Olha with her unexpected guest for tea perched on the back of the chair.

‘In this difficult moment, we felt the sincerity’

Olha Melnyk came to Balliangh with her two children in August of last year.

She was living in the town of Kalynivka in Vinnytsia, which is to the south-west of Ukraine. What she remembers of her city at her time of departure is sirens, bombs flying and the fear of not knowing where they would land.

Moving from her beautiful home unfortunately was not a choice but a necessity for her and her children, who were two and ten years old at the time.

Olha came to Ireland for safety, to enable her children to attend school and pre-school. Before arriving, they’d spent their days hiding in the cold food storage basement beneath their home in Ukraine, sleeping fully clothed while the kids cried with confusion.

“For the children it was terrible to have to see that, they were crying,” she said.

Uprooting herself and her children was a painful experience for Olha as she left loved ones behind in Ukraine.

“I not only left my home, but I left my family, my husband is there now,” she said.

Olha explains she “didn’t have a choice” but to flee.

“We stay here, but our hearts are in Ukraine,” she said.

As Olha tells her story at the back of Tilly’s Tea Room in Ballinagh, a Robin continuously appears. The rhyme; “Robins appear when loved ones are near” comes to mind.

Olha’s tear-filled eyes follow the bird as it jumps from chair to chair in the café’s outdoor area.

The bird reminds her of home as she explains they are similar in Ukraine but with a more vibrant red breast.

She enjoys this aspect of Ireland; nature reminds her of home.

Olha praised the welcome she and others from Ukraine received when they arrived in Ballinagh.

They are eager to help the town as a way to give back.

“My neighbours and I, we were looking for a job and then we found Laura,” said Olha.who works for Ballinagh Community Enterprise Association. Olha describes Laura Brady as a “very open-hearted woman.”

“She helped us,” she said, detailing how she explained everything and found roles for people to do within the community.

One such task has been the Ballinagh Community Garden, which Olha takes great pride in.

“Working with land, it’s in our hearts and in our blood,” she said of the Ukrainian community, noting the therapeutic aspect of working in the garden: “It’s good to restart our minds.

“We appreciate Ballinagh, it’s a very beautiful village,” she adds.

Olha said the town showed her the “beauty of a safe place.” “We appreciate everybody who smiles, everybody who wants to help,” she said, speaking for herself and her neighbours.

“This has helped us, every Ukrainian needs this,” she says.

Other events such as art classes and an exhibition of their works, opportunities to study English and counselling have also helped the Ukrainian community settle better.

Although Olha has found a safe space in Ballinagh, she and her family long to return home, with her son often telling her the sun is “more shiny” and the trees are “more green” in Ukraine.

Olha spoke on behalf of the entire Ukrainian population living in Ballinagh when thanking the community for their help.

“In this very difficult moment for us, we felt the sincerity, kindness and sensitivity of every citizen of this beautiful county of Ireland,” she concludes.