May 31, 2023

This week there were reminders on every street corner in Liverpool that this northern English city is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest as a stand-in for last year’s winning country, Ukraine, where the war is still raging more than a year after the entire war in Russia. invasion.

Inflatable songbirds decorated with patterns of traditional Ukrainian embroidery spread across the streets. In the city center, sandbags covered a monument as part of an art installation replicating measures taken to protect statues in the war-torn country. Blue and yellow flags hung everywhere.

But perhaps the most visible reminder of Ukraine’s central role in an event hosted in an English city nearly 2,000 miles from Kiev was the presence of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled the war at home.

Among them is 33-year-old Anastasyia Sydorenko, who fled to Liverpool with her 6-year-old daughter Polina after the outbreak of war in February 2022. She has tickets for the Eurovision final on Saturday night.

“I now feel like I’m in Ukraine,” said Sydorenko. “Everywhere I go I see Ukrainian flags, Ukrainian signs, more Ukrainian people in our national clothes. It’s so cool, it warms my heart, it really does.”

She will join the thousands of displaced Ukrainians living in Britain attending this week’s Eurovision Song Contest after being offered some 3,000 heavily discounted tickets. The attendees are just a fraction of the more than 120,000 Ukrainians who came to Britain as part of a sponsorship program set up last year.

“We felt that if this was to seriously reflect Ukraine, you had to have Ukrainians in the audience,” said Stuart Andrew, Britain’s Eurovision minister. “This is an opportunity for us, in a more celebratory way, to stand in solidarity with the people who are here,” he added.

Last summer, Eurovision Song Contest organizers ruled out holding the contest in Ukraine, and Britain, whose act, Sam Ryder, had come second in the 2022 competition, was asked to host.

“We want everyone to have fun, but at the same time there is a serious message that this should happen in Ukraine now,” said Andrew. “And the fact that it isn’t is a strong reminder of the brutality of Putin and his regime.”

Andrew said discounted tickets were in high demand, with more than 9,000 Ukrainians signing up, and it was encouraging to see an event “that takes their minds off the street for even a few hours one night.” displacement problems.”

Those who, like Sydorenko, were lucky enough to get tickets, described it as a bright spot in a difficult year. Sydorenko hails from the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where she hid in a basement for 10 days when war first gripped her country.

She eventually escaped in a convoy of cars full of women and children and crossed the border, then into Latvia, she said.

“Mentally and psychologically it was very difficult, because it is something different, everything is new,” added Sydorenko.

She later fled to Britain after contacting Elisse Jones online, a Liverpool resident who offered to host Sydorenko, her daughter, her sister-in-law and her cousin. In the beginning it was not easy for the children, who did not understand the language.

“They didn’t speak a word of English before, and now they’re completely scouse,” Jones said, referring to the Liverpudlian lilt now evident in the children’s English.

“They’re like little sponges,” Sydorenko said with a smile, putting her hand on her daughter’s head and describing how well she did in school.

Two days before the Eurovision Song Contest final, Sydorenko joined a group of Ukrainian women who unveiled a joint exhibition called “The Displaced: Ukrainian Women of Liverpool” at an art space in the city. The project features the portraits of – and interviews with – 24 women who fled to Liverpool.

Sydorenko, co-founder of the project, described it as a form of therapy for many of the women. The exhibition is just one of many poignant reflections on the impact of the war on Ukrainians on display across Liverpool this week.

The Eurovision festivities also attract Ukrainians living in Britain who have traveled long distances to participate. Oksana Pitun, 39, and her daughter, Daniella, 12, who live with a host family in Southampton – on the south coast of England – left by bus at 5.40am to watch the semi-final on Thursday night. The journey took them more than seven hours and they had plans to take the night bus home after the game.

But Pitun said they were overjoyed that they managed to get the reduced fare tickets.

“We feel we are supporting our country by doing this,” Pitun said. “And it also feels so nice to go somewhere, be a part of something and just not think about the war.”

On Thursday afternoon, Pitun and her daughter visited the Ukrainian boulevard in Liverpool’s docklands, set up as a place for Eurovision fans to experience Ukrainian art and culture. Daniella talked to the volunteers in her native language and seamlessly switched back and forth to English.

While many Ukrainians who have taken shelter here are eager to return to their homeland as soon as it is safe, others are starting to feel at home in Britain.

Tanya Kuzmenko, 34, used to be traveled in Sri Lanka with her boyfriend, who is British, in February 2022 when they woke up to the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We didn’t believe it, we were in shock,” she said. She felt they could not return to Ukraine, so she applied to join her friend’s family at their home near Liverpool under the sponsorship scheme. She moved here last summer.

She started her own digital agency late last year, and said she was thrilled to see Liverpool, which has become like a second home over the past year, host the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine. While she was unable to secure tickets to any of the competition events, she attended concerts throughout the week in the EuroVillage fan zone.

She joined crowds of Ukrainians there on Thursday night to see a performance by Jamala, a Crimean Tatar singer who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016. swayed to the music, a smile on her face.

She said British people come to her when they see her with her flag to show their support for Ukraine or share their connections to the country.

“When I arrived last year there were only one or two flags, and now the whole city has flags,” she said. “I feel proud. We’re included, and it’s amazing.”