In a room on the top floor of Edinburgh University’s Business School, a group of Ukrainian women are talking about the legacy of trauma their country will be left with once the war is over. 

“I want to know what we can do about the tolerance of violence developing amongst Ukrainian [children],” says Jelena Franckevica, who works for the consumer intelligence company NielsenIQ, but has established a non-profit centre for Ukrainian children in Latvia.

“It is logical because we are helping our defenders to kill Russians and children can hear the conversations, but it is not healthy for society. So what strategic decisions can we take to prevent it?”

Hanna Tekliuk, who co-runs Edinburgh Spiders, a network of volunteers who make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian Army, and is founder and director of education at the Ukrainian St Margaret’s Saturday School, wants to learn how to help the traumatised women and children she encounters on a weekly basis.

(Image: Gordon Terris/Newsquest)

“The other day, a mother sent me a message that said: ‘Sorry, my daughter cannot come to school today because her father was killed on the battlefield’,” Tekliuk says.

“She was apologising to me.”

Tekliuk refers those in need of psychological support to other services, but says it is important to her to be able to find the right words in the moment.

“These people are looking at me; they want me to tell them something; to be professional” she says. “Where can I learn the right things to say?”

(Image: Gordon Terris)

Franckevica and Tekliuk are among 20 women selected from 200 applicants to take part in a week-long residential leadership course being run by the John Smith Trust in partnership with the Business School.

The aim is two-fold: to empower the women to expand the community work they are already involved in; and to help them develop skills they will be able to use in the reconstruction of their country.

This morning, the group has been hearing from three Scottish pioneers: Professor Christine Goodall, founder of Medics Against Violence, Louise Macdonald, Director General Communities at the Scottish government, and Karyn McLuskey, who, prior to establishing the Violence Reduction Unit, worked as a forensic psychologist in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

After sharing their own stories, they have opened up the floor to the women’s concerns.

In answer to Franckevica’s question, they stress the importance of restorative justice and peace circles.

“Restorative justice doesn’t always have to involve those who have caused the harm,” says McLuskey, who is now chief executive at Community Justice Scotland. “It can be about people designing their own peace as they go forward.” 

McLuskey promises to link Tekliuk in with trauma training, and tells the women about the spike in domestic violence among veterans returning from Afghanistan, and the rehabilitation-focused veterans’ courts which were set up in New York to tackle it.

“I would start thinking about domestic abuse work now,” she says, “because it is something you are going to have to deal with.”

Though the Ukrainian women are upbeat, and the room frequently fills with laughter, they are also carrying their own trauma. Each has a story of loved ones left behind, hopes dashed, careers cut short, lives interrupted.

(Image: Gordon Terris)

Tekliuk, who ran language schools in Vinnytsia, had accepted a new job and was about to realise her dream of moving to Kyiv when the war began.

Terrified that the Russians would strike a nuclear power plant, she fled with her two younger children aged 16 and 17, leaving the eldest, who was 19, in Ukraine.

She was lucky she already knew someone in Edinburgh, who invited them to stay for six months until they found their own place.

She now has three jobs: she teaches English for academic purposes at Edinburgh Napier University, teaches online for the American University Kyiv and works part-time as Ukrainian tutor for

Edinburgh council on top of her volunteering. But her marriage has collapsed under the strain. “War is not good for anyone,” she says.

Daria Kulaha cries as she tells me how her mother was displaced twice within a decade.

Born in Kerch in Crimea, the 29-year-old had already left home to study applied linguistics in Kharkiv when Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, but she was travelling back and forth to visit her family home.

At first, her mother wanted to carry on living there; but as the regime cracked down on human rights, she changed her mind.

By then, Kulaha was an IT specialist with an online bank, based in Kyiv. It took her mother several years to sell her property and settle her affairs.

She finally moved to Irpin in 2019: less than three years before Putin’s troops moved in.

Kulaha stayed with her mother during the Battle of Irpin, which saw hundreds killed and much of the city destroyed.

She left soon after, ending up in Dumfries and Galloway where she worked as an interpreter and then in the council’s new employability resettlement team. Once she was settled, her mother followed.

The two of them now live together in Glasgow. Kulaha says she learned a lot from her public service role, but misses working in IT.

“I was managing more than 50 people, I was hiring people, creating processes,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as important until I stopped doing it and I had to downgrade.”

Varvara Mishyna, 46, who has five children, also misses her job.

She had been a TV director with the Dnipro channel D1, but, when a missile flew past the window of her 18th floor office, in the direction of her home, she knew it was time to go.

Leaving her parents and eldest son behind, she, her husband Serhii and their four younger children moved to Dundee where Serhii is a professor of economics.

Mishyna still works as D1’s Scottish correspondent, filing a story a fortnight. “I have applied for 100 positions here, 20 of them in TV stations, but I have been told I am over qualified,” she says.

Many of the women express similar emotions: guilt at having left Ukraine, a fear of being deskilled; an unwillingness to ask for help, a confusing mix of gratitude for their new home, and yearning for their old one.

They have dealt with this by being proactive, setting up a dazzling array of projects.

Tekliuk’s daughter Sofiia, then 18, set up Edinburgh Spiders because she wanted to do something hands-on to help the war effort; so far, volunteers working across three centres have made more than 200 nets.

Mishyna volunteers with the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) in Dundee.

Kulaha hopes to work as a translator at one of the military bases in England where  Ukrainian men and women are being trained as soldiers.

In the afternoon, the course continues with workshops and group sessions.

The room fizzes with ideas: information hubs, mental health projects; a club for women aged between 25-55.

 Prof Chris Carter, Chair in Strategy and Organisation with Jenny Britton Head of Executive Development Prof Chris Carter, Chair in Strategy and Organisation with Jenny Britton Head of Executive Development (Image: Gordon Terris/Newsquest)

Later, Baroness Elizabeth Smith, who set up the John Smith Trust in memory of her husband and  former Labour leader, arrives, and chats to them about their aspirations.

Baroness Smith began forging links with the then Soviet republics decades ago, while working with a UK government organisation which encouraged exchanges during the Cold War.

John’s death in 1994 came a few years after the collapse of the USSR; so it made sense for the trust to continue working with the newly-independent states.

It obtained Foreign Office funding to enable professionals from 12 countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova, to come to Britain for six weeks to study the principles of good governance.

Those exchanges have been running for 30 years. “It’s all about public service,” she says. “We now have people who are government ministers, ambassadors, bankers.”

Anna Makhlay, programme manager for the leadership course, came on a fellowship from Ukraine in 2010.

(Image: Gordon Terris/Newsquest)

Then 26, she was the personal assistant to Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchyna party, who served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010.

“The period after the Orange Revolution [in 2004] was a hopeful time - we were in a transition period, building a state nation and our own political institutions,” Makhlay tells me. 

By the time Russia invaded, she had three children: Marsha, 10, Alex, three, and Liza, 18 months.

“We lived in the centre of Kiev, close to the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and we expected the government quarter to be attacked first,” she says.

“We spent a week in the shelter in the basement, until I understood that my younger children couldn’t deal with that and we had to go.” So the family of six - Makhlay, her husband, the three children and Anna’s mother -  left with little more than their documents, heading first to Moldova, and then to Spain.

While the family were in Spain, Baroness Smith invited Makhlay to come and live in her home.

“At first, I said: ‘Elizabeth, I have three children, it’s too much,’ but she insisted.”

That was two years ago. Today, the family is still living in the top flat of her Morningside villa. “I didn’t have to think about it,” Baroness Smith says. “It’s lovely having them with me.”

Makhlay likes Edinburgh which is twinned with Kyiv and shares its hilly terrain. But there are ongoing challenges. Although they don’t talk about the war, Alex asks questions she finds difficult to answer: “Are there missiles? What are they shooting? Is our house safe?”

Then there is the painful picking apart of the concept of “home”.

“The children will ask: ‘Where is our home?’ “ Makhlay says. “Well, our home is where we are. But that is a new way of thinking for us, because culturally it is important for Ukrainians to be rooted, connected to land and place.”

Reconstruction: is another complex issue. How can you plan for the rebuilding of a country when you do not know how long the war will last, or what the scale of the damage will be?

Since coming to the UK, Makhlay has been involved in a number of initiatives aimed at shaping the future of Ukraine, and recently attended the international recovery conference in Berlin which saw 110 agreements signed, and £14bn billion pledged for various projects including the rebuilding of the country’s energy infrastructure.

“I was also at last year’s recovery conference in London and I can see the narrative has shifted,” Makhlay says.

“In London, they were talking about ‘post-war’ construction. Now it is being acknowledged that we cannot hold and wait; we need to act now: to develop skills, build knowledge, strengthen connections.”

Not all of the women will be able to return to Ukraine when the war ends.


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Some have no home or family to return to. Others are torn between the family members they left behind and the family members who have settled here. “ My youngest says: ‘I am a Scottish boy now’,” Mishyna tells me.

Wherever they end up, however, they are determined to contribute to the reconstruction.

Tekliuk hopes to help reform the education system. Mishyna wants to fight Russian propaganda.

Meanwhile, Kulaha believes Ukraine has a lot to learn from Scotland in supporting its internally-displaced citizens.

“When my mother moved from Crimea, we had to do everything ourselves,” she says. 

“But at Dumfries and Galloway, the resettlement team addressed every need: schools, housing, healthcare, ESOL classes. That’s how it should be: holistic.”

Makhlay believes the mass dispersal of Ukrainian citizens will bolster Ukraine’s EU prospects, as refugees absorb the traditions and mores of their new homes.

“Ukraine is not yet a member of the EU,” she says. “But there are Ukrainians all over Europe.”

In the meantime, the women hope to use the course to build networks, create solidarity and  preserve their Ukrainian heritage.

Tanya Balanova, 30, a nursery teacher from Vinnytsia, has been working for the AUGB in Edinburgh for 18 months now.

The community centre co-ordinates cultural events including poetry readings, choirs and Saturday morning Ukrainian classes for children.

“The war in Ukraine isn’t just a war for territory, it’s a war on our culture and our identity,” she says. “That’s what our guys are fighting for; it’s what we are fighting for too.”