A Ukrainian woman who fled the war has said she felt duty-bound to volunteer at a new advice centre for refugees arriving in Northern Ireland.
Galyna Valvenkina left her home in Zhytomyr, a city about 80 miles west of the capital Kyiv, 10 days after the Russian invasion.
Ms Valvenkina and her husband, who is originally from Derry, spent a week travelling across Europe before reaching Dublin.
Now living in Northern Ireland, the teacher is volunteering at the first Ukrainian assistance centre to open in the region.
The Belfast City Council-owned facility on Linenhall Street in Belfast, which offers a one-stop-shop service for refugees looking for information on how to access key services, is one of several that will operate across Northern Ireland.
“We escaped war, we stayed 10 days there, but then it started, these unbearable sirens, constant sirens, we had to rush to the cellar,” said Ms Valvenkina.
“So, we decided we would go to Northern Ireland because my husband’s brother lives here and my husband is from Derry. We used to live here. So that’s why we’re here.”
She said she felt compelled to offer to help at the advice centre.
“I’m here because it’s my duty to help my people in Ukraine,” she said.
“I’m a teacher, I speak Ukrainian, Russian, English. So, when my sister-in-law told me and asked me if I could go, I said of course, so that’s why I’m here volunteering to translate and interpret.”
Ms Valvenkina said her journey out of Ukraine was like something from a Second World War movie.
“It was a terrible journey,” she said.
“We used the evacuation trains, they were packed with women and children, thousands and thousands. It took us one week to get from Zhytomyr to Dublin.
“But people were helpful and supportive. We were met by volunteers from the church at the Ukrainian border, and they gave us shelter. Then we crossed the border and Polish volunteers were extremely helpful. They gave us shelter and food and everything.
“It was all free trains, but they were packed with people. It was like some terrible film about the Second World War, seriously.”
Ms Valvenkina said an overriding priority motivated all those fleeing her homeland.
“They just want to be safe,” she said.
The Red Cross is helping to operate the new advice centres. As well as Belfast, facilities are opening in Ballymena, Newry and Craigavon.
Sharon Sinclair, the Northern Ireland director for the Red Cross, said they were expecting people arriving from Ukraine to be deeply traumatised by what they have experienced.
Ukraine Assistance Centres
The following arrangements have been put in place for the opening of the #Ukraine Assistance Centres.
Those attending will need to bring ID and proof of the scheme under which they are registered.
More information: https://t.co/dgdA8D3Pvf pic.twitter.com/RGrCEfIZIY
— The Executive Office (@ExecOfficeNI) April 8, 2022
Ms Sinclair said it was the largest refugee crisis of this century.
“We know this is a very traumatised group of people,” she said.
“We expect high levels of trauma in almost everyone coming in, so it’s important that they first of all just have a quiet and restful time to settle in while dealing with practical things and then to have their health needs met and other very basic things.”
Ian Snowden, head of the Ukrainian support team in Northern Ireland, said around 300 people from Ukraine had already arrived to stay with family members.
He said 660 Ukrainians were awaiting visas to come to Northern Ireland via the other entry option – the UK’s visa sponsorship scheme.
“I think that as time goes past and more people are applying through that sponsorship scheme, we will expect to see that number would go up quite a lot,” he said.
Mr Snowden said around 90 visas had been issued so far but only 10-12 people had arrived through the sponsorship scheme to date.
He said the centres would perform an important role.
“The idea of these centres are that they’re a one-stop-shop, where recently arrived Ukrainian persons or their family members or their sponsor that they are living with here in Northern Ireland can come and get advice and help,” he said.