-placed nation, stepped in, and Liverpool triumphed over bids from other British cities to stage the contest.

The dockside hub where the competition is being held feels like a little Ukraine. Liverpudlians, who typically bleed either red or blue, depending on their allegiance to the city’s two footballing giants, have instead draped their home in Ukraine’s national colors, and welcomed scores of displaced people after the British government earmarked 3,000 tickets for Ukrainian refugees.

“It’s strange – it feels like it’s in Ukraine,” Shevchuk said. “You forget where you are.”

Shevchuk is safe thanks to Amel Menacere, a 36-year-old Liverpudlian she’d never met, who volunteered to house a refugee in her spare room. This week, Shevchuk and Menacere spoke to CNN in the living room of their terraced house, a stone’s throw from Penny Lane – the street immortalized by Liverpool’s most famous sons, The Beatles.

Iryna Shevchuk, left, outside the Liverpool home of her host, Amel Menacere.

“I was naive,” said Menacere, who was inspired to host someone after herself fleeing civil war in Algeria in 1993, aged 7. “I thought she would love Liverpool as much as I do – I’m more aware now that none of the Ukrainains have chosen to be here. It’s been forced on them.”

But as Shevchuk reflected on the past year of her life, she admitted she’s warming to Liverpool. And Liverpool is starting to resemble home.

If Liverpool feels like a miniature Kyiv on the Mersey, it’s no accident.

“I knew if we wanted to do this, it wasn’t just to tick boxes for Ukraine. We wouldn’t just put up some posters,” said Claire McColgan, Liverpool’s director of culture, who did more than anyone else to bring the kitsch and occasionally eyebrow-raising contest to the city. “What you see in the city is a real Scouse-Ukrainian mash-up, which is what we wanted.”

Brits have historically had an awkward relationship with the contest, which showcases some of Europe’s most eccentric creatives and rewards flamboyance, imagination and unabashed weirdness over the UK’s stereotypically quiet resolve.

But this year, in this city, it’s different. Schoolchildren around Liverpool have learned Ukrainian folk tales. A new Ukraine community center was opened last week in its eastern suburbs. Even a statue of the Beatles was proudly adorned with the country’s national dress.

“The fact that we are hosting it for a different country suits Liverpool’s personality,” McColgan said from her office, watching as trucks below her heave Eurovision’s distinctive signage into place. “Liverpool is properly crackers … but it’s also got a really big heart .”

It’s a wholesale transformation for a city that, before February 2022, had “no real (Ukrainian) community.”

The city's famour Liver building as the contest nears.

“Liverpool was treated by Ukrainians as a place of transition,” said Taras Khomych, 74, the softly-spoken head of the city’s Ukrainian Church. “Some went further west, to North America, others settled in Manchester.” In Liverpool, there were “just a few families,” he said.

Then everything changed. Days after Russia’s invasion, Khomych spoke to a packed church. Every day, he receives messages from new Ukrainians arriving in the city. “Liverpool being Liverpool, everyone wanted to help immediately,” he said.

The city is fiercely proud, and its maverick streak runs purposefully counter to London and the rest of England’s south. Scousers don’t care for the King, or the ruling Conservative party – but the city was built on the back of its shipping routes to other countries, and its inhabitants will tell anyone who’ll listen that their doors are always open to outsiders.

“Liverpool is where it’s at,” Menacere said simply. And after a trip back to Kyiv last week – her first visit since she left on February 25, 2022 – Shevchuk is starting to agree.

“I wanted to see what’s changed,” Shevchuk said, explaining her trip back to Ukraine. “Is there a future? Is it safe?” But even with the fighting mostly focused on Ukraine’s east, life in the capital is still scarred by war. A barrage of Russian attacks hit the city last week, while Shevchuk was there.

She spent some days sleeping on the floor outside her apartment, to keep two walls between her and a potential missile. “When I was very scared, I went to shelter in a school or hospital.”

Similar attacks disrupted rehearsals for Tvorchi, the electronic duo representing Ukraine at the final. “We feel a huge sense of responsibility. We know what we have to do; we know what mission we’re here for,” Jeffery Kenny, one half of the group, told CNN.

Their song, “Heart of Steel,” is inspired by the soldiers who defended Azovstal Steel Plant in the early weeks of the war. “They had fire in their eyes,” Andrii Hutsuliak said.

Hutsuliak summarized their message for watching Ukrainians: “We know that everyday is hard. We’re here physically, and our souls are back at home.” As for Russia, he added: “To terrorists, we have no messages and no words. What can you say to terrorists?”

“I left Ukraine under the air raid alarms, again,” Shevchuk said, describing her departure last week. “I adore Kyiv. I adore Ukraine, it’s my heart. But now, for me, I feel everything has ended. Right now, I have nothing at all.”

Instead, something changed in her psyche when she came back to Liverpool. “Now I have some more (determination) inside myself to do something with my life here.” She chats with 600 compatriots in a Liverpool-specific WhatsApp group about Eurovision, making plans to meet and take in the city-wide events. Even the food tastes better now, she said. “I saw Liverpool in another light. It’s green, it’s finally warm, and Eurovision makes me happy.”

For many Ukrainians who made Liverpool their home, the pull of Eurovision was difficult to resist.

“Everyone understands we need to help our country – it doesn’t matter how,” said Veronika Yasynska, another displaced person on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, who lives with a young Liverpudlian couple. Her first mission was to introduce a shelf for Ukrainian books in Liverpool’s largest library. Now, she has been helping the council’s preparations for Eurovision, and has staged Ukrainian artistic displays in the city’s massive Eurovision Village site.

Like Shevchuk, Yasynska escaped Kyiv crammed into a train, alongside children and pets, in total darkness and with GPS devices turned off to avoid detection from Russian rockets. “It was not an evacuation, it was a zombie apocalypse,” Shevchuk said, with locals rushing the train carriages as it passed rural towns.

Both women say they have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Both have relatives in Ukraine who they accept they may not see again. But both are slowly finding purpose in their adopted city.

“Russia erased our history, they rewrote our historical books,” Yasynska said. “I’m under pressure to give (Ukrainians) a proper place to present themselves, to present Ukraine … and to finally establish the correct history about Ukraine, that we’re independent.”

The reception she has had has left an impression. “I’ve never met such kind and generous people as here in Liverpool.”

At least 3,000 displaced Ukrainians have arrived in the city, tickets in hand, for one of the live shows throughout the week before the final takes place on Saturday. Others have visited just to join the festivities.

Liverpool is twinned with Odesa, a major port city on the banks of the Black Sea which has been bombarded by Russian attacks.

And while its Ukrainian community is in its infancy, the two places share the experience of overcoming trauma.

Liverpool was massively damaged in a Nazi Blitz campaign between 1940 and 1942. Then, nearly half a century later, a disaster at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium killed 97 people, almost all of them traveling Liverpool fans.

The ensuing, decades-long effort for justice unified the city; today, shirts bearing the number of those killed adorn pubs and the windows of people’s homes, an ever-present reminder of the tragedy that fortified Liverpool’s self-reliance, and cemented its suspicion of authorities down south.

A vigil for victims of the Hillsborough disaster in Liverpool's city center. The city's residents spent decades campaigning to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice; in 2016, a jury finally ruled that the victims had been unlawfully killed.

Maria Romanenko has shown hundreds of the visitors around. Having resettled in nearby Manchester last year, Romanenko has offered free Ukrainian-language tours to those in Liverpool all week – and put on a final excursion on Friday for Jamala, Ukraine’s 2016 Eurovision winner, who heard about the program and got in touch.

“People coming together and showing that community is much stronger than criminals – those stories always do well with Ukrainians,” Romanenko said. “They can relate to the experience of how the city used something negative to fight for justice – they used it to achieve something good.”

One of Yasynska’s first outings in Liverpool was to its local history museum, just along the waterfront from the arena hosting Eurovision.

“When I saw the (World War II) devastation, and what the city looked like after the bombing, I heard the sirens – they were absolutely similar as those I’ve heard before.”

“Nothing has changed, only the time frames,” she said. “It was important for me to understand what the next steps that we, as Ukrainians, need to do to protect our culture and protect our cities. How to rebuild.”

“It was an inspiration to understand that it is possible to rebuild it, it is possible to start a new life from zero.”

By Sunday, the massive circus that accompanies Eurovision will leave Liverpool culturally and financially richer – local authorities estimate a £25 million ($31 million) windfall from the contest.

But for the Ukrainians who now call the city home, it will hold a different legacy.

“Liverpool is not home,” Shevchuk said. But her outlook on her new life has shifted in recent days. “It’s a place that gives me a chance for the future.”

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