Zhenia Shevchenko’s parents are in Kyiv; her father, usually a pilot for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has joined resistance fighters in the region, digging trenches, hiding signs and blocking roads. “My mum is with her friends,” she says. “Making molotov cocktails.”
Shevchenko has pleaded with her parents to make for the Western border so that she could help them get to the UK. Proud Ukrainians, they refused. “I’m very proud of them, but at the same time, every minute I think: ‘Oh my god, what could happen to them?’”
Her grandparents are also staying in Zaporizhzia, where Russian soldiers captured a nuclear power plant last Friday 4 March. “They’re safe, they have everything they need. There is no shortage of food or medication.”
Shevchenko is taking each day as it comes, checking in with her relatives and with the news. If everyone is still alive, it’s a good day. “That’s my life since 24 February. Thinking about them, worrying about them. Trying to spread the word about the conflict and the crisis.”
Shevchenko is a Senior Vice President at Citi, having previously worked at Capgemini Invent and PwC. The emotional and practical support from colleagues and friends has been very valuable, with people reaching out and letting her know how they have contributed to providing support for people in Ukraine. “It means a lot, and I think it does help myself and other Ukrainians to believe that we are not alone.”
Citi has been extremely supportive as well, arranging special leave to allow Shevchenko to take time to look after herself and to focus on helping her family. It has also helped to evacuate many of its people and their relatives into Poland, where they have arranged to provide them with safe accommodation and additional payments to help with food and medicine costs.
Its CEO Jane Fraser has pledged $1m in aid to charities such as Save the Children to help with humanitarian efforts in the region. “It’s actually interesting to see that people and private businesses are much faster to respond compared to politicians, unfortunately.”
Shevchenko believes that the UK government’s response to the conflict has been “too late, too slow and inadequate”. While support for Ukraine and sanctions for Russia have increased, these could have been in place before Russia invaded, she says. She is also unimpressed with the measures the country has taken to ease immigration rules for Ukrainians.
“There are 100,000 Ukrainians in the UK. These people have families and want them to be safe. The UK government is still deciding what visa procedures should be in place, and it makes it so hard in this situation. My family can come here now, because they have a visitor visa. If they do, what happens next?
“Countries like Canada and Ireland have pledged unlimited numbers of Ukrainians to come to their countries. They’ve scrubbed bureaucracy. That’s what’s needed to help people because it’s heartbreaking to see people escape hell and get asked for 15 different evidence letters, translations, documents, etc, to process their application. This is insane. I really want the United Kingdom to think about how they can simplify this process.”
Shevchenko would also like to see more aid pledged by the government, comparing the UK to Estonia, which she feels has done more for the people of Ukraine. She thinks it could potentially quadruple its funding for humanitarian aid. Governments around the world should be applying pressure on other governments and taking an active role in trying to arrange peace talks. “I feel very supported by the citizens of the UK, but I don’t see the same level of eagerness and active steps from the government.”
Then there’s the matter for equivalency of professional qualifications for Ukrainian refugees. Shevchenko is very passionate about this idea, and wants to see governments and professional bodies backing the idea. Not only would this give Ukrainians the chance to work rather than relying on handouts, it would also help to temporarily plug the shortage of talent in professional services.
“I’m 100% sure that PwC, KPMG, EY, etc, will all be interested in employing those people, who speak English and are very educated. There might need to be some short-term support and training, but equivalency of education would recognise Ukrainian certificates.”
From a private sector perspective, Shevchenko encourages people to buy products and services from Ukrainian businesses. It provides them with the opportunity to survive and support themselves, rather than rely solely on humanitarian aid. “You can give people their dignity. You can employ them, you can buy from them, you can help them to support themselves by making a living, not by giving them free money.”
She also urges any professionals on boards with ties to Russia to resign immediately – even as a temporary measure. Continuing to work with or do business with companies with ties to Russia is fuelling Putin’s war and extending the life of the conflict. Taking action could expedite its end, she believes.
“You need to consider reputational damage. People all over the world are watching companies and how they respond...BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil have actively sacrificed their profits and dumped their stock in Russian oil and gas companies. More need to join them.”
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