By Yuri Bender

When a handful of Ukrainian refugees - fleeing an oppressive homeland destroyed by Hitler and Stalin - descended on Reading in Berkshire in the late 1940s, little did they know they would create a tight-knit community which would still be thriving nearly 70 years later.

Pawlo Woloszyn, a 54-year-old local businessman specialising in carpet cleaning and repairs, who heads the Reading branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB), spoke movingly of how the town’s community was founded and his father and six close friends became part of it, when he presided over the re-opening of Reading’s community centre at 21 Sidmouth Street.

Lured by the prospect of plentiful jobs in the world-famous Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory and the Courage brewery, for which Reading was renowned, the men, and a number of women who later joined them, built up a close community of 146 Ukrainian families, who clubbed together to purchase the dilapidated three-story Sidmouth Street building in 1969 for £5,800.

With much care, attention and hard physical work from the community, this was transformed into a vibrant hub with a cellar bar and a Saturday Ukrainian school running a full curriculum of history, grammar, musical and religious studies for the children of emigrees, who mingled at break-times in a sloping gravel yard which doubled as a football pitch.  

But by the time Mr Woloszyn took over the work of his father’s friends to run the community centre in 2007, it had once more fallen into disrepair. The ten-year project to refurbish the building, including the provision of six high quality flats for rent to students, has finally been completed, with the community centre having opened once more on Saturday 2 September.

The building and front courtyard were packed with 200 guests on Saturday, mainly children and grandchildren of the community’s founders, as well as some survivors of the original migration as Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UK, Natalia Galibarenko, cut a traditional blue and yellow national ribbon on the porch. Priests from both the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had also travelled from London to perform a joint blessing ceremony in front of guests.

The Ambassador paid tribute to the people who had rebuilt the centre “with scarce resources, when there is a war with Russia in our home country” and reminded those present that “every building has its soul”, carrying the memory of those who worked and lived there in previous eras. Indeed, the property was built in 1804 with flint from Reading Abbey and rafters dating back to the 1800s.

The ceremony was also addressed by local Ukrainian community and trade union leader Mick Polleck, Reading MPs Matt Rodda and Alok Sharma, Reading Mayor Councillor Rose Williams, national AUGB chairman Petro Rewko and Welsh Labour politician Mick Antoniw, who grew up in the town, drawing parallels between the post-war years and today’s mass movements of refugees from Syria and his father’s homeland of Ukraine, where 1.5m people have been displaced since the invasion by Russian troops and Russian-backed militants in 2014.

“We share a common history with other displaced people in the world, as we are all children of refugees,” said Mr Antoniw, echoing words from Reading’s Mayor Ms Williams who praised the town’s ability to integrate waves of immigrants within a “multi-ethnic community.”

The programme continued with a moving rendition of Western Ukrainian folk song, ‘Plyve Kacha’, sung by Reading-born Louisa Kent, granddaughter of one of the community’s founders, with musical accompaniment on the traditional Bandura instrument, from Kyiv-educated musician Olenka Muzyczka, a recent immigrant from Ukraine. This song has become prominent lately, as it was sung at the funerals of the pro-European protestors murdered by security forces during the Maidan revolution of 2014. This was followed by a minute’s silence and singing of both the British and Ukrainian national anthems.

The evening entertainment included a concert, dancing with live music and a feast of Ukrainian national dishes including the famous Varreniky dumplings, prepared by women of the community adhering to traditional village recipes passed down from their mothers and grandmothers.

Guests remembered all the characters the building had played host to during its hey-day of the 1970s and 80s. As one drinker in the newly-refurbished bar commented: “Today was all about Ukraine, but with a Reading accent.”

Yuri Bender
Editor in Chief

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Ukrayinska Dumka


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