I have just come off a video call with Tamara, a 72 year old actor who lives alone in the outskirts of Kherson, and Boris, her boss (theatre director) and close friend of more than 30 years who now lives in Kyiv. Helping with translation is Yuliia, a Ukrainian friend, now living in Worcester, who I met at the start of the war. Yuliia has translated all of our many video calls for the last 18 months and guided me through every step of this journey.
Many of you will know these names as you so generously supported my Crowdfunding appeal at the start of the Ukraine conflict when I raised over £4500 to help my dear friends and artists in Kherson get through the winter. For those who are new to this story, Tamara, Boris and I worked together 25 years ago in a Ukraine/UK exchange with Trestle Theatre.
For 18 months now, I’ve tried to get them to safety…and now that journey is about to begin. Boris moved to Kyiv a year ago where he continues to direct Kherson Puppet Theatre productions; he cannot leave Ukraine as he’s 58 years old and men under the age of 60 have to stay to fight if called upon.
Tamara has remained in Kherson all this time. We have texted every single day, she writes in Russian (like so many Ukrainians, this is her mother tongue) and I text in English. Our mobile app translates…sometimes the translation is bizarre, but we have developed a deep understanding and admit when the translation makes us sound bizarre, blunt or insulting. Every time I have travelled, Tamara has asked for photos to follow my journey, she has been sent video recording from the rehearsal room, she spoke to my whole extended family last Christmas when each member learned the word for nephew, daughter, mother, she’s even been part of my choosing a new puppy I’m getting this Christmas! We have lived side by side, sharing each moment.
I have sent parcels of masks, food, warm clothes and, best of all, medicine when she’s been ill. The transportation of parcels has been incredible - a van arrives at your house (often at 2am) with 3 Ukrainian boys who makes sure the parcel is under 15kg; they then drive to the Ukrainian border, where the parcel is put in the post. It arrives at Tamara’s post office and she charms a taxi driver to help pick it up and to carry it up dozens of stairs to her flat. The boys pick it up in the UK on Friday and it’s with Tamara by the following Thursday. So last winter, when Tamara told me she was so ill because her bones were cold, we were able to send medication that arrived with Tamara six days later.
I’ve sent several parcels over the months; I’m looking at a cardboard box in my lounge that I fill each week with things that I think she’ll like. One of her favourite surprises was a cuddly toy, a white rabbit with long soft ears, another was a dressing gown and most recently she asked for tubes of wasabi (she eats a whole tube in one sitting to warm up). The box is half full at the moment, there’s a theme; wasabi nuts, wasabi noddles, and plain wasabi. If you don't know what it is, it's a mega hot, horseradish, Japanese spicy sauce.
Over the last few months, we've been planning for Tamara to come to England for an International Theatre Exchange. I have meetings booked at The RSC; I have plans to take her on a tour to care homes; I’ll train her in the techniques that we use to connect with people living with head injuries, dementia, profound disabilities. The British Council has agreed to support this ambitious theatre exchange. It was planned to take place in February and to last three weeks.
But Kherson, where Tamara has refused vehemently to leave, is now evacuating all children from the city - coaches are arriving, taking them to safe places. The mayor has asked citizens to leave the city as the war escalates beyond the horrors that Tamara has already lived through. To start, she lived through eight months of Russian occupation under the threat and torture of the fascist regime. Wth liberation came the terror that the Russians would bomb the city to the ground believing that, “if we can’t have this city, then nobody can.” As the Ukrainian army pushed the Russians back, the Russians blew up the dam and caused mass flooding through the city (in one call, Tamara told me about how the city stank and had dead bodies floating through the streets, bodies that had been uprooted from graves in the cemeteries caused by the flood). It’s unimaginable. But at every stage she’s remained calm, determined and strong… until last week, when on a video call she admitted to living in hell. That was the moment that I knew we had to get Tamara out (it’s not been for lack of trying) - in that moment I saw that Tamara could be convinced to leave her home.
Luckily, I’d already organised her visa and become a Homes for Ukraine sponsor so that her visit in February would be supported financially, and open up the opportunity for her to stay longer.
But this weekend, when I texted Boris, he agreed that Tamara needed to get out of Kherson as soon as possible. This is overwhelming for Tamara, she has stayed in her flat, not been allowed to go to work at the theatre (which was bombed at the start of this year) and she admitted that the thought of leaving her flat and making the journey to England is more terrifying than staying at home. But together we convinced her.
Tamara arrives, if all goes smoothly, in nine days’ time. As we speak, she’s packing her one suitcase that she bought in England 25 years ago when we were working together. She’s wrapping a bottle of pepper filled vodka in the middle!
She leaves her house on Saturday 18th November to catch a train to Kyiv. Boris will meet her off the train; they will have a few precious hours together and have promised to send me a photo. He will then put her on an overnight train to the western border of Ukraine. This train journey alone takes over 24 hours - Ukraine is a massive country. Then a private courier company will meet her from the train station and drive her across the border to Hungary, all the way to Budapest airport. Her greatest worry is navigating how to find her aeroplane.
In a brilliant meeting with The British Council, with a fantastic woman from Ukraine (now also relocated to the UK), she told me her story of how she printed out a letter in English for her mother to show people, “I am from Ukraine, I don’t speak English, this is my flight number, this is the name and mobile number of the person who is picking me up.” It’s the modern day equivalent to “Please look after this bear.”
God willing, Tamara arrives in Birmingham on Tuesday 21st November at 18:40.
What can you do to help? Pray in whatever way you pray. Pray that she arrives safely. Pray that she gets out of Kherson. The next time I see Tamara will be when I’m hugging her in person. I have longed for this moment for 18 long months. Please let it happen.
And then what? She’ll live with my family, She’ll come to rehearsals, She’ll bring the puppy home, She’ll be at my sisters with my family for Christmas Day. It’s her birthday on December 13th (if you’d like to send her a card that would be amazing) and then it’s Christmas. What will she hope for…wasabi, wasabi and more wasabi!!! Oh and vodka, pepper flavoured vodka.