A room of their own: The lives of Ukrainian women refugees | Russia-Ukraine war


“Ladies’s struggle has its personal colors, its personal smells, its personal lighting, and its personal vary of emotions. There are not any heroes and unimaginable feats, there are merely people who find themselves busy doing inhumanly human issues.”
– Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of Warfare

By now, ski season is over within the picturesque city of Zakopane within the south of Poland. The lifts that transport hundreds of alpine skiers annually to the foothills of the Tatras Mountains have floor to a halt, dangling eerily within the frosty air. The bushes are nonetheless largely naked and flowerless although it’s already April. However this winter has been unusually lengthy – and it’s accompanied by the unrelenting bitterness of a struggle raging 250km (155 miles) away.

In early March, days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the primary refugees began arriving. They had been exhausted, having travelled for days in freezing temperatures, barely stopping to relaxation at makeshift shelters in Polish border cities. By way of word-of-mouth, they’d came upon about three vacation houses in Zakopane, owned by the household of 38-year-old Weronika Łukaszayk. “I’ve 5 siblings with whom I run these guesthouses. We determined to stop the majority of our enterprise to host fleeing Ukrainians,” says Łukaszayk, a lawyer specialising in civil disputes. “Now, a few of our neighbours who heard about what we’re doing are additionally opening their houses to refugees. It’s excellent to see.”

Over the subsequent month, the rooms stuffed up rapidly. Now, 52 folks – all girls and youngsters from totally different elements of Ukraine – occupy the three homes, every of which is half a minute’s stroll from the opposite two. The homes are structurally virtually an identical, with 4 flooring and a loft.

In a matter of weeks, the refugees have needed to learn to reside collectively in an association that they hope is non permanent, supporting each other whereas grappling with the shared ache of displacement. Their kids attend college within the city centre, which is a brief drive away. Grocery purchasing is completed at a small native retailer simply down the hill, aptly known as Brutal Market. Its emblem is that of a terrified ladybug attempting to flee a clenched fist.

This can be a report of the tales of a number of Ukrainian girls who’ve sought refuge at these vacation houses. However it additionally bears witness to the speak, the exercise, the tragedy and the heat that collectively type the reminiscences of the three households as they’re being made.

A photo of the exterior of Stachonie.
The three houses could also be structurally virtually an identical, with 4 flooring and a loft, however the girls who now reside in them have every introduced totally different tales of loss and hardship [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Inside the primary house

Room 22

Years of tireless labour earned 36-year-old Lesya Grichuk her personal slice of paradise within the north of Ukraine, about 80km (50 miles) from the Belarusian border. Grichuk and her husband Anatoly had met whereas learning at a university in Irpin, a metropolis 20km (12 miles) northwest of Kyiv. “Again then I used to be penniless – my father died all of a sudden in a automobile crash. My grandmother took over possession of the home and turned us out,” she remembers. Jovial and heat, Lesya is more than likely to be discovered within the communal areas of the home, taking care of the youthful kids or making tea for the opposite girls.

After a failed try to maneuver to Belarus, Lesya and Anatoly heard concerning the tiny village of Buda, the place there was a home cheaply accessible. There was just one different house within the neighborhood. The Grichuks had been enthralled by the pristine great thing about their new neighbourhood. “We at all times knew we wished to boost our kids in nature,” Lesya tells me. For twenty years, she and Anatoly grew crops and reared their very own animals for meals, sometimes looking for extra meat. Anatoly labored as a truck driver beforehand however gave it up because the job took him away from house for lengthy stretches of time. “I missed him loads. I informed him that I don’t want some huge cash. Simply to be collectively is a luxurious,” Lesya says.

Her oldest sons Daniil, 17, and Kirill, 14, are in Ukraine together with their father, supporting him as he joins the Territorial Defence Forces like tens of millions of different males between the ages of 18 and 60. There have been stories that youngsters only a yr or two older than Daniil are being despatched to the frontline after just some days of primary coaching. Lesya and her different 4 kids, Kostya, 12, Angelina, 10, Zakhar, 7, and Olena, 4, stayed for so long as they may earlier than leaving for Poland on March 24, when the shelling round their house started to accentuate. Years in the past, Daniil had gone on an change programme to Switzerland for Ukrainian kids from financially underprivileged backgrounds and had stayed in contact along with his host household. They informed him a few home in Zakopane that was internet hosting Ukrainian refugees, and he urged his mom and siblings to move there.

A photo of a woman holding a phone with a photo of Olena is holding a lamb and a child is behind the phone leaning to look at what is on the screen.
Grichuks collect round Lesya Grichuk’s cellphone (Olena is holding a lamb) [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

The Grichuks introduced little with them. Lesya’s most prized possession is her cellphone, which permits her to name her husband and two sons. It additionally accommodates photos and pictures of her kids feeding lambs, rising juniper shrubs, and singing whereas horse driving.

Angelina and Kostya are going to the native college in Zakopane, though there are some teething issues with their foray into the Polish training system. Angelina was entered at a decrease grade than in Ukraine, and he or she says she has already discovered a lot of the materials being taught. “I’m joyful there’s little or no homework right here,” Kostya says with a cheeky grin.

Of their free time, the Grichuks play collectively within the backyard and put together meals within the kitchen on the bottom flooring together with the opposite refugee households. “I’m at all times telling the youngsters that we’re not at house, we’re solely friends, and we must be cautious with folks’s issues,” Lesya says. Her eyes effectively up with tears when she talks concerning the life she is so happy with having constructed for herself and her household. “I strive to not cry. I inform the youngsters that they’re protected, and that at the least we’ll go house someday. I really like Ukraine, I actually do.”

The household’s room is on the highest flooring of the home, which is related to an attic. Angelina and Kostya are thrilled by the slanted roof above their beds, and it’s a perpetual supply of amusement for them.

On chilly nights, Lesya likes to face on the balcony and gaze out onto the majestic peaks of the Carpathian vary. If she closes her eyes, she will virtually imagine she is again house in Buda, watching the final snowfall of the yr.

A photo of three children sitting in a room. one is on the computer, the other is sitting next to him and the third child is standing behind them.
Grichuk kids of their room on the highest flooring [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

The video games room

When college finishes for the day, the youngsters excitedly spill into the video games room. A day of billiards, playing cards and toys awaits them. Weronika Łukaszayk’s niece, a toddler who seems to be about three or 4, prattles on in Polish to Olena Grichuk, who’s about the identical age. Regardless of not having the ability to perceive one another’s language, the 2 kids keep on enjoying merrily. Subsequent to the billiards desk, the ladies of the home chat over cups of tea.

Mia, just a little white canine that belongs to a household from Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, pads across the room sniffing at everybody’s heels. She has lately been shaved so her look is comical, with a big fluffy head juxtaposed in opposition to skinny legs. Every so often, one of many kids picks her up and provides her a cuddle.

A photo of One of the Grichuk children playing billiards with a volunteer.
One of many Grichuk kids enjoying billiards with a volunteer [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Room 1

Iryna Melnyk, 40, is in an odd state of affairs. On March 6, alongside together with her daughters Anna, 16, and Marharyta, 7, she fled her house in Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine for the protection of Warsaw, the place one in all her aunts has been staying for a few years. Lower than a month later, as a psychiatrist by coaching, she is in Zakopane, providing counselling classes to the Ukrainian girls residing within the three homes. She’s going to simply be right here for just a few days however she will already inform that a few of them are fighting the shock and trauma of the struggle. “However they’re actually robust, and I do know they’ll handle,” she says.

She exudes a resolute calm that’s soothing for the ladies that she meets, however she has not been in a position herself to course of the occasions of the previous few weeks. Her personal expertise has allowed her to attach powerfully with the ladies. “Polish folks have been actually sort to us, however even then, they will’t absolutely perceive what’s occurring, as a result of it hasn’t occurred to them. After I hear to those girls, I see myself of their sneakers. I’ve to attempt to be a physician to them, not a pal,” she says.

Her personal future is unsure. To proceed practising as a psychiatrist in Poland, she has to use for knowledgeable licence, for which she should attain a sure stage of proficiency in Polish. “I hope that the federal government right here will create a system that makes it simpler for me to work right here. There’s a lot to do, and loads of weak girls and youngsters from Ukraine actually need psychological well being assist,” she explains. Days after we met, the Polish well being minister, Adam Niedzielski, introduced in a press convention in Wrocław that employment procedures can be simplified for medical employees from Ukraine who’re searching for refuge within the nation. Poland’s healthcare system has been severely understaffed for many years – an issue exacerbated by the pandemic – and there are strategies that Ukrainian nurses and docs may fill the hole.

A photo of a street with houses and telephone poles.
The ten minute stroll to the native grocery store [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Life in Ukraine had not been a mattress of roses for Iryna. For 12 years, she had labored at a hospital the place the salaries had been poor and the hours had been unforgiving; the common month-to-month wage of physicians in Ukraine is 54,000 hryvnias ($1,800). After Marharyta was born, she turned her curiosity in cosmetology right into a facet gig, opening a small clinic the place she provided skincare remedies. Her husband Vasily, 38, her school sweetheart whom she married of their fourth yr of medical college, had additionally made the swap early on to work within the pharmaceutical trade as a substitute, as there was extra money in it than the medical career. Collectively, each of them had been in a position to eke out a extra snug life for themselves and their daughters.

Iryna made up her thoughts to depart Ukraine on March 4 when she noticed footage of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – the most important in Europe – being attacked by Russia. “I used to be actually scared it might be the subsequent Chernobyl. I couldn’t put my daughters via it,” she remembers. It took her 27 hours to reach in Warsaw. Each her daughters at the moment are enrolled at school and are adjusting pretty effectively to learning abroad.

During the last month, she has met with different girls in Warsaw who approached her for counselling. Often, they discover her via phrase of mouth. A number of are terrified that their every day existence is precarious and hinges upon the generosity of the Polish state, which can run dry someday.

I ask Iryna about her personal emotional response to the struggle. Her self-possession wavers for a fraction of a second. With disappointment in her voice, she says, “For a very long time, I dreamt of coming to Europe. In the previous few weeks, I lastly bought to discover Warsaw. It’s a phenomenal metropolis. However now that I’m right here, I really feel completely nothing.”

A photo of the Grichuk family standing outside in the snow with a woman and four children around her.
The Grichuk household within the yard [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Contained in the second house

Rooms 4 and 5

Contemporary-faced and together with her hair pulled again in a thick braid, 21-year-old Diana Oliynyk seems to be serene as she wraps her dozing toddler daughter in a heat blanket. Yeva is simply 5 months previous, born shortly earlier than the struggle. “I knew we needed to transfer,” Diana says. “We heard about locations throughout our house that had been being bombed.” As she gently rocks Yeva to sleep, her son Marko, 2, totters across the room, pulling open drawers and peering inside them to see if he can discover any toys.

Diana is from Miakoty, a village with little greater than 1,000 residents situated in western Ukraine. She ran a hair salon from her residence, and enterprise was brisk. “I began by giving reductions to my associates each time I reduce their hair. Once they realised that I used to be fairly good at it, they referred me to different folks they knew,” she says. Alongside together with her husband Mykhaylo, 22, a builder and mechanic, Diana was saving as much as purchase a much bigger home for her increasing household. Now their plans have been thwarted.

Within the months previous to the struggle, she had additionally taken an curiosity in environmental justice. “I used to be considering of establishing a waste recycling enterprise in our space. It’s not simply eco-friendly, there’s good cash in it. However I simply have to attend, and hope there’s nonetheless a chance sooner or later for me to do it,” she says with a smile.

The home has 16 occupants in whole, and 14 are members of Diana’s household. The lady she calls her mother-in-law, Monika Chernyeska, 37, is a Benedictine nun who took Mykhaylo into her care when he was little. He was one in all 11 kids that Monika adopted from orphanages throughout Ukraine. The remainder of the youngsters have gone to high school, leaving Yeva and Marko – who’re too younger – at house. Rosy-cheeked Monika busies herself within the kitchen, making ready borscht and cake in anticipation of many hungry stomachs when the youngsters come house from college.

“I at all times felt that it was my calling to take care of as many kids as I may,” Monika explains as she sits down for a fast breather. “Mykhaylo is my oldest son. Among the kids’s organic mother and father are nonetheless alive, however could have issues like alcoholism and drug dependancy. It’s their selection whether or not or not they wish to be in contact with their mother and father. My function is to assist them develop up in a loving household.”

A photo of Monika Chernyeska and children make dinner.
Monika Chernyeska and a number of the kids make dinner [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

As a nun, Monika is of modest means. Her sole revenue got here from making souvenirs and sweets for spiritual celebrations. With 11 kids to look after, she sought monetary help from Catholic organisations from everywhere in the world. She managed to cobble collectively roughly 100,000 hryvnias ($3,300) each month to cowl the household’s bills. The monastery the place she lived additionally supplied her with some funding to revive a derelict home within the city of Bilohirya, a brief 33km (20 miles) away from the residence that Diana and Mykhaylo moved to after they bought married. Till the struggle, Monika had been residing on this home with Mykhaylo’s foster siblings.

The day the struggle began – February 24 – was additionally her birthday. “We had been simply 50km (31 miles) away from the place a number of the preventing was happening,” she says. “We didn’t see any bombs falling, however we noticed the planes and tanks.” She instantly contacted some monks in Poland whom she knew, they usually quickly made preparations to obtain her household. One other Benedictine monk provided to drive all of them – together with Diana and her two kids – to the Polish border. They arrived in Zakopane on March 4, drained and disoriented.

Monika has solely condemnation for the Russian military. “The issues they’re doing are horrible, they’re not human. And as for Putin, I’m certain atypical residents are petrified of him after years of totalitarianism. However they have to know that blood can be partly on their palms,” she says.

For now, Monika and Diana take coronary heart in the concept the struggle is not going to final endlessly and within the sanguine prospect of being reunited with their households quickly. Diana worries about Mykhaylo and her mom, who selected to stay in Miakoty. “I’ve requested the native kindergarten if I can work there as an assistant,” Monika says. “I converse Polish, Russian and Ukrainian. I wish to make myself helpful.”

The eating room

At 4:30pm on Tuesdays, the eating room is a hive of exercise. Jadniga Trebunia, a instructor from Poronin, a city that may be a 12-minute drive away from Zakopane, is right here to ship a Polish language lesson to the youngsters in the home. The grownup occupants of the opposite two homes are additionally inspired to attend.

“I’ve by no means carried out something like this earlier than,” Jadniga admits as she pulls a stack of Polish textbooks and worksheets out of her bag to distribute to the eight kids who’re right here for her class. “However I believe it’s actually necessary for them to be taught Polish, it would make it simpler for them to get used to residing right here,” she provides. As a pal of the household that owns the three homes, Jadniga was very happy to assist the refugees’ cultural integration. As we speak, one of many moms from the home subsequent door has additionally chosen to attend.

“Repeat after me now,” Jadniga says as she pins to the wall a big sheet of paper the place she has scrawled Polish verb conjugations. The youngsters dutifully take notes and imitate her pronunciation of the phrases. Within the adjoining kitchen, dinner is being ready by Monika; the scent of buttery mashed potatoes wafts into the room.

A photo of Jadniga Trebunia distributing Polish worksheets.
Jadniga Trebunia distributes Polish worksheets [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Room unknown

Battle is sort of a curse that has adopted 41-year-old Iryna Lipkova for the final 10 years. Her household is from Luhansk, now one of many nation’s most embattled areas, ripped aside by struggle since 2014. In 2012, Iryna moved to Kyiv for just a few years earlier than getting married and settling down in Irpin. There, she labored as a maths instructor in a major college.

At 9am on March 6, an enormous blast reverberated outdoors Iryna’s residence. Hurriedly filling some baggage with their garments, she and her daughter Nadiya, 6, headed with their neighbour to the central prepare station in Irpin by minibus. The bus trip there was nerve-racking. “The driving force saved swerving due to the capturing,” she remembers. They arrived on the station to search out that it was additionally in a state of pandemonium. Folks had been ready on the platform for hours, solely to be informed that the trains may not depart due to injury to the tracks attributable to shelling.

Iryna and Nadiya had been pressured to flee on foot. Their belongings had been too cumbersome to lug alongside, in order that they deserted them on the prepare station. As gunfire rattled round them, they rigorously made their manner throughout a bridge linking Irpin and Kyiv, which had been demolished by the Ukrainian military to sluggish the Russian advance. “Troopers helped us carry our issues over this makeshift walkway,” Iryna says. 1000’s of others had been with them, many fully incapacitated by misery and grief. From Kyiv, Iryna and Nadiya instantly took a prepare to Lviv, the most important metropolis in western Ukraine which, at that time, had been free from heavy bombardment. “We stayed with my family members for one night time, and the subsequent morning they drove us to the Polish border,” Iryna says. On the automobile trip there, a colleague from her college bought in contact to inform her about the home in Zakopane. It took one other day to get to the home, with the assistance of volunteer drivers in Krakow.

A photo of Iryna Lipsova and Nadiya standing in front of windows with floral curtains.
Iryna Lipsova and Nadiya within the eating room of one of many homes [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Nadiya can be going to high school like the opposite kids, however she is extra reserved than traditional. “She understands that there’s a struggle, and that’s why we’re right here,” Iryna says. It has been tough for Iryna to proceed educating her college students on-line, with Irpin being on the forefront of Russia’s most brutal assaults. Every single day, she waits in trepidation for a name from her husband Yevgenii, who additionally fled Irpin for Lviv just a few days after she did, ready for the violence to subside.

Iryna misses studying – her favorite creator is Stephen King – however she introduced no books and finds it exhausting to focus anyway. “I don’t know my room quantity right here, I simply go straight in,” she says expressionlessly.

Contained in the third house

Rooms 8 and 9

In terms of home chores, 27-year-old Lyudmila Sydor is sort of a fish out of water. She dreads her activate the cleansing roster, which the ladies collectively got here up with. “I miss working with heavy machines,” Lyudmila says, her stern manner giving method to the smallest of smiles. She exhibits me pictures and movies of herself at work. Her cellphone accommodates footage of her mixing concrete in a barrel. In one other image, she is driving a truck together with her 10-month-old son Matviy on her lap and her two-year-old daughter Zlata seated subsequent to her. She finds it exhausting to include her deep ardour for gruelling labour and whereas she is going to quickly begin working as a waitress on the McDonald’s in Zakopane, Lyudmila would a lot moderately be on a building web site, doing what she loves.

Lyudmila and her husband ran an organization supplying constructing supplies to companies and people within the western Ukrainian metropolis of Ternopil. They commonly labored from 8am to 1am in busy intervals, and one in all Lyudmila’s favorite duties was driving the truck to ship concrete slabs to her prospects. “We had been simply doing effectively sufficient to rent 4 different employees,” she says.

Ternopil has remained unscathed from the relentless shelling sustained by different elements of Ukraine. Nonetheless, Lyudmila felt it was finest to go someplace safer due to her house’s proximity to a military barracks, a first-rate goal for the Russians. She drove her household – together with her mom Olha, 50, sisters Ulyana and Nadezhda, 16 and 10, and her two kids – throughout the border to Poland. Except for her husband, Lyudmila left behind two brothers: 23-year-old Volodymyr, who lives with a incapacity, and 19-year-old Oleh, who was initially conscripted to affix the military however is now on depart. “The sounds from the bombing precipitated loads of issues along with his head,” Lyudmila says, alluding to a deteriorating psychological well being concern. Oleh additionally has a spouse who’s pregnant.

Her daughter Zlata has not taken effectively in any respect to her new setting, crying usually and waking each few hours from nightmares.

A photo of Olha Sydor and her belongings in her room, holding up family portrait.
Olha Sydor exhibits a photograph of her household on her cellphone [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

The Sydor household shares two rooms on the highest flooring of the home. Olha spends her time caring for her grandchildren and her youngest daughter Nadezhda. Candy-natured and softly spoken, Olha has recognized hardship for many of her life. The struggle is merely the most recent episode within the collection of misfortunes which have plagued her.

She was raised in a kind of orphanage within the metropolis of Zalishchyky often known as an internat – a kind of boarding college the place kids with numerous disabilities can reside and examine, with the choice to go to their houses over the weekends. Though she was informed by lecturers that she had a light mental incapacity, she by no means came upon what it was.

Most of the kids, like Olha, weren’t in reality orphans. Their mother and father had been alive however had been mired in substance abuse or had been in a continuing state of inebriation – that means that the state usually intervened to position these kids beneath its care. “A few of my classmates did get to go house on Sunday. I actually wished to have someplace to go, however I didn’t know my household,” Olha says.

The internat could have a notoriously deplorable status in Ukraine, with many such establishments accused of abusing kids of their care, however Olha says she was fortunate: “We bought books, sweets, and garments.” When she was eight, she wrote a letter to a very benevolent instructor, requesting assist in finding her delivery mother and father. The instructor succeeded in monitoring down her mother and father. Olha sought out her mom however was so appalled by her alcoholism that she determined to not pursue a relationship together with her.

With few employment prospects after leaving college, Olha took a job as a cleaner. She may barely make ends meet, and her ex-husband – Lyudmila’s father – was himself a heavy drinker. Volodymyr, Oleh and Lyudmila had been all given as much as an orphanage for a number of months at numerous factors. “I labored very, very exhausting to earn sufficient to get them again,” Olha says.

She is raring to share anecdotes from her life, clicking her tongue impatiently each time a photograph is not going to load on her cellphone as a result of poor connection in her room. On the desk subsequent to the mattress, she retains a small stuffed toy canine, some of the treasured objects she took together with her when she fled. “This can be a fortunate appeal from my grandmother,” she says.

Quickly, Nadezhda will return from college, and Olha can not wait to hug her. “I’ve by no means had a lot training,” she says shyly. “I can’t train my kids effectively, so the one factor I can do is give all of them the love they deserve.”

A photo of homes in Zakopane with Tatras Mountains on the horizon.
Properties in Zakopane with the Tatras Mountains on the horizon [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

Room 3

Two flooring beneath the Sydors lives Anna Karpovna Polachek, 80, who everybody affectionately calls “babka”, or “grandmother”. She is the oldest particular person in all three homes. A wizened girl who is commonly wrapped in shawls and sweaters, Polachek has been reflecting on the irony of getting her childhood and previous age marked by carnage. “I can’t imagine I’ve to maneuver although I’m already so previous,” she says melancholically.

She was born into chaos, spending her infancy in a trench dug by her mom and a bunch of different girls in an try to cover from the Nazis as they invaded Ukraine throughout WWII. When she was simply 12, she went to work on a Soviet sovkhoz – a state-owned farm – to assist her mom, who had been critically injured within the struggle. “I milked the cows, did every kind of agricultural labour, and finally went to work in a manufacturing unit,” she says.

A photo of Anna Poluchek sitting on a bed.
Anna Poluchek in her room [Amandas Ong/Al Jazeera]

In March, town the place she lived, Zhytomyr, endured air and missile raids that destroyed residential buildings and precipitated extreme injury to a thermal electrical energy plant and two hospitals. Together with two of her daughters, Natalya and Svetlana, Anna made up her thoughts to depart. They first stayed in Lviv, then entered a Polish city with a reputation she doesn’t keep in mind. There, they slept in a hangar that had been repurposed to accommodate refugees earlier than Natalya discovered a volunteer who directed them to the home in Zakopane.

Anna sobs uncontrollably when she talks about her 28-year-old grandson, Sergiy, who has epilepsy and schizophrenia, and lives in a facility for folks with a psychological sickness in Ukraine. “I actually want he may have simply include us,” she says.

She ambles slowly up the steps to point out me her room. Amongst her scant possessions are her passport, a small cabinet stuffed with medicine for hypertension, and a few wool blankets. “That is all we have now now,” she says. As I bid her goodbye, she clutches my palms and begins crying once more. “Woman, you’re younger,” she says. “I hope you’ve gotten an excellent life. Might God bless you, and will you by no means must reside via this.”

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