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At Eurovision, Ukrainians Find Community Far From Home

This week, there were reminders round 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 war continues to rage more than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Inflatable songbirds decorated with patterns from traditional Ukrainian embroidery dotted the streets. In the city center, sandbags covered a monument as part of an art installation that replicates measures taken to protect statues in the war-torn country. There were blue-and-yellow flags everywhere.

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

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

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

She will join thousands of displaced Ukrainians living in Britain who are attending the Eurovision Song Contest this week after some 3,000 heavily discounted tickets were offered to them. The attendees make up just a fraction of the more than 120,000 Ukrainians who have come to Britain as part of a sponsorship program that was put in place last year.

“We felt that if this was going to seriously reflect Ukraine, you had to have Ukrainians within 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 those people who are here,” he added.

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

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

Andrew said that demand had been high for the discounted tickets, with more than 9,000 Ukrainians applying, and that it was heartening to see an event “that even just for a couple of hours one evening takes their mind off the displacement issues.”

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

Eventually, she escaped in a convoy of cars filled with women and children and made her way across the border, then on to Latvia, she said.

“Mentally and psychologically, it was really hard, because it’s something different, everything is new,” Sydorenko added.

She later fled to Britain after connecting online with Elisse Jones, a Liverpool resident who offered to host Sydorenko, her daughter, her sister-in-law and her nephew. It was not easy at first for the children, who didn’t understand the language.

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

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

Two days before the Eurovision final, Sydorenko joined a group of Ukrainian women unveiling a collaborative 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, a 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 war’s impact on Ukrainians that is on display across Liverpool this week.

The Eurovision festivities are also drawing in Ukrainians living around Britain who traveled long distances to take part. Oksana Pitun, 39, and her daughter, Daniella, 12, who are living with a host family in Southampton — on England’s south coast — left their home on a bus at 5:40 a.m. to see the semifinal on Thursday night. The journey took them more than seven hours, and they had plans to take the night bus home once the competition ends.

But Pitun said they were overjoyed that they had managed to get the reduced-rate tickets.

“We feel we are supporting our country by doing this,” Pitun said. “And it also feels so nice to go somewhere, be 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 chatted with the volunteers in her mother tongue and switched seamlessly back and forth to English.

While many Ukrainians who have sought shelter here are eager to return to their home country as soon as it is safe to do so, others have begun to feel at home in Britain.

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

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

Late last year, she started her own digital agency, and she said she has been thrilled to see Liverpool, which has become like a second home in the past year, host Eurovision on behalf of Ukraine. While she wasn’t able to get tickets to any of the contest events, she has spent the week attending concerts in the EuroVillage fan area.

She joined crowds of Ukrainians there on Thursday night to see a performance by Jamala, a Crimean Tatar singer who won Eurovision in 2016. A Ukrainian flag draped over her shoulders and her head of blonde curls blown by the breeze, Kuzmenko swayed to the music, a smile on her face.

She said British people have been coming up to her when they see her with her flag to voice 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 are included, and it’s amazing.”

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