Foreigners in Kharkiv. Stuart Heggie from Australia: “Ultimately we can go back home to safety, but everyone in Ukraine has to live with the war”

Tetiana Fram - 27 December 2022 | 13:22
Foreigners in Kharkiv Stuart

The Russian military attacks Ukrainians right in their homes, hitting the residential buildings and critical infrastructure. Meanwhile, there are foreign countries where citizens can go on with their lives, staying safe and warm. And nevertheless, some people leave the comfort of their houses to come to Ukraine.

Here is the third of the stories of three volunteers who came to Kharkiv, the city severely affected by the Russian attacks, to work at the “Hell’s Kitchen” – an organization cooking meals and baking bread for the military and medical staff in Kharkiv Oblast.

Stuart Heggie came to Ukraine as a tourist. His main motivation was to see the country, and even the war has not stopped the Australian from visiting the place he has been dreaming about for a long time. His intention to support local people in need brought Stuart to Kharkiv, where he stayed for a month, helping the volunteers with car repair.

“I was in Germany and Czech Republic on a European tour and met a few Ukrainian people just by chance. They were very nice and friendly, and I talked to them about how I was always wanting to go to Ukraine and other countries around the East. One of them encouraged me to go to Lviv, cause they were from Lviv, and so I booked a ticket for a bus from Prague to Lviv, and that’s where the journey began, I guess. And then I met a lot more people there and started, you know, talking to people there if I could help out because of the war and things like that, and I eventually came to Kharkiv where I was helping Andrey in the garage working on the vehicles.”

After ten days in Lviv, Stuart went to Kyiv, helping with rubble removal in Bucha with his friend. There he met someone who wanted to go to Kharkiv, and he “thought that would be great because I’ve met other people who’d been there and talked about their experience.”

I thought it sounded quite exciting and also a great opportunity to be there to help and sort of justify my reason for being there, I guess.

Besides, Stuart wanted to see as much of Ukraine as he could in the three-month visa period that he had. “And I thought if I go with someone who I think is smart and intelligent, that would be fun.”

I’m sure it might be a bit scary at times, but I just wanted to see what it would be like.

What is your background, have you heard about Ukraine and Kharkiv before?

Oh yes. Occasionally on TV shows, I’ve seen. There was a TV show I watched when I was a kid, and they traveled, they rode motorcycles from England to New York, and they went through Ukraine, and it looked really cool.

I had a friend in 2011 who went to Odesa, I think. And he said that Ukraine was really friendly and a really interesting country, and just thought it would be awesome to go to Ukraine, I guess.

I heard one thing about Kharkiv, and that was a suburb called HTZ [an industrial district formed around the Kharkiv Tractor Plant – ed.]! That’s all I knew.

I drove through HTZ when I went to Kupiansk [one of the liberated settlements in Kharkiv Oblast – ed.] with a group of people who were doing the evacuation of some people there. So we went in a van, there were four vans and a bus, I think.

So I just saw the big sign, and I pointed at the sign, said, “HTZ sign?”, and they said: “Yeah, why?” (Stuart laughs)

Stuart admits he felt an immediate contrast coming from Lviv and Kyiv to Kharkiv. “When I was in Lviv, I don`t think there was anyone really worried about someone hitting the city, they were more worried about what was going on in the further East.” Stuart felt very safe in Lviv and thinks that everyone there felt safe. “It was very busy compared to other parts of Ukraine that I went to afterward.”

Lviv felt like a busy European city, I suppose. When I got to Kharkiv – it was two days before Independence Day [Aug. 24 – ed.], and it was very, very quiet in the center.

Stuart was also impressed by his trips to Kharkiv Oblast.

“It was really the last month and a half of my journey which was mainly Kharkiv and Kharkiv Oblast [that impressed me the most – ed.]. And every day was exciting, because everyone was really friendly to me, and wanted to help me I guess as well which was crazy. I had free accommodation with Andrey who was so nice to me, I was being fed very well, and it was such a warm experience to be able to help, help out. And people were looking after me at the same time.”

Foreigners in Kharkiv Stuart
Stuart on his way to Kharkiv Oblast settlements

Stuart says people he met were “the highlight of my entire time, being around Kharkiv. Americans, Australians, and English people. They feel like friends for life now because we were experiencing the same thing.”

I think that somebody in Ukraine now who is a foreigner is experiencing a different thing from what Ukrainians experience. Because ultimately we can go back home to safety, but everyone in Ukraine has to sort of live with the issues that the war is gonna bring to the future. So I guess that`s a very different experience for us. And I’m trying to be as respectful as possible when it comes to talking about the war and things like that because it might be interesting to a foreigner, but it’s like a terrible reality for anyone who has to live through it.

“We need to show that we care.” Read Edward`s story, a Canadian who came to help Kharkiv

Weren’t you nervous coming to Ukraine in wartime?

Yes, I`m not sure why, I can’t really answer that, but I think my family was more worried than I was. I didn’t tell my family until I was already in Kyiv after about two weeks of being in Ukraine. Everyone was telling me to go home. Once I told my parents – I accidentally told my Mum, because I thought my Dad had texted me because none of the numbers was saved on my new phone – so I told my Mum I`d been in Kharkiv, as I thought it was my Dad. So she wasn’t happy.

In Kharkiv, Stuart helped make camouflage netting “in a bunker in the city center, it’s called Turbota [Care – ed.]. It was the place where they made paraffin burners for the military, little stoves, made sniper suits, like killer suits we call them here, and the camouflage netting. And I did that for three days, I think.”

The friend with whom Stuart came from Kyiv to Kharkiv was staying in Hell`s Kitchen, “or the military kitchen”. He introduced the Australian to the place, and from that time Stuart was occupied fixing the old military vehicles with Andrey. Stuart says he likes cars, enjoys helping his friends with their vehicles, and has worked in cars since forever. “I’m definitely not qualified but I enjoy it.”

Did you experience any difficulties coming to a foreign country with a different language and mindset?

People are very friendly, it was quite easy, really. Because if I was struggling, I could always rely on Google Translate. So I would just sort of pick up what to do in such situations but you know buying a coffee or going to the supermarket can be a bit difficult, to begin with, but you get so used to it that it’s not nerve-wracking or worrisome any more, you just realize they don`t speak the language so I’ll just do whatever looks like the right: stand in the right line, order the right thing or just point at things instead of asking for things. 

Stuart says people were surprised to meet a foreigner in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv. 

The further east I went the more surprised people were to hear the English language and Australian accent. And it was nice! Everyone was so warm and welcoming, I really couldn’t believe it. Because everything is so difficult for everyone there, it’s so awesome to see happy faces around talking to me and wanting to get to know me and know about Australia.

Stuart confesses he was more interested in learning “about what you guys are about, than talking about Australia”.

Was there anything that surprised you in Kharkiv?

Oh, I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. That was very surprising. Everyone was happy to come up and speak to me. Maybe it’s because I was speaking English in a place where not many people speak English now, I`m not sure. But the fact that people would wanna come up and ask where I was from on the street or in a bar, restaurant or something like that, and just be very friendly and very welcoming and ask “Tell me if you need any help just call me”, and things like that. God, so many contacts just from meeting strangers on the street and in every social occasion.

I think Ukrainians are the friendliest people in Europe.

I loved that in Kharkiv – I’m sure it’s the same in other parts of the country – but whenever there’s trouble, there’s a big explosion or something, you clean it up very very quickly. And it shows the respect that I don`t know, if it’s a mayor, or the government, or whoever is in charge of that, cleaning up so quickly, cleaning up the glass, fixing the roads. I’m sure that it’s very difficult and very expensive to be so proactive. That’s really promising to see because it shows that you aren’t going to let your spirit be damaged by what the Russians are doing. You’re gonna continue with your life.

I think people really love this city. People from Kharkiv really love Kharkiv. 

Stuart confesses he would love to come to Kharkiv as soon as possible. “But I would also love to see it not in war because I hear a lot of people say that Kharkiv is a very exciting, wonderful, great culture city.”

I wish I had seen Ukraine before this invasion. But it was the best experience of my life to be out, to go there. So I have no regrets of going at all. But I really wish I had seen it before.

Foreigners in Kharkiv Stuart
Near Derzhprom, one of the Kharkiv landmarks

We talk about the city sights and activities, and Stuart mentions visiting a lot of orthodox churches in Kharkiv, as he spent a day in the city with someone who wanted to visit all of them. He also ate a lot of mushrooms, as the locals were picking mushrooms, but Stuart’s favorite food was red borsch. “I think there was so much information filling my brain up in only a couple of weeks or months that I was trying to keep up and I guess there is so much more for me to see when I can go back. Just because now I`ve been there and now I know other things that I wanna do and things that I wanna see, I guess and go out of the city as well. I’m really looking forward to going back and seeing my friends in Kharkiv.”

“The best moments are when you see you can make a change.” Read Sylvia`s story, an Austrian who bakes bread in Kharkiv

What was the most challenging moment in your experience in Kharkiv?

One of the worst was the two missiles landed probably 800 meters away one night. And I was in the apartment by myself, and it was quiet. It was really horrible. Like, when the shells are landing a couple of kilometers away during the day, it’s not that scary for me. I guess, you know, when you hear it every day it really just sounds like a bit of thunder or lightning or something, it’s not that terrifying. But when it’s very quiet at night, and then you are by yourself, and then two missiles go very close, a few hundred meters away, it’s really confronting. But you just sort of…wait, I guess. 

Foreigners in Kharkiv Stuart
Stuart volunteering in Kharkiv

Is there anything you think the world gets wrong about Ukraine and Kharkiv?

Look, I`m just so happy that the world is behind Ukraine at the moment. Because it would be very depressing going home if I had people not knowing what’s going on there, But luckily in Australia, at least, we still have media reports on what’s going on in Ukraine, on the nightly news, so it shows that people still care. So I think that what I take back from it is people, you know, everyone is contemplating what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment.

Stuart’s family has been very supportive since he returned from Ukraine, they are interested in his stories. He notes that everyone is asking different questions, “which is funny”. Some people do not ask any questions about the war, “maybe because they think it’s insensitive”. Some people only ask questions about the war. “And all I want to talk about is how nice Ukrainian people are,” smiles Stuart. “It’s nuts, all I wanna talk about is Ukraine now, probably annoying everybody.”

What would you say to the Kharkiv residents and to all Ukrainians?

I guess, just stay strong, and hopefully, it’s over soon.

What would you say to the world about Ukraine and Kharkiv?

I guess everyone should say it. You should go to Ukraine!

So many people go to Europe for a holiday. And they miss out on Ukraine. And I think it’s terrible because it`s such a diverse country. Beautiful landscapes, really interesting cities. hipster culture. And Kharkiv in particular is an awesome big city with everything you could want in the city. So I think especially after the war I`d really encourage everyone in the world just to go to Ukraine, to take that chance.

If you have found an error, highlight the necessary fragment and press Shift + Enter.