The couple, who met in Ukraine and now live in Darlington, are at the center of a mission to comfort soldiers on the front lines fighting the Russian invasion. PETER BARON reports

As Oksana Syzyomka talks in the house she has made her home in a quiet corner of northeast England, every few minutes the room is filled with the sudden sound of a traditional Ukrainian folk song.

This is Oksana’s ringtone, and the melody “Chervon Kalina” is known to all Ukrainians, because “Kalina” is the translation of viburnum, which bears red berries and is the national symbol of their homeland.

“This is our song,” Oksana smiles. “In it we speak to the bush and promise to take care of it so that it will flourish and be strong.”

It’s a symbol of hope, a reminder that one day Ukraine will blossom again, and when the music plays, it’s usually a refugee seeking Oksana’s help.

“She never stops – she’s my little whirlwind,” says Nigel Scott, her English husband and her faithful partner in the mission to support the 170 Ukrainians who have so far fled to Darlington.

“Aksana is a powerhouse, a walking hotline, and calls come in at all hours because she just wants to help,” he adds proudly.

The couple are also the driving force behind Darlington’s appeal to collect and deliver warm clothes and food to fathers, sons and brothers of refugees fighting the Russian invasion at home.

Indeed, Oksana and Nigel embody the bond that has developed between England and Ukraine. The flags of the two countries fly above their home in Kitching Grove, and sunflowers, another national symbol of Ukraine, are painted on the furniture cushions in their living room.

This is an unlikely love story between an international truck driver from Darlington and a petite English teacher from Kryvyi Rih, the hometown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Over the past 30 years, Nigel has traveled all over Europe, and in 2011 he hired a translator named Konstantin to guide him while on vacation in Ukraine. The men became friends, and it was through Konstantin that Nigel met Oksana.

There was an immediate connection and the couple tied the knot in Kryvyi Rih in 2017, maintaining a long-distance relationship while efforts were made to sort out the paperwork that would allow them to be together forever.

Before that process could be completed, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and it wasn’t until last July that Oksana was finally able to move to Darlington with her two teenage sons, Bogdan and Daniil.

Little did they know then that a year later Putin would launch an illegal invasion and that Ukrainian refugees would seek asylum in Great Britain.

Oksana and Nigel got in touch with Darlington Assistance for Refugees (DAR) and began playing their part, welcoming the first refugees to arrive at the town’s train station in April.

Since then, they have been involved, and Oksana has made invaluable use of her professional experience. Not only does she teach refugee children living in Darlington, but she goes online every day to teach lessons to young people all over Ukraine.

She also acts as a translator and mediator between refugees and their English sponsors, helping with cultural differences, problem solving and organizing days in places such as Newcastle, Redcar Beach and Richmond Castle.

A center for Ukrainian refugees was established by the DAR at the Well Methodist Church on North Road. They meet on Monday evenings to share experiences, solve problems, cheer each other up and distribute donations of a variety of everyday items including blankets, pillows, cutlery, pots and pans, dishes and kettles.

Children whose parents were in the thick of hostilities play happily in the church hall, while their parents catch up over cups of tea. They dream of returning home to a peaceful Ukraine one day, but for now it’s about working together with English sponsors to be safe.

“It’s strange for them at first because they can be lonely and homesick. Some have returned but others are still arriving and Darlington has been very welcoming,” says Oksana.

“The council’s response has been amazing, the Jobcentre has been very helpful and so many people have shown kindness. We met some of the refugees at a coffee shop in the covered market, and when the shop owner found out who we were, he refused to take money for the coffee.

She also wants to publicly thank Tesco, who have been a regular source of donations through one of her warehouse workers, Inga Smirnov, who is a DAR member.

The latest focus is on collecting supplies for soldiers who face temperatures of minus 40 degrees as the Ukrainian winter begins.

Nigel and Oksana’s house has become a gathering place, so the living room is covered with fleece jackets, waterproof trousers, knickers, gloves, socks, trousers and sleeping mats, as well as tins, biscuits, chocolate and throat lozenges.

At the moment, there is enough to equip around 50 soldiers – all paid for by donations from Ukrainian refugees – but Oksana and Nigel hope to raise much more before they travel to the Polish border at the end of November to deliver supplies to a friend who will then organizes their delivery to the front line.

They will also take a large “We are with Ukraine” flag with personal messages from families at the center in Darlington. One of them translates as follows: Our dear warriors, we pray for you, return home healthy, unwounded and victorious. Another, written by a child, simply says: we are thinking of you – glory to Ukraine.

“We want our soldiers to know that they are in our thoughts, our prayers and our hearts, and we would appreciate any donations of warm clothing or financial assistance so that we can protect more of them from the harsh winter ahead,” – says Oksana.

Her words trail off as Red Kalina plays in her pocket again – another duty for Nigel’s little whirlwind.

  • Anyone who wants to support Darlington’s appeal to the Ukrainian military, write or leave donations at 9 Kitching Grove, Darlington.