Poland / Slovakia / Romania, 3 June 2022 – “A woman recently came up to me and said she had nowhere to go. She needed a place to stay and told me she didn’t care where,” Julia recounts. “She was laughing, but I could tell she wasn’t amused.”
The war in Ukraine has forced all kinds of people to escape. Julia, who works as an Information Assistant with IOM in Poland, sees poor and rich people alike arriving at the border every day – all of them fleeing the same horrors.
Julia is originally from Zhytomyr, about 100 kilometres from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Her hometown used to be quiet and calm, but it is no longer safe. When the war started, her sister fled to Czechia, but her parents are still in Ukraine. Her mother told her the other day that it was the first time in a very long time that the sirens hadn’t gone off. She was happy to finally be able to get some sleep.
“Poland has become my home,” says Julia, who moved from Ukraine seven years ago when the company she was working for opened a branch in Poland. “When I met my now husband, he had a daughter and so did I and now we have a child together. As we say in Ukrainian, ‘tviy, miy i nash’, yours, mine and ours – all living under the same roof.”
When the war started, Julia decided to cut short her maternity leave because she wanted to help. “I have lived here for many years and I speak Polish, so I knew I could be of use to those fleeing,” she explains. Her job now entails providing reliable information to people arriving at the border crossing point in Hrebenne, in southeastern Poland.
Since she joined IOM, Julia has heard countless stories. She recently met a woman from Chernihiv who told her that the town had been under attack for three weeks and that the people who still lived there had no access to water or sanitation facilities.
“Her entire neighbourhood was destroyed. She fled with her mother and son who is epileptic. When they arrived in Poland, she asked where she could get medical care for him. I cried as she told me her story.”
Working in Hrebenne is not easy, but Julia finds it rewarding. However, she knows that, unlike her, most Ukrainians will yearn to return home when the war ends.
“These days, I think a lot about that woman from Chernihiv. Before we parted ways, she said to me, ‘We will rebuild our cities, we will rebuild Ukraine’ – and I believe her.”
When Yelyzaveta woke up on 24 February and saw on the news that Ukraine had been invaded, the first thing she did was to take out her suitcase. “We didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to be prepared to leave,” she explains.
She was living in Zaporizhzhia, in southeastern Ukraine, with her mother and grandparents, who were more hesitant to flee the country than she was. They could barely sleep and there was no time to eat, because during their meal, the air siren would go off without exception and they would have to take shelter in a bunker.
“I was getting more nervous, anxious, afraid, with each day that passed,” Yelyzaveta says. After five days that went on like this, she decided to make her way to Slovakia, where her father worked. She had to leave her mother and grandparents behind. “My grandparents didn’t want to leave. With elderly people, home is home.”
Three days and several train rides later, she arrived in Nitra, Slovakia. The company her father worked for was helping Ukrainian staff and their families, making sure they had a safe place to stay. Halina spent the next two weeks in a dormitory, racking her brains about what she wanted to do next.
As the days went by, the most difficult part was realizing that, for now at least, she wouldn’t be able to achieve all the goals that she had set for herself. Even if the war ended tomorrow and she went back to Ukraine, the impact will be long-lasting.
She is slowly getting used to this new reality, she says, but some days are tougher than others. “Sometimes, I feel like I have survivor’s guilt – that I am here and safe, while others have it worse.”
One day, as she was browsing for jobs, she saw on IOM Slovakia’s website that they were hiring people – Ukrainian speakers in particular – to provide information and counselling to those fleeing the war. Yelyzaveta longed to do something to help others and this seemed like the perfect fit. She is now part of an IOM team that rotates every few days between the three main border crossings and Michalovce, where the large-scale registration centre is located.
“It can be lonely sometimes – I don’t really have friends or hobbies yet – and emotionally challenging to hear people’s stories,” she expresses. “However, it can also feel very rewarding. I am here to offer a helping hand to those who need to process everything they just went through.”
Yana says she is no stranger to war and much less this one. “The bombing, the bunker, the air siren… It’s crazy how fast one gets used to all of this; how fast this becomes the new normal.”
When the war unfolded in the Donbas region in Ukraine in 2014, Yana fled to Odessa. Her mother, who lived in another city under the now Russian-occupied region, found it impossible to join her daughter. With basic infrastructure and telecommunications damaged, there was no means for Yana to reach her mother or for her mother to reach her.
“We didn’t speak for a month; I had no idea what had happened to her,” Yana recalls.
After her food supplies ended and telecommunications resumed, Yana’s mother finally made her way to Odessa, where Yana had, in the meantime, found a flat and a job.
So when things took a turn for the worse this February, Yana was determined to not relive the same things. “You know that feeling when you are waiting for something to happen because something will absolutely happen, but you just don’t know when.”
She swiftly packed her bags and asked a friend to drive her to the border with the Republic of Moldova, together with her 61-year-old mother and their dachshund. Once she crossed to Palanca, at Moldova’s border with Ukraine, Yana boarded one of IOM’s fast-track buses bound for Romania. The very same day Yana was travelling, a group of IOM staff from Romania was also visiting Palanca to assess the situation on the ground and officially launch the fast-track transfer.
Fluent in English, Yana offered to translate and explain the assistance available to her fellow travellers. The staff were impressed not only with Yana’s language skills but also with her people skills.
A few days later, she started her new job with IOM. As part of her work, she now regularly conducts interviews with people who have fled the war to provide them with tailored assistance and accommodation through IOM’s partnership with Airbnb.org.
“Every day, I learn something new about my own rights and what services are available to me.” Yana feels that people are more open about their needs knowing she has fled the very same place they did.
A few days ago, she found accommodation for a family who had arrived in Romania with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their 19-year-old daughter has cerebral palsy and their son, who stayed behind to fight in the war, was recently severely injured. “I really wanted to do something for them – anything – to make everything just a little bit better,” Yana explains.
Written by Jorge Galindo, Miko Alazas and Monica Chiriac