It’s early 2022, and SAMS alumni Yuliia Buhlak is making waves in the aquaculture industry.
Creator of the online business portal Aquaculture Ukraine and founder of the Ukrainian Aquaculture Society, the mother of one is also completing an economics course in preparation for starting her own company, FISkin, which uses discarded fish skin to create leather products. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old is undertaking a doctoral project to help identify the potential expansion of Ukrainian aquaculture and is growing lavender on a commercial scale on newly acquired land.
Then, on February 24, everything stops. Two days before she is due to complete her business class, her entrepreneurial ambitions are instantly replaced by the need to survive as Russian forces invade her home country.
For the next month, Yuliia and her three-year-old daughter, Sofia, are effectively confined to their apartment and community shelters in Kiev while her husband, Yevgen, contributes to the war effort. Air raid sirens and explosions are a constant soundtrack, while sleep becomes impossible. The young family lives on savings in the hope that the next day will bring peace.
“Everyone was saying to escape to Europe, but it wasn’t that easy,” Yuliia recalls, speaking from Norway, where she now has refugee status. “I had a daughter to take care of, and although I had a car, the queues to leave Kiev were huge. You could run out of gas and the situation changed so fast you could walk into a battlefield without knowing it. We didn’t know how long the war would last.
“Every day was the same. We lived in a multi-story apartment building and went down to the shelter whenever we heard the air raid siren, which could go off eight to twelve times a day, often during the night.
“The worst part was lying down every night and not being able to sleep. Sleeping with one eye open while the bombs were falling and thinking that if a bomb hits a certain side of the room: “Can the glass in the window hit my daughter where she is sleeping? Is there any way I can lay down to cover her?”
The atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where the bodies of civilians were left strewn across the streets, mark the turning point for Yuliia, who has decided that escape was the only option left. “I didn’t expect the Russians to be capable of that,” he said. “I knew then that when the opportunity presented itself, we had to leave.”
With the men unable to leave the country, she and Sofia left Ievgen in Kiev and traveled to Kiel, Germany, with a friend, Lena, and her young daughter.
Their destination was a deliberate choice. During the desperate first month of the war, Yuliia received the most surprising of emails: an offer from Germany to translate online content for an aquaculture course. It’s not her dream job, but at the time, she was a lifeline. The family had much-needed income, and for Yulia it was a purpose beyond day-to-day survival.
Little did he know that it was also a platform from which he could begin to rebuild his aquaculture career. Four years after finishing her studies at UHI partner SAMS, where she earned a joint master’s degree in Aquaculture, Environment and Society (ACES), Yuliia is now reconnected to Oban Institute. Working with SAMS scientist, Dr. Adam Hughes, will develop his FISkin products during a three-month paid internship through the EIT Food RIS programme, an EU-funded program involving SAMS, which aims to overcome the challenges of the European food system.
Yuliia will work remotely, examining public perceptions of fish skin scraps from processing plants and restaurants being used as an attractive and surprisingly durable source of leather for high fashion accessories such as watch straps and belts. Fish is a more sustainable resource than conventional cowhide, because fish farming produces fewer emissions than cattle farming.
“I don’t think I will be able to go to Scotland, but I spent six months there during my studies and loved the place and the people. I am so happy to be working with SAMS again. Getting the internship is such a relief, as it will allow me to resume work on my FISkin project,” she said.
Dr Hughes said: “Yuliia has been an outstanding student at SAMS and since completing our International Masters in Aquaculture, I have followed her career with great interest. When I first heard about her situation in Ukraine after the invasion, I was deeply concerned.
“When the opportunity arose to work with Yuliia again, and to help support her as she restarts her career and grows her business through this fellowship program, it was great to be able to do something positive. The fish skin is very beautiful and really sustainable, so I’m sure Yulia’s business will be hugely successful.
As for the future, Yuliia hopes to return to Ukraine to rebuild her aquaculture dream. “I was such a happy, busy person before the war,” she says. “I like to do many things: it motivates me.”
Back home among the support troops on the front lines, her husband Yevgen tends to the lavender harvest, which has so far avoided damage and remains a place of hope for the family.
Through sheer ambition and determination, the seeds of a prosperous post-war future remain for the Buhlak family of Kiev.