Bratislava/Košice, 27 March 2023 – Yuliia and her 11-year-old daughter, Eva, lived in a small town close to Dnipro, Ukraine, enjoying a quiet and pleasant life together. At first, when the full-scale war started in February 2022, Yuliia didn’t want to leave Ukraine. “I hesitated for a long time. I could not imagine leaving my family and my homeland. I felt like I would betray them,” she says.
Uncertain about the future, Yuliia recalls moments when she and her daughter hid in the bathroom, terrified, constantly checking the phone for security alerts. They struggled to find basic groceries, like bread and flour, in stores. When Yuliia realized she could no longer feed her daughter, she knew she had to leave Ukraine. “I decided to go for the sake of my child, Eva. If I were alone, I wouldn’t have left, to be honest.”
A few years before, Eva underwent a kidney transplant and ever since has needed medication that weakens her immune system. The day they started packing, her health took a turn for the worse due to stress and the strong medicine she had been taking since the surgery. As she was holding Eva in her arms, Yuliia realized that the situation would only become more dire. “We took just her medicines and some warm clothes. Everything that we could fit into one suitcase,” she explains.
Leaving Ukraine was particularly hard for Yuliia, but she knew she had to overcome her fear and do what was best for her and her daughter. “There was no other way for us. I had to say goodbye to my mother, my friends. We all hugged and cried. I cannot even describe the pain with words,” Yuliia recalls. They headed to Slovakia without knowing if they would ever see their family again.
Upon their arrival in Slovakia, Yuliia began searching for accommodation in Bratislava. She needed an individual flat with private amenities to keep Eva safe, away from infection risks. She learned about a short-term housing programme organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in partnership with Airbnb.org through which she was able to receive a one-bedroom flat for herself and her daughter in Bratislava.
“I really like it here in Slovakia. It is close to Ukraine. The mentality is very similar to ours. People are open and sincere,” she says. Yuliia, who was a professional makeup artist in Ukraine, will soon complete a training to work for a newly opened beauty centre in Bratislava. She is also taking Slovak language courses organized by IOM.
Larysa and her husband, Serhii, ran a small tourism agency in Kyiv for 25 years. After the war escalated, with their jobs on hold they became full-time volunteers, assisting internally displaced Ukrainians who were fleeing violence in the eastern part of the country and seeking help in the capital. Their volunteer organization distributed food, hygiene kits, warm clothes, and basic information for displaced people in Kyiv.
“The most important thing for us was to comfort and protect Ukrainian children so they don’t feel the impact of war and can still have a safe childhood,” Larysa says while showing pictures and videos from a charity event they organized in a neighbouring school. Despite their exhaustion, Larysa and Serhii managed to help the people around them for eight months.
Everything changed once again with the arrival of winter. Energy supplies became unstable. “In Kyiv, we no longer have a regular supply of electricity; we don’t have water or central heating,” Larysa explains. “What’s worse, there are bombings all the time. We don’t have a proper shelter close to our home to protect us in case of an explosion.”
The couple decided to go to Slovakia and live abroad until the end of the war. “That’s where we found out about IOM’s housing assistance programme in Košice and were very relieved that a place was immediately available for us. We don’t know how long the war will last, but we needed to feel safe for a while,” Serhii says.
“We want to go home once the war is over. Our lives, families and hearts are in Ukraine,” adds Larysa. Like Yuliia, the couple started attending Slovak language courses organized by IOM. “We want to adapt as much as possible and try to settle into a new life. We are so thankful to everyone that helped us on our way to safety.”
Through its partnership with Airbnb.org, IOM has provided short-term accommodation in Slovakia to nearly 600 people coming from Ukraine. IOM’s housing assistance programme in Košice has provided mid-term lodging to over 100 refugees so far.
Since the war escalated in Ukraine, IOM has been assisting people fleeing to Slovakia with support ranging from temporary accommodation to food and necessary material items, mental health and psychosocial support, among others. In addition, IOM is building the capacity of frontline workers in counter-trafficking and in the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.
As the war enters its second year, focus has shifted towards the integration of those who fled into Slovak society. This includes the provision of housing within improved transitional centres, legal, social and job counseling, Slovak language courses, and support to access education for children and find long-term housing.
Written by Kristína Lenárt and Dušana Štecová, IOM Slovakia.