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‘This was their home too’: Frankie Mills’s intimate portraits of Ukrainian refugees in the UK

<span>‘Like a small, new and happy life​’: Olena Bilokrenytska, Paulina Zherdieva, Valentyna Romanchuk, Tania Drobot (kneeling, taking selfie) and Valeriia Viunskovska on Dartmoor. All photographs by Frankie Mills</span><span>Photograph: Frankie Mills</span>
‘Like a small, new and happy life​’: Olena Bilokrenytska, Paulina Zherdieva, Valentyna Romanchuk, Tania Drobot (kneeling, taking selfie) and Valeriia Viunskovska on Dartmoor. All photographs by Frankie MillsPhotograph: Frankie Mills

The remote village of Moorhaven, 15 miles east of Plymouth, is a place far removed from war. With open, barren moorland on one side and rolling countryside on the other, the surrounding landscape is scattered with wandering sheep and horses. So when a dozen Ukrainian refugees arrived there two years ago, Frankie Mills, a photojournalist at the local paper, found it hard not to pay attention. “It’s a small, tight-knit British community. The people that came were very visible.”

When Mills posted on a village Facebook forum asking to photograph some of the refugees, there was some resistance. “People thought it was really insensitive. They were very wary and sponsors saw it as their responsibility to protect their guests.”

But one person messaged to say “let’s chat”. That was Valentyna Romanchuk, who had just arrived from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, a frequent target of Russian assaults. Over the space of a year and a half, Romanchuk introduced Mills to her fellow Ukrainians in the village and the nearby town of Ivybridge, communicating through translation apps. What came next was Good Evening, We Are From Ukraine, a photographic project which follows the small community of women and children as they rebuild their lives. The title, taken from the words Mills had seen printed on a young boy’s T-shirt, was a wartime slogan used across the country. She has now been shortlisted for a Sony world photography award for the series.

More than 200,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the UK since March 2022, the first time since the second world war that the British public have welcomed refugees into their homes en masse. When the scheme was first announced, the UK was considered slow to act and there was a complex application process, but the people in Moorhaven wanted to get involved in any way they could. “It felt like a domino effect,” says Mills. “One person was up for it and suddenly everyone wanted to help.”

In many ways, this wasn’t unusual in a place like Moorhaven, which has a history of communal living. Once a hospital and now divided into individual homes set in 65 acres of landscaped grounds, it has about 440 inhabitants. “It’s a close community and there’s a feeling of people being connected there,” says Mills, who describes the old, imposing architecture as if it’s “just sticking out of Dartmoor”. Yet the project wasn’t about the landscape or the history of the area. It was the personalities and how they related to each other that made the images strong. “The better ones show people’s personal experience and their character.”

A favourite, she says, is the tender moment between mother and daughter, Paulina and Olena. It captures Paulina as she comes out of the pantry holding two aubergines. Olena then beckons her over and wipes something from her face and their dog, who had travelled over with them, pops up from under the table. “I like that connection between them. It showed how important those gestures can be when you’re going through something as big as this.”

For Romanchuk, being part of the series felt like an escape. There were countless day trips, walks on the moors and ice-cream stops. “We spent many wonderful hours surrounded by nature in the reserve,” she says. “I often remember funny incidents and conversations, and think that this project was like a small, new and happy life, which helped us forget about all the horrors that we left in Ukraine.” For Tetyana Volodymyrivna Drobot (Tania), a maths teacher, who was suffering from long Covid and had left behind her husband and two sons, it was a reminder of her old life. She’d always loved taking pictures and being in them.

The group shot of Olena, Paulina, Valentyna and Valeria sitting on the moor, with Tania kneeling standing to take a selfie, makes her laugh. “I love it,” says Mills. “It was at the end of their first summer in the UK. Tania’s sense of humour has been unwavering throughout.”

For nearly two years, Ukrainian could be heard from playgrounds, blue and yellow flags hung from homes in the village, and Ukrainian Independence Day was celebrated annually. Drobot’s hosts, Fiona and David, introduced her to their friends, family and grandchildren. Romanchuk speaks fondly of barbecues and parties, which reminded her of picnics at home. Many in the community helped with shopping, doctor’s appointments and lifts. “I made true friends,” she says. “I understood that I needed to change my old habits and start getting used to life in England. I wanted people to accept me as a person.”

There were, of course, tensions at times. Some relationships turned sour and broke down, others ended abruptly. While many people are rebuilding their lives to remain in the UK, others, especially the younger ones, are considering returning home. Two years on, Romanchuk lives in Plymouth. Her English is improving, she is working as a volunteer and singing in a Ukrainian choir. For now, only Drobot remains living in Moorhaven. With no end in sight and national interest fading, she thinks the world is tired of what is happening in Ukraine. She doesn’t know what the future has in store, but she’s learning the language and feeling positive. “I think I can handle it. The main thing is that there is no war.”

Whatever the outcome, the project highlights the universal need to feel like you’re at home somewhere and have a sense of purpose. “Even when both sides don’t share a language and have wildly different histories, there was still that sense of relatability,” says Mills. “This was their home too.”

• Frankie Mills is shortlisted in the Sony world photography awards 2024. An exhibition of all the shortlisted work will be at Somerset House, London WC2R, 19 April-6 May