Written by Haley Miller
In a tiny office down the street from King’s Cross, I got to know Vika, a fitness instructor who came in once a week to lead senior mobility classes for Ukrainian refugees.
Vika and I both worked for HealthProm, a small nonprofit in London focused on development projects in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Afghanistan as well as refugee support in the UK. Her mobility classes were one of HealthProm’s many refugee outreach programs, which included English conversation groups and career workshops.
One afternoon at the office, after cleaning up the leftover tea and pastries from the English conversation group, Vika told me about her own adjustment to life in London. Like the participants in her sessions, she fled Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian invasion in February 2022.
She left Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, earlier this year with her husband and son. She felt that it was hard to keep pace with the bustle of London, partly because she spoke limited English and partly because life in general seemed to move quicker than it did in Odesa.
In a limited sense, I could understand the feeling. I loved living and working in London, but I missed the softer edges of my home state of Indiana — mainly the Midwestern hospitality and the abundance of red squirrels. Of course, I’m not a refugee, and I knew when I would return to Indiana. But despite the vast difference in our experiences, Vika and I could relate to each other. As we exchanged stories of Odesa Oblast and Indiana, we bonded over homes that were far away.
Vika was establishing a home in London. She made friends with other refugees, laughing about the oddities of the English language. She brought traditional nalysnyky — essentially a Ukrainian stuffed crepe — to one of the conversation groups so that everyone could enjoy. She went on a guided tour of Banksy murals as a way to learn about her new city. She connected with all the participants in her mobility classes, even the Hoosier who was hopelessly lacking in coordination.
I wore all sorts of hats at HealthProm. I wrote and edited articles for the website, created social media posts, assisted with fundraising applications, and helped organize community events. I hope in those endeavors I managed to make a small contribution toward HealthProm’s mission, but secretly I think I got the better end of the deal. I had the utmost privilege to witness people who were displaced build a community from the ground up. I watched as Vika greeted each day with humor, resilience, and kindness toward everyone she met, and I felt the warmth of the home she was making.
Haley Miller received the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development Internship Scholarship in the summer of 2023.