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Ukrainian Exodus: refugees share their harrowing stories

An elderly woman cradles her head in her hands on a crowded street in Przemysl, Poland, after crossing the border from Ukraine. Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP

An elderly woman cradles her head in her hands on a crowded street in Przemysl, Poland, after crossing the border from Ukraine. Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP

Almost three million Ukrainian refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, have fled the country since the Feb. 24 Russian invasion. More people stream into Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Moldova with each passing day. Ukrainians have demonstrated extraordinary resilience, and neighboring countries have embraced them with a generosity not often granted.

Photo: Valerio Muscella
Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP
Photo: Adrienne Surprenant /MYOP
Photo: Adrienne Surprenant /MYOP


However, as the conflict inches closer to the one-month anniversary, the resources of nearby countries are beginning to deplete. CARE is working to provide food, water, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and cash assistance through our partners.

Each displaced person has experienced the conflict differently. Some are very old or very young. Some are third-country nationals. Some are challenged by serious health issues or mitigating circumstances.

Here are a few of their stories.

Photo: Lucy Beck/CARE

“How could I stay?”
Three Generations of Women Find Shelter in Sighet

Oleksandra, 81, her daughter Elena, 53, and granddaughter Vika, 22, sip hot tea in a safe shelter designed for disabled people established by CARE’s Romanian partner, Star of Hope, at the Sighet border crossing. Oleksandra suffers from Type 2 diabetes and completed the final leg of their journey to the border in a wheelchair provided by volunteers.

A few days after the invasion, Vika travelled from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, to help her mother and grandmother evacuate. All three women cried as Vika described their long and dangerous trip. “We tried to travel in a car with a man who transports people with disabilities, but he didn’t have enough documents, so in the end we had to come by bus and by walking, which took three hours,” she said. “But we struggled with my grandmother, as she was really weak and couldn’t walk because she was so scared. So we were holding her up under her arms and carrying her along. We were really scared; we weren’t sure my grandmother would survive, but volunteers from inside Ukraine also helped us. The road was really bad.”

Photo: Lucy Beck/CARE

“I hope now the journey is over, the worst has ended, but I am really tired. I was so worried for my family. People asked my mother along the way how she could come, along such a hard road, and with my grandmother who has such disabilities, but my mother was saying – ‘how could I stay?’”

Volunteers were then able to arrange transport to a shelter and onward travel to the Polish border where Oleksandra’s son in law will pick them up and take them to his apartment in Poland and to safety.

Vika is already planning her return to Ukraine. She envisions fighting for her country, and then returning to her job as an online marketer and reuniting with her cat, which was left behind. “After this I will go back, to volunteer to help my country. Once I know they are safe and taken care of I will go straight back – it is my country, my land. Of course, I am afraid, but now my parents, my family are safe, so now I don’t have to worry about anyone except me. Everyone is scared, but for us the alternative, if Russia succeeds, it is worse. If it works out that the only thing left is to fight, then I am prepared to fight, but for now I want to help by volunteering.”

CARE is supporting Star of Hope, and our partners began psychosocial support training on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Photo: Lucy Beck/CARE

Nadya, 15
“But I wonder when the war will end and I can return to see my friends.”

Nadya sits in a crowded Bucharest shelter considering her future, after escaping Odessa with her mother, Nga, her aunt Hanh, cousin Katya, and her mother’s friend, Dung. Like most 15-year-olds Nadya is already missing her friends and her computer, which was too heavy to bring.

“People here [at the shelter] are so friendly and kind, I feel safe here, but I also get bored as there is not much to do, and I miss my friends and school. I want to say thank you to all the people who have helped us since we got here. In Odessa it was very dangerous; we heard bombs near the house and would have to run and hide, sometimes when we did this people would come to the house and try and rob it as well, so my mom decided to leave.”

Ukraine is home for Nadya, who left Vietnam with her family when she was three. She treasures a handmade keepsake a friend made to help her remember her Ukrainian life. “My best friend Diana made me a special present – a small book with all our memories, drawings and conversations, which… is my most important possession here.”

“But I wonder when the war will end, and I can return to see my friends. For now we will temporarily go to Vietnam (to Viet Tri) as my mom is too worried about the war to return, but I want to go back to Ukraine as soon as possible. It is my home. For now we are just waiting for the embassy to arrange to flights back,” she said.

 The 150-capacity shelter is a converted gym. The capacity can be stretched to 175 by adding up to 25 mattresses on the floor. Most people do not stay long; a few hours to a couple of days. There is high turnover with many people arriving at night or in the early-morning hours. The center relies on supplies from their own reserves as well as donations from local businesses and communities and NGOs. CARE’s partner SERA is donating clothes and other basic items to support the center.

Many of the shelter residents are third-country nationals like Nadya and her family, who sometimes stay longer, while navigating the complicated legal requirements of getting back to their country of origin through their respective embassies. The center currently hosts a mix of Vietnamese, Azerbaijani, Armenian, and Turkmens, as well as Ukrainians.

Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP

Williams Amoakoheme Ababio, 27, also a third country national, fears he will be separated from his family.

Williams came from Ghana to study and then work in Ukraine, where he met his wife Airapetryan Sattennilc, 27. The couple has two young children, Martin, 7, and Richard, 1. Though they are now together in a Polish shelter in the town of Przemsyl, the family has already been separated once while trying to flee the Russian advance. Eventually they were reunited and were able to catch the Lviv-Pzermysl train across the Polish border.

Photo: Lucy Beck/CARE

Lydia: A Difficult Decision
“Long Live Ukraine!  This is how we now salute and greet each other in the street.”

Lydia, a 64-year-old widow, and her friend Sylvia, 73, fled to Romania from Nikolaev in southern Ukraine with Sylvia’s husband. They are staying in the same Bucharest shelter as Nadya (described above). The decision to leave was very difficult for Lydia since the rest of her family has chosen to remain in Ukraine. She only left at the urging of her children.

“We were told by our children that we had to leave the country to be safe and so that they could stay and fight and not have to worry about us,” she said. “We didn’t want to leave our country but our children pushed us to go. When we were back in Nikolaev we were often hearing bombs. I think all the time about my son, I’m so worried, I can’t sleep at night I’m so worried, like any mother in this situation. I felt so bad leaving my home, and even now I can’t believe I have actually left — it doesn’t feel real. I am worried for the whole country and for everyone there. There are so many villages destroyed by bombs there, people have nothing —nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nowhere to stay.”

Lydia has one son, Alexandrei, 39, who stayed behind in Ukraine to fight. His wife and two children also stayed with him; despite him urging them to also leave. They refused, preferring to stay in their own country.

Lydia is headed to France with Sylvia and hopes to stay with friends already living there. Like, Nadya, they dream of a quick return to Ukraine.

“It took us a day to get here by bus. We’re very happy here [in the shelter] with all the help we have received… We are so thankful to the volunteers who have helped us a lot. Hopefully tomorrow we can leave. And I hope we don’t have to stay too long in France and can return. We didn’t bring much with us as we are hoping we will go home soon. ‘Long Live Ukraine!’ – this is how we now salute and greet each other in the street. We love Ukraine, it is our home. We are thankful to all the countries and people worried about Ukraine and the situation there.”

Photo: Adrienne Surprenant/MYOP

Tatiana: Twice Displaced
“I can’t sleep, I have panic inside.”

In early March, Tatiana Ganchou, 62, a Ukrainian refugee, joined millions of others making their way to Poland ahead of the Russian advance. But this was not the first time Tatiana was abruptly forced from her home. In 1986, she was a young girl living in Pripyat, the city closest to the Chernobyl nuclear plant.  When the core melted and released an enormous amount of radioactive material, such as corium, uranium, and plutonium, her family was part of a massive exodus.

Chernobyl is considered to be one of the worst nuclear accidents in history in terms of casualties and cost. The final clean-up of the Chernobyl area is still on-going, and radioactive waste continues to smolder. This disaster resulted in the evacuation of at least 100,000 people, including Tatiana’s family. She recalls “leaving everything,” as she rests in a shelter in Przemsyl, Poland, almost 40 years later.

“I can’t sleep, I have panic inside. I am frightened that everything will happen again like in Chernobyl. I have the same feeling I had then,” she said.

She hopes to join either her daughter who lives in Warsaw or her son, who is based in Germany.


Lucy Beck, Laura Noel and Adrienne Surprenant contributed to this story.

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