What it’s like to leave everything you know behind – POLITICO
Not since World War II has a European conflict forced so many people from their homes. As the war in Ukraine rages on, millions of new arrivals across the Continent are figuring out how to build new lives — whether for a few weeks, a few months or many years, nobody knows.
In this ongoing project, POLITICO will be hosting a sort of digital diary, following those adjusting to life far away from everything they knew. For this first installment, we asked eight Ukrainian refugees about how they left their country, and what they miss most about what they left behind.
“I want to thank all the Dutch people. They gave me an opportunity to live here. Now, I work as a volunteer in a garden. Ukrainians love gardens.”
My name is Larysa Deshko. I am 71, I am from Kyiv, and now I’m living in the home of my oldest daughter, Anna, in the Hague. On February 24, I was woken up by a phone call from my other daughter Tetiana. She said the Russians were bombing us. She told me to collect my things and go to her. She and her husband took me to my granddaughter’s friends’ house, and we stayed there for four days until that village was evacuated. We collected our things and headed to Lviv. First, we arrived in Vinnytsia and slept in a hotel conference room where people gave us food. We drove to Lviv the next day and stayed there for one night.
Anna waited for me on the other side of the border in Poland. Crossing the border was terrible. There were a great number of people, a crowd of people, and I stood for hours in the cold. We walked several kilometers. I had a heart attack and lost consciousness. I was hardly able to cross the border. Anna was there and took me to a medical tent run by Israeli volunteer doctors. I thank them very much. In Poland, she then took me to Przemyśl, where we slept in a supermarket. I thank all the Polish people who gave us beds, who gave us food. I was crying because of this — we got a place to sleep. After that, we flew to the Netherlands, where I got registered as a refugee. Here, I am able to live in the Hague, and I’m happy about this.
I want to thank all the Dutch people. They gave me an opportunity to live here. Now, I work as a volunteer in a garden. Ukrainians love gardens. We like orchards, trees, flowers… In Ukraine, I have a dacha in a village outside Kyiv. I don’t know what’s happened to it now. I haven’t heard anything from people there. But every morning, I speak to my friends on WhatsApp. We call each other to say, “I am alive.”
My husband had remained in Kyiv, but Anna asked him to come here. He arrived a week ago. I asked him to bring some things from our flat, including my mother’s embroideries. They are called rushnyks. To Ukrainians, these are something sacred.
As told to Carlo Martuscelli
“There were growing rumors that Russia might invade. People were asked to prepare an emergency suitcase. Just in case.”
Nelli (right), with Sasha (left) and Lyuba (center)
My name is Nelli Karpachova, and I am 59. I used to be an accountant in Ukraine, and my husband Sasha works for an elevator company. We arrived in Belgium on March 8 to live with my only daughter, Lyuba, already based here for more than 10 years.
It’s the second time I’ve had to flee a Russian invasion. I’m originally from eastern Luhansk and lived in Donetsk. We lived in a big house, which Sasha built himself. But in 2014, the situation went from bad to worse. There were lots of explosions, and authorities of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic wanted us to pay “unofficial taxes.”
Our dog died that December from a heart attack because of the explosions — that’s when we decided to move to Kharkiv. People in Kharkiv did not believe what was happening in Donetsk. They thought it was an internal uprising of coal miners and didn’t believe that Russian tanks and troops were everywhere. We eventually decided to relocate to the southern city of Odesa. I loved my life there: We lived near the seaside, and I did morning exercises near the water. I miss it so much.
There were growing rumors that Russia might invade. People were asked to prepare an emergency suitcase. Just in case. On February 24, at 5 a.m., we heard rockets near the airport. Since there was no continuous shelling, I thought it would be fine, that we should first see how all this would unfold. We went for a stroll later that morning. As we walked out of the building, we saw a huge explosion, from a rocket hitting 500 meters away from us. Everything was fire, sand and dust. It was the worst explosion I ever saw. Even after Donetsk.
Members of my family had agreed beforehand to regroup in a nearby village, in Velykodolynske. Our plan was to get out — quickly. We drove toward the Moldovan border but got stuck in traffic for 24 hours. Children in strollers and those with disabilities went past us; we saw men bring their families to the border, say goodbye, and return to fight.
Many volunteers offered food and shelter when we arrived in Moldova. After a day in Chisinau, we headed to Iași in Romania. We flew directly to Charleroi, where Belgian border checks were rough. One officer asked why we were leaving Ukraine, as if he didn’t know there was a war. He asked Lyuba to show all her credit cards and her passport to make sure she could sponsor us. He made me feel uncomfortable.
When we arrived at Lyuba’s apartment, though we slept in the living room, it felt safe. But still, I want to go home. In six months, I see myself coming back to my native, beloved Donetsk, to a peaceful country.
As told to Camille Gijs
“We packed emergency suitcases. We taped our windows. We closed our curtains and found a shelter close to our building — the cellar of a school”
My name is Maria Bodnar, and I am 25 years old. I left my hometown Kyiv nine days after the Russian attack on Ukraine started. I cannot remember the exact date, it’s hard to get a sense of time in war.
My mother and I lived in an apartment on the outskirts of Kyiv. From my window, I could see cars lining up to get out of the city. A couple of days later that became impossible, the road was under attack. We packed emergency suitcases. We taped our windows. We closed our curtains and found a shelter close to our building — the cellar of a school. At first, I was scared I would not recognize the sound of sirens, but once you hear them, you’ll never forget them. I still hear them now, here in Berlin when closing my eyes.
The Russian military was getting closer. We felt and heard it too. We decided to leave and packed our remaining things within 10 minutes. When we crossed the city to arrive at the train station, I saw
t checkpoints and anti-tank spikes; a destroyed city. I could not recognize the places I had known since childhood. We managed to get on one of the first evacuation trains to Lviv. There were 18 of us packed in a compartment designed to fit six. I know I won’t meet those people again, but I’ll never forget their faces.
From Lviv we took a bus, walked over the Polish border and, eventually, after traveling three full days, arrived in Germany. We did not leave with a plan. But I have a friend in Berlin, and for now, we’re staying at her place.
My plan is to stay in Berlin. I don’t want to be a refugee only, I want to live and work here. Now, I work as a volunteer, helping others that have just arrived. I am a trained filmmaker and movie director. I am safe now. But I am worried about my family and friends that are stuck. We need to tell their stories, show their images.
It’s not easy to talk about these memories. I am beginning to understand my grandmother – who was in Germany during World War II – and never talked about the war. But we must speak.
As told to Nette Nöstlinger and Joshua Posaner
“On February 24, my husband woke me up in the morning at, like, 5:00 a.m. He said he’d heard explosions and we needed to pack.”
My name is Olena Ostroverkh, and I’m 34 years old. I lived in the center of Kyiv with my husband and my 4-year-old. I work as a personal stylist.
Before the war started there was already talk of something happening. But everyone around me said it was impossible to have a war in the 21st century, that it’s crazy. Three weeks before the war, I was invited to work on a television show. I remember thinking it was a nice opportunity, but what if war begins? This was a big national channel, and everyone was just doing their jobs. I remember it felt so strange.
On February 24, my husband woke me up in the morning at, like, 5:00 a.m. He said he’d heard explosions and we needed to pack. My heart was beating very fast, and I packed everything in 10 minutes. We went to my parents’ house in Lutsk. The next day, my friend from France called and told my husband that I should go with my son to his place in France where I’d be safe, and that he’d pick us up from Krakow. My husband took the car and spent 24 hours trying to get it closer to the border because there was a long line. He didn’t sleep. The next day, my father drove me, my son, my mother and my sister to the Polish border. There was so no much traffic that we couldn’t drive, so we got out and walked 7 kilometers to the car. There, I said goodbye to my husband. Men aren’t allowed out of the country. I didn’t know how long it would be before I saw him again.
We waited another 12 hours in line and spent the night awake in the car, until we finally made it through. I texted a friend living in Warsaw, and she immediately found us a place to stay in Krakow. A Polish girl gave us her apartment — she just met us and gave us a key. I was shocked. It’s a confusing feeling when one nation bombs you, and on the other side, they give you the key to their home. It’s just mind-blowing. We then drove to Germany, near Leipzig, and on the way, someone stopped us when they saw our Ukrainian license plate. It was a Ukrainian man who had moved there. He tried to give us money from his wallet. He was shaking. After meeting him, my mother and sister cried. We arrived in the south of France, where my friend lives, on February 28.
My son has started going to school in France now. He’s learning his third language. I speak to him in Ukrainian, my husband speaks to him in Russian, and now he’s learning French. I know it may sound romantic, living in the south of France. But there isn’t a single day I don’t want to go home. We really loved our life — our jobs, our friends, our kids. I realize it more and more, how much I loved living in Kyiv, the cafés and restaurants, our routine, everything. Before this, people said, “You should move from Ukraine.” I’ve realized I don’t want to go anywhere else
As told to Carlo Martuscelli
“Gas stations were out of fuel, and at the border, we stood still, waiting, for a day and a half. We slept in the car.”
Vlad (right) with his wife and 6-month-old son
My name is Vlad Verchenko. I’m an investment banker and lived in Kyiv with my wife, our 6-month-old son and my parents. I was able to evacuate with my family because I’m an Israeli citizen.
When the war broke out on February 24, we were taken by surprise like everyone else. We thought it would probably end quickly. Then, they started to bomb the entire country, Kyiv as well. First, we went to the metro station close to us, we didn’t have a bomb shelter, but we realized the facilities aren’t equipped for so many people. A couple of days later, we decided to go for the border. We drove for two days. Gas stations were out of fuel, and at the border, we stood still, waiting, for a day and a half. We slept in the car. It was quite an experience, a baby and four adults in one car.
We were fleeing for safety, but didn’t have concrete plans beyond Ukraine. I thought, maybe, if I can keep my job, we can go somewhere where I have business connections. We made it to Romania and stayed in Siret, a town near the border, at a hotel I found on Booking.com. The owner was such a helpful and welcoming guy. He said he wanted to help, and we turned the hotel into a shelter for refugees to rest, a place to sleep and make plans. We decided to help people, from the other side.
You have to understand, the first week when people were evacuating, there was real chaos at the border. A lot of people, a lot of cars, an unpredictable situation. It was a nightmare, to be honest, especially for women with kids. A lot of them weren’t crossing by car, they were crossing by foot and had to stand in line for hours and hours. For them, just to get rest, some hot food and to be able to take a shower was a big thing.
I helped run the hotel for two weeks, but then our son got a virus and was hospitalized for four days. At that point, my wife said we also need to take care of ourselves, if we want to keep helping others. We decided to make our way to Switzerland, where I can continue working in my current job. So we drove — compared to getting to the border, it was a walk in the park. Now, we are near Zurich, and I’m working on a project with a university here that could create business opportunities for Ukrainians. But we see ourselves as temporary refugees, we want to go back as soon as practically possible. We want to build Switzerland in Ukraine, not Ukraine in Switzerland
As told to Ana Fota
“Confident nothing would happen, my father stayed in Ukraine. He told me: ‘Go to Krakow, take a break, and then return to Kyiv.’”
My name is Dmytro Lysytskyi. I’m 23 and currently living in Leipzig, Germany, but my home is Kyiv. I left Ukraine with my mother, grandmother, grandfather and girlfriend on February 20. We weren’t sure a war would start. There were two perspectives on TV: One said war was close, the other said it was propaganda, fake news. But my mother and grandmother were very nervous, so we booked an apartment in Krakow for a week. We departed from Kyiv train station, stopping at Przemysł on the border before continuing to Krakow, expecting to return on Sunday.
I had clothes to last a week, no more. Confident nothing would happen, my father stayed in Ukraine. He told me: “Go to Krakow, take a break, and then return to Kyiv.” On Thursday, February 24, I woke up to messages that the war had started.
From Krakow, we moved to an apartment in Gdynia in north Poland. After about 10 days, a former classmate of my grandmother offered for us to come to Leipzig. She helped us with documents, sorting accommodation, and all general life things here. I can keep working, which helps, as I have money for living. I’m a UX designer, working on apps, websites — that kind of thing.
My dad is currently in Rahov, a city in west Ukraine. We are super close, so we are in touch every day almost. My two half-brothers and step-mom are in Munich. I hope I will return to Kyiv soon. My family miss Kyiv, their home and their life. People have been super friendly and helpful in Germany, but it’s not our home. Every evening, we watch the news. I’ve seen pictures of war in Syria or Afghanistan, but to imagine it could happen in my country, my city even, it’s crazy. I hope it will be solved by May or June, and I can return home soon after. Russians and Belarussians have the power to influence what’s happening — 140 million people aren’t able to stop one person.
As told to Sebastian Whale
Olena Zuieva Damax
“We had two options: find an underground shelter (…) or use the rule of two walls, ensuring there is another wall between you and the outside wall. The first protects you from the actual explosion; the second, from shrapnel.”
My name is Olena Zuieva Damax, I’m 40 years old and my youngest son, Maksim, is 15. We lived in Odesa with my husband and eldest son. I woke to the sound of explosions at 4:30 a.m. on February 24. While we knew Russian troops were all around Ukraine, nobody thought, in the 21st century, that Russia would take this leap. The sirens were non-stop. We had two options: find an underground shelter — although there weren’t many in Odesa — or use the rule of two walls, ensuring there is another wall between you and the outside wall. The first protects you from the actual explosion; the second, from shrapnel.
Initially, we went to our cellar, but that had only one exit. Our friends in Kyiv said, while a shelter is more secure, emotionally, it’s not. They said, if you’re going to die, it’s better to die at home. After three days, we moved to my parents’ house in a quieter region of Odesa. My mum cooked to deal with her emotions. My dad, a military engineer, spent his mornings on the phone, advising Ukrainian troops on how to operate the tanks captured in battles with the Russian military. He was severely drained by news from the front line; it greatly affected his well-being as he is diabetic.
Eventually, I made a decision with my husband that I would leave with Maksim, for his education — he wants to become a doctor. It was important to us that his life and dreams didn’t get affected, and because of his age, he was able to go. On March 15, our friend drove us to Lviv, where we stayed for one night, before continuing to the Carpathian mountains on the border with Slovakia and Hungary, entering Senica, a Slovakian town, the next day.
With the help of my eldest son, we posted on a Facebook group called “UK accommodation for Ukrainian refugees.” A woman from London messaged me privately, and by March 26, we had our visas. We now live in a house with her, her husband, their two children and the family dog. She is amazing, so supportive and helpful with all the logistics. I’ve started learning English, and my son has been accepted for free into a private school in London.
Being away is the hardest part of this whole situation. I can see when the sirens start in Odesa through an app on my phone. It’s very unsettling, but I know what’s happening with my family. I would love to go back and start rebuilding Ukraine for future generations. But, at the moment, we can’t see the end of this war.
As told to Sebastian Whale
“I was in the UK when I received a call in the middle of the night. (…) I immediately thought of my grandmother in Kyiv. I also thought it was nonsense because it’s such nonsense to bombard a city in Europe.”
I was born in Kyiv in 1992. I’m a lawyer and legal analyst specialized in international criminal law and war crimes. I’m from a family of Ukrainians and Jews, and my great-grandmother is from Siberia. I remember when the war started very well. I was in the U.K. when I received a call in the middle of the night. I asked my friend: “What’s so important that you’re calling me so early?” He yelled: “Important? Important? It’s started! Kyiv is being bombarded.” I immediately thought of my grandmother in Kyiv. I also thought it was nonsense because it’s such nonsense to bombard a city in Europe.
The first 10 days were like a big nightmare. I gathered a team of around 30 volunteers to coordinate information and helped with the evacuation of families. I’m also working with a huge coalition of NGO’s, journalists and lawyers on documenting and archiving war crimes. You need to have metadata about the date, place, one view of at least ten seconds, and a panoramic view. Otherwise it can be rejected as evidence in an international court.
With my younger brother, we decided my mother and granny had to leave. I flew to Krakow and waited for them there. My brother took them to a bus station close to the border. When they arrived, the driver said he had just one seat left, even if we booked two — I was so worried. We found another bus to Katowice, where I managed to meet them. When I met my granny, she was trembling, afraid of every sound.
At first, I thought I needed to find an Eastern European country for us, I felt the mentality would be easier for her to cope with. We came to Prague and were welcomed by an amazing Jewish family, but we could not stay long. Then, while talking with a friend, she told me she came to Paris, and I thought, why not? I just posted a message on Facebook and eventually found an amazing lady, Svetlana. She met us at the bus station in Paris — it took us 17 hours because my grandmother was too scared of flying. I was always impressed by the levels of Jewish solidarity. The community rented a hotel for the people fleeing from Ukraine, and there my refugee life has started.
I now would really like to find a second job in my field in Paris and be able to help Ukraine. I do not want to use social help, I just need to find my path to build a proper life in Paris. When people now ask me, “How are you?” I’m not the kind of person who will cry. I don’t know how to say that truly, inside of me, I feel like a part of me has died. It’s usually not that shocking for me to see photos of dead bodies. But when the Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, I couldn’t stop crying. It was the second time in my life, maybe — the first was when I visited the concentration camps in Poland. I had the same feeling, the feeling that you just cannot understand the scale of the tragedy.
As told to Elisa Braun
https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-refugee-diaries-war-russia/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication What it’s like to leave everything you know behind – POLITICO