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Ukraine refugee choir formed in Stamford by musician whose father survived Nazi concentration camps





Dark times in life are often easier to bear in the company of others.

A distraction from a problem and worry can ease stress and fears, breed hope, and even offer solutions.

It was in this spirit that the Sunflowers Choir was born in Stamford.

The choir's first performance was of Christmas carols at the bandstand in Stamford. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
The choir's first performance was of Christmas carols at the bandstand in Stamford. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

Made up of refugees who arrived here two years ago following the Russian invasion, the women’s choir has become a lifeline to many in our new Ukrainian community.

An escape from war not only removes refugees from their home and loved ones, but also from their culture and language.

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Assets we all take for granted unless they’re suddenly snatched away.

The choir encourages the Ukrainian community to remember and reinforce their nation's culture. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
The choir encourages the Ukrainian community to remember and reinforce their nation's culture. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

For many women and children, the Friday evening rehearsals allow them to be Ukrainian again - to be themselves - for at least an hour or two a week.

“Part of it is to get them to be communal - they have such a laugh,” said music teacher Mike Tymoczko who came up with the idea.

“You couldn’t meet kinder people. They have every reason to be introspective, but they’re not - they are all-embracing and outward-looking.”

Mike Tymoczko's own father was a Ukrainian refugee after being sent to Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
Mike Tymoczko's own father was a Ukrainian refugee after being sent to Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

Mike, from Belmesthorpe, has particular reason to feel empathy with those seeking refuge here.

A first generation Ukrainian, born and raised in Coventry, his father was a fellow refugee from a different era who had to tread an eerily familiar path.

Taken by the Nazis as a 15-year-old, he was shunted around various concentration camps as slave labour until liberated by the Allies towards the end of the Second World War.

Mike, full name Mykhailo, in Cossack dress, with his father Josyf who survived the Nazi camps
Mike, full name Mykhailo, in Cossack dress, with his father Josyf who survived the Nazi camps

His two brothers were not so fortunate; their liberators proved to be Russian.

They would start their post-war years in Siberian gulags.

Also: Ukraine wife living in Rutland tells of her husband’s battle on the frontline 2 years after Russia invaded

Putin’s invasion in February 2022 was a grim reminder for Mike of persecution stretching back centuries.

Mothers and their children feature in the choir. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
Mothers and their children feature in the choir. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

“I’m glad in some respects that my father is not alive to know about it,” he said.

“Ukraine was turned upside down by the Germans and the Russians during the Second World War, and now it’s Russia again. It’s history repeating.

“It wasn’t until much later in life that I realised what awful things they had gone through and the gravity of their lives.

“He didn’t speak about it - hardly at all.”

Josyf Tymoczko settled in the West Midlands after working with the British after his liberation
Josyf Tymoczko settled in the West Midlands after working with the British after his liberation

Mike’s father began working for the British after his liberation and came back with them to start a new life.

Having carried the trauma of the camps with him, he then lost his first wife in childbirth, leaving him to bring up Mike single-handed.

“I’m first-generation Ukrainian, but was totally brought up as Ukrainian and couldn’t speak English when I went to school because my father didn’t and he brought me up,” Mike explained.

Josyf never made it home to Ukraine to see his family after the devastation of the Second World War
Josyf never made it home to Ukraine to see his family after the devastation of the Second World War

“I’m Ukrainian in upbringing and culturally.

“It was very important to my father’s generation that that culture was kept alive because, as far as they were concerned, they might never go back home again.”

Mike and his wife Sally were naturally keen to help two years ago and hosted mother and daughter Natasha and Alina.

The choir has performed at several events around the Stamford area since it was formed by music teacher Mike Tymoczko in 2022. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
The choir has performed at several events around the Stamford area since it was formed by music teacher Mike Tymoczko in 2022. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

“It dawned on me more of the difficulties my father faced when I met refugees this time,” he recalled.

“The sheer tragedy never really dawned on me properly until then, I often thought about it, but it really hit me hard when these poor people were refugees this time around.

“Natasha and Alina became more like family to us. They were having to navigate the system that I had to navigate.”

Sunflowers are due to sing at Browne's Hospital on February 24 at a service to commemorate the second anniversary of the Russian invasion. Photo: Kingsley Singleton
Sunflowers are due to sing at Browne's Hospital on February 24 at a service to commemorate the second anniversary of the Russian invasion. Photo: Kingsley Singleton

It was the lengths that his father and friends went to preserve their own identity while living and working in Britain that inspired Sunflowers.

Along with establishing Ukrainian clubs and societies, Mike regularly visited an annual six-week camp in Derbyshire dedicated to the nation’s culture.

“I remember thinking that these people had had to rebuild their lives, but the community stuck together and built all this,” he said.

“The summer camp would have cost a fortune, but every Ukrainian would have donated to it and that started to fascinate me. I thought, ‘I’m a musician, what can I do to help?’.”

A graduate of Cambridge University, Mike studied music to degree and post-degree level, and made a successful career from his passion.

He became a session musician playing piano, keyboard, violin and guitar, before embarking on a 30-year teaching career in and around Peterborough.

Yet he baulks at any notion of his leading the choir as their teacher.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a director of the choir in the traditional sense,” he said.

“What I like is for them to meet, have a good old chat, talk about anything they want to talk about and we do a bit of music.

“I don’t want them to think I’m this master musician - it’s their choir and they drive it.

“If they don't want to do something, they don't have to do it.”

Initially they were given a free place to rehearse at Barn Hill Methodist Church, before Yvette Diaz-Munoz, of Stamford Diversity Group, found them a new space at Bluecoat Primary School.

After making their debut singing Christmas carols in Stamford bandstand, Sunflowers have performed at many events around the area.

“We use pieces that are poignant - that were poignant when my father taught me them from the Second World War.

“I see it as a joint musical journey where I learn from them. My mantra is that music is for everybody.”

While occasionally an excuse for a natter and a much-needed letting off of steam, rehearsals may have become more focussed recently as they prepare for their next performance.

On Saturday evening (February 24), the choir will join an outdoor service outside Browne’s Hospital to commemorate the two-year anniversary of a date they'll never forget.

The beginning of Ukraine’s latest descent into darkness and their own personal exodus.

They will sing a prayer, adapted for the war, and finish with the Ukrainian national anthem. An affirmation of their national identity, retracing the steps taken by Mike’s father and his generation, many hundreds of miles away from home.

“They are lovely people, “ Mike reflects. “They deserve some fine moments with each other.”



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