Maria Romanenko is a Ukrainian journalist, presenter and activist, who fled to the UK at the beginning of the war in February 2022. She talks to us about her harrowing experience leaving Ukraine and her family, how through journalism and other activities she is working to help the Ukrainians currently living in the UK, and about Eurovision 2023 in Liverpool, where she is organising free walking tours of the city for Ukrainian visitors.

When did you first realise you wanted to become a journalist?

Probably very early on when I was a child. I was the editor of my own self-made magazines. Inside there was silly stuff about my family, or about something I saw in a magazine. I would cut out images and stick them in. And I always really liked writing.

I went to the University of Leeds to study mathematics and Russian Civilisation. I had to write a lot of essays and a dissertation. But what made me think I really want to be a journalist and I’m going to pursue it was a couple of years later when I was studying in London. I did a one-month college course with Condé Nast. I was really interested in fashion at that time and it was like a Vogue intensive summer course about the production of Vogue. We had some incredible speakers that were working with celebrities, and there were journalists, and I just felt really inspired by that. So I decided I would go back to Kiev and approach some English language publications, asking if I could get an internship. 

The editor of the biggest English language publication at the time responded to me straightaway. I started interning and a month later I started working there full time, which was incredible. I’m very grateful for that opportunity, because now I realise that there’s nothing else I would have rather done in my life.

How did you come to attend university in England?

I went to school in Cyprus where they have an English education system. I did my GCSEs there and then my A Levels in Oxfordshire. In Ukraine, English education was always considered to be prestigious.

After I graduated from Leeds in 2014, I went back to Ukraine and did some charity work for a couple of years. It was after that I went back to England for the Condé Nast college course.

What was your first job in journalism?

When I started,  I went to fashion weeks but I soon realised that I enjoyed the atmosphere more than the fashion aspect – just being somewhere where there’s lots of glamour and chatting and that doesn’t only exist in fashion. So after that I wrote about various different things.

What was the first story that you wrote?

It was doing the Roundup, because I was in lifestyle, covering seven events that Autumn. And I remember pretty early on I was asked to do a voxpop – going out on the streets and asking people about Zelensky’s joke, actually. He was a comedian, and at that time he made a very controversial joke comparing Ukraine to a porn actress or something like that, so I was asking people if they found it offensive. 

My first interview, in my first or second week, was with Oleksandr Usyk  who is the current World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He’s the one who beat Anthony Joshua, and the one who Tyson Fury is very afraid of fighting. He had just beaten Krzysztof Głowacki and become world champion. He wasn’t giving many interviews so it was a really good catch. At any job, I guess, when you have just started and you’re interviewing or working with somebody very high profile, you obviously don’t want to give off the vibe that this is your first interview. So I just tried to be very professional, but inside I was dying and like oh my god, pinch me!

Have you come over to the UK as a result of the war or were you already here?

It was because of the war, when the all-out invasion started on February 24th last year. My partner is from Manchester – we’ve been together for three years – and we’d been visiting each other. Right now it’s fairly easy for Ukrainians to come to the UK, but at the time, it was very difficult to get a visa, so mostly he would come and stay with me.

There were obviously all these warnings that there would be this full-scale invasion by Russia, but I don’t think I treated them seriously enough. We were on holiday in Poland, and decided to fly back to Kiev on February 23rd – the day before. And then we woke up to bombs dropping all around us. For my partner it was very clear cut – he was getting out of the country, but I was faced with the decision whether to stay with my family and where my life was, or follow him. I was worried about not being able to see him again, because I wasn’t sure what the transport connections would be between Ukraine and other countries. Now we see that there are buses, cars, trains – Ukraine is very well connected and easy to get to, but at that time I wasn’t sure, so I made the decision to leave with him, which was very hard, because I was leaving my family behind.

We headed for Poland. We had a very long journey to get into the country – it took us 40 hours to cross the border, which under normal circumstances takes maybe half an hour. We had to queue for 23 hours at the border, because there were tens of thousands of people there. There was lots of pushing and people being carried out on stretchers. We saw some very horrible scenes. We spent 23 hours on foot without any food or water or toilet facilities. It was it was very hard – an experience that we’ll never forget.

We do talks about this now, about our journey out of Ukraine. We are also writing a book about it. We just want to share our story as we think it helps people outside of Ukraine to understand what it’s like be caught up in the war. It also reminds people about what’s going on and the suffering of millions of people, and why it’s important to support Ukraine. 

Once in Poland we spent four days trying to sort out permission for me to go to the UK. The whole of Europe opened up to Ukrainians, but the UK didn’t do anything for a very long time. We got out due to our good media connections, and me doing so many interviews. My phone never stopped. I did them back-to-back – in the end I wasn’t even sure who I was talking to anymore. I had applied for a tourist visa a few weeks before, but the Embassy had lost it. We went to the British Embassy in Poland, and started calling all the journalists, who were very helpful. They rang the Home Office and the British Embassy saying we’re writing a story on Maria Romanenko and her visa, would you like to comment? After 10 calls like that, I was offered a visa waiver, which is a very rare thing. When the UK announced all their different schemes I applied for a family visa, which is what I have now.

You are now working here as a journalist. Are you working for a specific publication or freelancing? And what are you working on?

I’m very much freelance. Since February 2022 I realised like most Ukrainians that you can’t plan very far ahead. Especially those in Ukraine who are not even sure if they’ll be alive tomorrow or even today. But for me, even though I’m in relative safety here in the UK, it’s still hard to plan my life. In the first few weeks we were so hopeful that things would be over fast and we could return. Right now, there’s still that hope, but I realise it’s not going to happen in two months. So I’ve been working on lots of short-term projects in the last year.

Publications find my story really interesting, and maybe rightfully so. I’ve done lots of first-person writing like I’ve just come from Ukraine to the UK – here’s what it’s been like for me, here’s the situation for me one year on – that kind of stuff. I have done that for many publications.

One of the first things I did was a video report for ITV Granada on my journey out and what I’m doing now. I have also written many different stories for titles from Business Insider and Reader’s Digest to Condé Nast Traveller. I’ve also been doing stories about Ukrainians who have come to the UK, specifically in the north of England. On the 1st anniversary of the full-scale invasion on February 24th this year I had the opportunity to co-host a breakfast show on BBC Radio Manchester. Through this I was able to tell stories about Ukrainians who have come to the city.

I’ve also been doing lots of translation for Ukrainian media for global publication and, strangely for me, I have been involved in lots of non-journalism stuff. I’ve maybe turned from a journalist into a campaigner. I’m doing lots of different things that I wouldn’t have found myself doing two years ago. In January, for example, I was invited to act on stage in London in a production about Crimea.

I do interpreting for Ukrainians, for health care and housing. And I also set up Manchester walking tours. That was one of the first things that I did after coming here. I emailed a Manchester company doing free tours and said I’m fluent in English and Ukrainian, why don’t we do free walking tours for the Ukrainians here, which I will translate – and they loved the idea as they wanted to help Ukrainians but didn’t know what to do. I have currently taken more than 500 Ukrainians on tours – which is about 15 per cent of all the Ukrainians in Greater Manchester. And they really enjoy it. It has also helped me get to know the Ukrainian community here.

And for Eurovision, I set up the same thing with a company in Liverpool, knowing that 3,000 Ukrainians were given concessionary tickets for the event.

You’ve obviously worked on some quite difficult stories. Is there one that stands out as being the hardest thing you’ve had to write?

The one that comes to my mind is something I did recently. It wasn’t writing, but I was translating a film about the Kramatorsk train station bomb attack, which happened on the 8th of April last year. It’s where Russia dropped a cluster munition bomb on a very busy train station in the east of Ukraine, where up to 3,000 people were trying to get on evacuation trains to safety. A cluster munition bomb is a bomb that doesn’t just explode, but drops lots of clusters, which are about the size of a beer can, and they explode separately. So if you think there’s one big explosion, and then lots of small explosions everywhere, and they just never stop. They are designed to impact and kill humans. Russia said it was meant to destroy military equipment that they believed was at the train station, but everybody knows that kind of bomb can’t damage a tank. I believe 61 people were killed and hundreds injured, including lots of children. The scene at that train station was horrendous – so many bodies and carnage. Having to watch that footage and translate it was very difficult emotionally, and not something you can get out of your head. You just can’t believe what lengths some people can go to, to try and achieve their very dangerous politics and ideas.

That must have been unbelievably challenging. So, on a different note, have you got a favourite story? Something that you’ve enjoyed writing about?

I kind of fall in love with every story that I do. So at the moment, we have Eurovision, which is being hosted by the UK on behalf of Ukraine, which won last year. I went to Liverpool last week and interviewed the Metro Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotherham, and the culture director at Liverpool City Council, Claire McColgan. I asked them about all the Ukrainian stuff that’s in the city. It’s a nice, cool story. I was really impressed with the programme of events they have going on. I do like writing about events that are fun, and more light hearted things.

Is it very different writing for British press to writing for Ukrainian press?

I think the one thing that’s worth saying is that I’ve always worked in English language journalism, so I’ve always worked with English speaking people in my mind. The audience is pretty similar, but it’s harder in the sense that the English media landscape is much more competitive than the Ukrainian one. In the UK there are so many media outlets, and so many journalists who are trying to make it. There are lots of journalism courses with graduates coming out, and many existing journalists are getting laid off. it’s not easy being a journalist in the UK, but I have had some incredible opportunities over the last year, and I’m very grateful for them.

Who is the most famous person you’ve interviewed?

The two I would name off the top of my head would probably be Oleksandr Usyk, as he’s still World Champion and an incredible guy, and  Simonetta Sommaruga, who was the President of the Swiss Federation. Interviewing a state leader is always interesting and feels like quite a big deal. I have also interviewed lots of MPs, including in the UK. 

How do you relax in your spare time?

There are normally three things that help me unwind and balance. Running, meditation and journaling. I used to journal twice a day, but now it’s just once before I go to bed. It helps me process things. I used to run more too, but everything changed after last February. I also read every morning when I have my breakfast. I normally get about an hour of reading in every day.

How do you how do you stay informed and connected to what’s happening in Ukraine?

Every morning when I wake up the first thing I do is check what happened overnight because that’s when the bombings generally happen. I need to check if all my family and friends are alive. This has been the same every morning throughout the last year, which is difficult, but I’m used to it now. I go on Telegram which is big in Ukraine – lots of media outlets use it. And I go on Hromadske, which is where I used to work. I check the updates that are given overnight and hopefully everybody’s okay. And then I’ll see lots of my friends and family posting, and I also have a couple of Ukrainian media outlets that I trust. But in terms of English language, I would suggest Kyiv Independent or NV for Ukrainian news.

What’s the best way for people to contact you?

I would say on Twitter or email, which is probably easier.

Maria can be contacted on twitter @rommari or on email maria@mariaromanenko.com.

We are delighted to announce that shortly after we interviewed Maria, she was honoured with a Points of Light award by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for providing her free walking tours. She is the first Ukrainian to receive the award.