A UKRAINIAN mother has thanked West Devon residents for welcoming her family after fleeing the Russian invasion.

Polina Kanevska, 42, has just moved into a large home in Whitchurch with eight of her nine children (aged from six to 19, with the oldest living in Exeter).

Polina, a scientist, fled her home town of Kiev when the Russians started bombing nearby neighbourhoods and threatening tanks appearing on the streets.

She sent her older children ahead to her sister’s home in the safer city of Lviv and followed later with the younger siblings.

With the help of the Catholic Church, they then stayed in Poland before getting sanctuary together in a large caravan and a bedroom on a farm in Winkleigh. Only two weeks ago they finally moved into a home to themselves.

Polina said: ‘I feel much more settled now. At last we have a house to ourselves and I have a job and my children are settling in new schools.

‘My neighbours are wonderful. They make us feel at home. One changed their English flag to the Ukrainian flag. And we regularly meet in the street, sit down and chat, just like during the pandemic. Now we’re planning a Coronation party.’

She added: ‘It has been very difficult because there are so many of us. It’s been very stressful having so many young children to protect. It started when the Russians bombed Kiev. We could feel the ground shake, then we saw tanks on the streets. At any moment I thought the windows would break in our home.

‘We tried the basement for just one night to shelter from the air raids, but the children could not cope. I decided then it was time to take the children to safety.’

The memory of sending her older children away to Lviv made Polina emotional: ‘It was so hard for me to send them away. But I could not not leave our sick mother-in-law and we did not have room in our two small vehicles. They spent about 12 hours on the train and many hours waiting in queues and avoiding curfews. But they made it safely, some how. I was very proud of them.’

Eventually, Polina followed with her remaining children to be reunited as a family: ‘It was such a relief to see them again. Strangely, I wasn’t overjoyed. This was because my emotions had switched off as a self-preservation measure. My mind’s priority was coping with survival.’

Her future is more secure after securing a job researching DNA at Exeter University under the British Academy’s Researchers at Risk programme: ‘I can finally allow myself to be happy – I have a job for two years and a house where we can live together and an extension to our stay. We all have much more certainty. My children have had some issues with feeling safe and secure, but we are working on that.’