'He's the best': Ukrainians react to Zelenskyy's visit to the UK

8 February 2023, 19:07

Olena Motorna fled Kyiv with her mum and her now-four-year-old son
Olena Motorna fled Kyiv with her mum and her now-four-year-old son. Picture: LBC/Alamy

By Fraser Knight

Just metres from Parliament in the heart of London, I meet one of the more than 160,000 Ukrainian people the UK’s welcomed since Russia’s invasion began almost a year ago.

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Olena Motorna fled Kyiv with her mum and her now-four-year-old son when the war began to move towards the Ukrainian capital.

She left her husband behind and told me it’s been difficult to adjust, especially for her young boy.

“He’s little but every day he asks me ‘Mum, when will we go back to Kyiv?’. He really likes Kyiv and remembers Ukraine – he can’t forget it. We have an amazing country.

“It’s very painful for us. I was crying every evening for about six months.”

Olena says when she saw President Zelenskyy was coming to the UK, it was "the best news – we sat on a bench and watched his address to MPs together".

“He’s the best president we’ve ever had,” she tells me, “When I saw he was coming I thought, ‘yes, you’re coming to the right place’.

“We support him, and we feel his support. Of course, we want to see him and hug him – but we can’t. He’s our hero, we’re lucky to have a president like him. “It’s emotional to see him here and feel that he’s so close.”

Read more: Sunak insists 'nothing is off the table' as Zelenskyy reiterates call for British fighter jets

Read more: 'Get on with it': Boris Johnson rejects Sunak's claims it's 'not practical' to send fighter jets to Ukraine

Ukrainians react to Zelenskyy's visit to the UK

As of the end of January, the government says 160,100 people have arrived in the UK under visa schemes set up to support Ukrainian families fleeing the war. Many of them have settled with sponsor families and have even found jobs.

But they’re facing big challenges too, especially as the invasion by Russian forces prepares to enter a second year.

At a church in Mayfair, I meet Andriy Marchenko, who’s been in the UK since 2017 but helped to set up the Ukrainian Welcome Centre when the war began last year – which the King officially opened in November.

“The stories we’re getting from families are so diverse. Sometimes they’re absolutely disorientated who have comes this long way after being shell-shocked by the news if not by actual fire.”

Andriy says he was also excited to see that his president would be spending time in the UK – and that he agreed with every word he said.

“We’re very proud of what President Zelenskyy is doing; he’s very popular with his people and he’s definitely popular with us.

“A president of a country at war doesn’t make very many visits to foreign countries and this only goes to show that he knows where to go and that this is the place to go to have substantial negotiations.

“I thank the United Kingdom for this opportunity to show Ukraine this support all around. I think every Ukrainian will want to thank the British people for providing this support – the decisiveness of it is exemplary.”

Helmet of UKR pilot: 'We have freedom - give us wings to protect it'

Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his address to the UK Parliament to again call for fighter jets to be provided to help with the fight against Russia.

He said: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it… I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words, combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”

Number 10 had previously said it didn’t think it was practical to provide aircraft to the eastern European country.

A spokesperson has since said: “The Prime Minister has tasked the defence secretary with investigation what jets we might be able to give but, to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability, which is what Ukraine needs most now.”