Donetsk to Oxfordshire: A 15-Year-Old’s Escape to the UK

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Anastasia, aged 15, was forced to escape the conflict with her mother and two sisters.

From Donetsk in the east, they made a harrowing journey to the Polish border in the west, eventually finding safety in a refugee hostel in Warsaw where Gary Silver, senior partner of Dorchester Regeneration, and his team helped them make safe passage to England. The four now reside in Heyford Park, Oxfordshire, while dad remains on the front line in Ukraine. This is Anastasia’s story.

Escaping war

For Anastasia, the war in Ukraine started long before February 2022. Her home is in the city of Donetsk, which is the disputed eastern Ukraine region of Donbas. In 2014, pro-Russian forces began an assault on Donbas to which Ukrainian forces had no choice but to retaliate. Anastasia’s father, a chaplain, has been on the front line ever since.

‘It was very scary,’ says Anastasia. ‘I have barely seen my dad for eight years. Since 2014, he has said we must be prepared to move quickly because the fighting was getting closer and closer to our home.’

In the summer of 2021, the family’s situation worsened when, on Anastasia’s mum’s birthday, the family was in a car crash. Her dad broke his back and needed major surgery, and her mum damaged her shoulder and arm. She is still waiting for surgery to fix it.

Then, in February of this year, Russia commenced its full-scale invasion of Ukraine with the family still recovering from this near tragedy. ‘We were woken at 4 am,’ Anastasia says. ‘War had started. It was so confusing. Dad said they were very close. There was fighting outside. When the shooting happened, we had to find cover and hide.’

‘After two days, we left. Dad came with us. We had to drive across the country and sleep in the car. One day, in Melnitsa, we stopped at a cafe serving tea to fleeing people. There were about 100 people there when, suddenly, more shooting started. All of us had to run away as quickly as we could. In that attack, the cafe was destroyed. It was very close.’

After a difficult journey, including the treacherous crossing of a bridge completely demolished by Russian bombing, the family finally arrived at the Polish border. By this point, the Russians were nearly in Kiev, so Anastasia’s dad had to leave the family and return to the front line to join the Ukrainian resistance. Once in Poland, Anastasia, her sisters – aged 8 and 17 – and mum spent two weeks staying with a family friend. It was a two-room apartment with nine people.

‘We didn’t know what was going on. It was like a nightmare. It was very hard living with nine people in such a small space.’

Soon, another friend helped the family find room in a hostel with many other refugees in Warsaw, which is where they met Gary Silver, senior partner of Dorchester Regeneration, his wife, Sandra, and the team who had made their way from the UK to Poland to do what they could to help the increasing number of Ukrainian refugees.

‘Gary and Sandra were very open and helpful,’ Nasty says. ‘I told them our story. And they even brought me a new phone because I had lost mine in the car crash in 2021. A phone is very important – it’s the only way to know what’s going on and check on our loved ones.’

Gary and Sandra then helped the family secure UK visas. They arranged a home for them in Heyford Park, Oxfordshire, a Dorchester Regeneration development that has transformed old US Air Force land into a thriving town and community.

Living in Heyford Park

The family arrived on 26th May 2022. ‘It was my first time on a plane,’ Anastasia says. ‘Our home here has four rooms. It’s exciting. It’s so lovely – we even have a garden where we can relax and eat breakfast together.’

There are other Ukrainian families in Heyford Park, too, and Anastasia has made fast friends with one fellow teenage girl in particular. ‘Everyone has been so kind and welcoming to us. But it’s great to meet other people who have the same experience as I do. It gives us a connection – we have very similar stories.’

Anastasia and her sisters have all been enrolled in Heyford Park School – an academy school that the Dorchester Regeneration team helped create, located within the old officer’s mess building.

‘It’s great,’ Anastasia says. ‘Everyone has been so kind. In September, I will go into 6th Form. I’m nervous but excited.’

Anastasia’s favourite thing to do at school is music. She’s an immensely talented pianist, and playing is something she misses about the home where she attended music school. But weekly music lessons in Heyford Park mean she now gets two hours a week to indulge her passion.

Anastasia has also started working at The Heyford hotel as a waitress but only works a few hours a week as she’s only 15. ‘It’s amazing. I love it. The people are great. Especially the manager, Conrad. He’s a very good person. It’s my first ever job. It’s helping improve my English, too.’

Anastasia is the only member of her family who speaks English. Over the past few years, she has taken it upon herself to learn outside school by using her phone and watching Netflix with subtitles. She is close to being fluent. Mum speaks very little English but is learning. In their new home, Anastasia is encouraging her mum’s improvement by insisting on speaking only in English.

An uncertain future

Looking to the future, Anastasia says many things are uncertain. ‘We have a six-month visa at the moment. If I want to stay, I need to apply for an extension of three years. My dad says the education system in England is very good and that if I can attend 6th Form here, it would give me a great education to take back and use to help build the new Ukraine once the war is over.’

There are mixed feelings because Anastasia and her family greatly miss their home and the loved ones they’ve had to leave behind.

‘I am very scared for my grandparents – I wish they were here with us, but they cannot travel. And dad can’t come because there is too much important work for him to do on the front line. He tries to call us once a week, but it’s not always possible and talking on the phone can be dangerous for him. We all miss him.’

‘I also miss my friends. Some are still in Ukraine, and others are in Poland and Germany. We are very happy to be here and safe, but I love it in Ukraine. I miss my dogs. Every morning before school, my friends and I would take my dogs and walk and play along a beautiful river close to my home – I feel very lucky to be here, but I miss that very much.’

Gary Silver, the senior partner of Dorchester Regeneration, says: ‘When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I watched the horror unfold from home and felt helpless. We all knew that this war was going to force millions of Ukrainian people to abandon their homes in an attempt to stay alive, and I quickly felt that I needed to do something more than watch on in anger and dismay.’

‘We travelled out and set up a Dorchester-led initiative in Warsaw, Poland, Providing Shelter From Conflict, creating three emergency hostels to house, food, and clothe refugees who had crossed the border from Ukraine. Our ultimate goal was to place as many people and families as possible in permanent accommodation. To date, we’ve helped around 250 people, finding safe homes for them across Europe and the US.’

‘We brought several families to the UK, one of which we found a home for in our new Heyford Park development in Oxfordshire. That was Anastasia, her mother and two sisters. My wife and I quite literally stumbled across Anastasia in Warsaw train station. She was sleeping rough on the floor with her family.’

‘As the only English speaker in the family, she started telling us about their experience. Anastasia is an incredibly strong and charismatic young woman who, given the opportunity, will go on to do brilliant things. I have absolutely no doubt about that. It’s devastating that she and many others like her are having their lives interrupted by senseless violence.’

‘We’re delighted that the family are settling in well in Heyford Park. Everyone in the community has been so welcoming, but we’re also aware they’ve left so much behind, including Anastasia’s dad and grandparents. If and when the time comes for the family to return to Ukraine, we will do whatever we can to help facilitate and support them. Until then, we are proud to have them as part of our community for as long as they wish.’