Almost exactly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Valerie Bondar, marketing assistant at United Wholesale (Scotland), spoke to Cash & Carry Management’s managing editor Kirsti Sharratt about fleeing her home country and starting a new life in Glasgow.
When Russia launched airstrikes on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, in February 2022, Valerie Bondar (now 23 years old) escaped the city with her two brothers and stepmother.
She told Cash & Carry Management her story: “When the war started I was scared. Like every Ukrainian, I didn’t know what to do. I packed my stuff in 20 minutes and left my home, perhaps never to go back again. They were bombing Kyiv, so I needed to do things urgently.
“It wasn’t easy to get out of Ukraine. I was checking all the time for any opportunity to leave – any buses, any trains – and thankfully we got on one of the last trains from Kyiv to Lviv [near the border of Poland], and from Lviv we transferred to Poland on the bus. It was very hard.
“I went to Poland first because I had to wait for visa approval – I needed a visa to come to the UK. I had to stay in Poland for a month. I decided to move to Scotland because my aunt had been in Glasgow for 12 years and I had visited her and her family every year since 2012.
“My two brothers stayed in Poland because it was easier for them – they don’t speak English at all – and my parents stayed in Kyiv. They made a decision from the first day of the war that they were not leaving. They wanted to protect the country. They’re still working in Kyiv. My mum is a psychologist and my dad is a soldier. He was involved in the Army before the war, but he made the decision when it started to be a proper soldier.
“It was very stressful at first [knowing that they are still there], but now the situation is more calm. They are fine, but there is still bombing – you just don’t know what to expect. Every morning I start my day by reading the news to find out what’s happening.
“When I moved to Scotland in April last year, I lived with my aunt in Glasgow for the first couple of months. Then I met my boyfriend here. He’s Scottish and we decided to live together.”
Before Russia’s invasion, Bondar had gained a Bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. After graduating, she joined Ukraine’s biggest media company, 1+1, as a project manager in the design department. Although 1+1 is still operating and Bondar could have worked on a freelance basis, she found that she needed to change her job because of the higher cost of living in Scotland than at home.
Bondar saw an advertisement online for a marketing assistant role at United Wholesale (Scotland). She applied, was interviewed and started the job in October, reporting to head of marketing Naeem Khaliq.
“I was quite surprised that they decided to give me this opportunity,” she says. “That was really nice and everyone has been so friendly.
“The job is interesting,” she continues. “In my previous position in Ukraine, I did similar stuff – working on design and print projects – but I have more responsibilities here because it is not only about design, it’s also about social media and promotions, and I need to understand the business and our audience.”
Bondar goes in early every day, and invariably stays beyond her contracted hours. She explains: “If you really like your job, you want to do it all the time, and you don’t feel like it’s a job, it’s more like a hobby. I enjoy it. I’m into design: leaflets, brochures, different social media posts – I like to create something special.”
Bondar, whose English language is fluent and even includes the Scottish ‘aye’ (yes) and ‘wee’ (small), admits she struggled with the accent at first. “It was very hard for me to understand because Scottish people have such a unique accent and they have a lot of slang words that I didn’t know,” she explains.
“My boyfriend speaks Russian – he lived in Russia before the war started. We spoke only in Russian for the first three months because he was trying to impress me! He works at Glasgow International College as a teacher for international students.”
Bondar continues: “Sometimes I meet people on the streets who speak Ukrainian and Russian, and we talk to each other and exchange contact details. There are also some Ukrainian communities on Facebook that I follow.
“I have a good social life,” she adds. “I am into football – last weekend I went to the Celtic-Rangers match. I have a lot of friends here and often visit bars and cinemas, and experience some culture.
“But I really miss my Ukrainian friends; it would be great to move all of them here. Some of them also left Ukraine. For example, my closest friend, Katya, now lives in Canada. Another friend lives in Belgium, some are in Poland.
“I also really miss my family – that’s the most important thing to me – and I wish I had the opportunity to visit my home – to go for a vacation, to show my boyfriend my previous life, introduce him to my friends, my family, my culture, my community in Ukraine. It’s very painful for me to know that I cannot do that because they are still bombing my country.”
Bondar is in regular contact with members of her family. “We speak quite often – usually every week,” she says. “However, my father doesn’t have an opportunity to speak to me every week because his job is important. He tries to call me every two to three weeks.”
Despite the fracturing of her family and group of friends, Bondar plans to remain in the UK. “I feel really settled, so yes, I want to stay,” she says, adding: “Thank you for this opportunity to speak about my experience. I’m the only Ukrainian working at United, and I think it would be good for people to know my story.”
‘A breath of fresh air for the business’
“It’s been a breath of fresh air having Valerie in the business,” says Chris Gallacher, managing director of United Wholesale (Scotland). “Not all youngsters nowadays want to come into an office five days a week and work as hard as she does.
“From a work perspective she absolutely nails everything she does and she’s an inspiration to people who are already in the business,” he adds.
“Every single time we ask her to do something, she does it straight away. She doesn’t get flustered, and the quality of her work is some of the best we’ve ever had in marketing at United. She’s been a game changer for us.
“Her behaviours are exemplary. I don’t know if that’s because of the type of person she is or because she’s happy that she’s out of the war – safe in a different country – and appreciative of what she’s got.”
Gallacher continues: “For someone to be able to come to a new country and do as good a job as she’s doing with all the worries she must have – her dad’s quite high up in the Army – is amazing. It’s also quite humbling.”
He adds: “I’m a big believer in two things in wholesale. First of all, you’ve got to have the will to succeed in the role that you do. Secondly, you’ve got to have the skills, but if you’ve not got the skills you will get them as long as you’ve got the will. One of the things I would say about Valerie is she’s got both the will and the skills, and she’s got buckets of them.
“If I could get another 10 Valeries knocking on my door tomorrow, I would bring them into the business with open arms,” Gallacher concludes.
Head of marketing Naeem Khaliq adds: “It’s great to work with such a resilient and determined young woman who has overcome the challenges of starting a new life in the UK. She is an inspiration to us all. Valerie has already delivered important contributions to the marketing department. We are proud to have her on our team and look forward to seeing her continued success and growth.”
Published Date: March 3, 2023