Budapest, 17 April 2023 – The journey from Kharkiv to Budapest was long and difficult for 14-year-old Sasha and his family. A passionate swimmer who had been training uninterruptedly for nine years, preparing for the Olympics, his plans – like those of so many others – had been derailed by war.

Back in Ukraine, Sasha was a substitute member of the Olympic swimming team and participated in several national competitions.

“I used to get up every morning at five o’clock and was already in training by six. After that, I would go to school, and in the afternoon, there was swim training again,” Sasha recalls. “Then I would go home to do my homework. This is what I did every single day for nine years. I was only able to rest a little on Sundays,” he adds.

Sasha, his mother and younger brother fled Ukraine after the war escalated, while his father remained in the country to serve in the military. Photo: IOM Hungary 2023/Kristóf Hölvényi

When the war escalated in February 2022, Sasha and his family made the difficult decision to leave their home in Kharkiv in search of safety. After first seeking shelter in a neighbouring village, Sasha, his mother and younger brother eventually left Ukraine after realizing there was no immediate end to the war in sight. His father remained behind to serve at a military garrison. “I haven't seen him since we left Ukraine, almost a year ago,” Sasha explains.

Upon their arrival in Germany, Sasha and his family encountered challenging living conditions in their temporary accommodation. “It was a very difficult period. There were a lot of us living in a hangar, young and old, healthy and sick together,” Sasha recalls. As a result, they continued onward until reaching Hungary in March 2022.

For the first three months, they lived in Bábolna where his mother found work at a poultry factory. After reaching Tata, some 30 kilometers away, Sasha and his family met staff from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who helped them find a place to live in Budapest, where they have remained since last July.

IOM helped Sasha and his family to find lodging in Budapest, where they are currently residing. Photo: IOM Hungary 2023/Kristóf Hölvényi

For Sasha, although it has been painful to leave behind his life in Ukraine, Hungary represents a new beginning. He found a local swim team with whom he can continue to train and compete, while his mom found a job at a bakery. Once again, he wakes up early to train each morning before taking his little brother to kindergarten and going to school, resuming his swim training in the evening after his classes end. “Training helps you survive because it keeps you busy and takes your mind off the war,” says Sasha.

Sasha is adjusting to his new life in Hungary, where he continues to train in the hopes of someday winning an Olympic medal in swimming for Ukraine. Photo: IOM Hungary 2023/Kristóf Hölvényi

In Budapest, Sasha has two Hungarian trainers who motivate him every day at the pool. The training, while slightly different than what he was used to at home, is just as rigorous. He swims five kilometres per day and lifts weights to boost his physical strength. Despite being displaced by war, Sasha is holding on to his longtime dream of someday participating in the Olympic Games and winning a medal for Ukraine. 

In the meantime, Sasha is attending a Ukrainian school in Budapest while continuing his original studies online. He is also busy learning the local language and customs. “The Hungarian language is difficult for now, but I'm trying,” Sasha says with a laugh. “I fit in easily and I already have friends. I like electric scooters, they are fast, and with friends, we can easily explore hidden parts of the city.”

Since 24 February 2022, IOM Hungary has supported nearly 23,000 Ukrainians and third-country nationals as part of its emergency response. Accommodation and other critical assistance for those affected by the war in Ukraine are made possible through the generous support of the United States of America – Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM).

This story was written by Anna Gergely, Media and Communications Officer, IOM Hungary,

If you are interested in donating to Ukraine relief efforts, please visit IOM’s fundraising page.  

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