Speaking for Ourselves

Points of Light winner, Maria Romanenko, talks about her experiences in the UK

Points of Light winner, Maria Romanenko, talks about her experiences in the UK


 Migrant Voice - Points of Light winner, Maria Romanenko, talks about her experiences in the UK

Having been forced to leave Ukraine when Russia invaded her homeland Maria Romanenko has focused on helping her fellow Ukrainians feel more at home, and comfortable, in the UK. 

On the day the bombs started dropping on Ukraine, Maria’s British boyfriend warned that they would have to leave for their own safety. After a gruelling and intense journey Maria arrived in Manchester, UK, on 2 March. At the time the current visa route for those fleeing the conflict was not yet operational, and despite having already applied for a tourist visa previously, as her partner split his time between Manchester and Ukraine, the Home Office had lost it. Thanks to her connections as a journalist Maria was able to obtain a visa waiver to enter the UK.

Although already having a connection with Manchester, and a place to live, it understandably took a couple of weeks for Maria to process everything which she had been through. There was an intense amount of media attention at the time, taking up her time with interviews, although she still needed time to breathe and adjust after everything which she had been through. Realising though that, despite all she had been through, there were Ukrainians who were in a worse position than her Maria determined to try and find a way to help them. “I realised that I was in this position of ‘luck’ and, you know, privilege that most Ukrainians who come to the UK are not. I have my partner and his psychological support. I have a house to live in. I have the knowledge of the UK because I previously studied in the UK. And all the other Ukrainians have come here, you know, 95% or even 98%/99% do not have this. How can I help those people?”

With this in mind, Maria contacted a local walking tour in Manchester, Free Manchester Walking Tours, to pitch the idea of running one for Ukrainians in the city to help them feel more at home. “I remembered that I went on a walking tour of Manchester in 2020. I really enjoyed the walking tour, and I thought that I would contact the guide that I ask her if she would be willing to do this for Ukrainians, and I would translate for free and luckily she responded to me straight away saying she absolutely loved the idea.”

Thinking that it would possibly be a one-off tour, Maria, who has recently been accepted onto the Aspen Institute UK’s Rising Leadership Fellowship Programme for her role as a leader in the Ukrainian war refugee community, had 120 sign ups initially. With such high demand more tours were arranged to accommodate those who wanted to take part, and from there the ball started rolling. “I already knew that there was going to be a next one because I already had a big waiting list of people. The next one I think was even more popular because the first one was on a weekday and the second one was on a weekend. So that is how it became a thing.”

When Eurovision came to Liverpool, it seemed only natural that Maria would build on the success of the walking tours in Manchester to try and arrange one there. “We found out that Eurovision would be coming to Liverpool and Ukrainians love Eurovision. Obviously it was held on behalf of Ukraine because Ukraine won last year. So I kind of also had this random idea. How about I do this work in Liverpool and team up with a local free walking tour company there, so I started researching what they have there and came across KR Spanish and English Tours Liverpool and messaged them asking how they felt about doing this… We agreed on three dates, all around Eurovision time.” During this period Maria was approached by the team for the 2016 Ukrainian Eurovision Winner Jamala to host a more private walking tour, as they could not make any of the scheduled dates.

A huge amount of work goes into researching, organising, and carrying out the walking tours. First off, Maria has to go on the usual tour to familiarise herself with the locations and what is talked about. As translation takes time, and to ensure that tours are not too long, she then works with the guides on what could be cut out so there is time for a high quality, translated tour. “I want the quality to be good. So I first listened to the tour myself and familiarised myself with what they talked about on the tour, and then advised how to shorten it because obviously with translation, it takes twice as long.”

After announcing the Liverpool tours, but before they were conducted, Maria was contacted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports wanting to know if she would be willing to be highlighted as a case study in exemplary volunteering. Having given them background detail on what she was doing and why, a couple of weeks later she was contacted and told that, having discussed it with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, they wanted to award her with the Points of Light Award, which recognises outstanding individual volunteers. “I just went crazy. I started screaming. I could not even read the email properly. I had to give it to my partner to read because I just… it was just an incredible moment. I never won any awards in my life before. It is a great thing to be recognised like that. I think obviously the best thing is to be recognised by Ukrainians… It is like nothing else.”

Maria is now looking to expand the tours, possibly into other cities and areas, and develop ways to help bring more tourism to Ukraine once the war is over, as a means to help the country rebuild. There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment though, not just in terms of how long the conflict will continue, but also what life holds for Ukrainians in the UK. With visas only lasting for three years it is hard to think long-term for example, and a lack of stability with accommodation is putting many at risk. There is also a lot of positivity and hope out there too. “I think it is so important when you do not represent a specific culture but you are interested in fighting together for something good. Ukrainians, for example. I took part in one event where the Iranian women who live in Manchester, and it is basically the same fight, for example, because they fight in the Iranian government. That is basically one of the biggest allies of Russia. So that is the same fight and there are many scenarios, many situations, you can find those common things, like Syria and a lot of Syrians are fleeing Russian aggression. So I would love if there is a way that I can, or we can, all work together to achieve something good. I think that is a very good idea because it is, I think, very important.”

Photo credits: Courtesy of Maria Romanenko

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