Long before the Russian aggression, the world learned where Ukraine was and where those hard-working people who came in search of a better life were from. Although there were a lot of tourists among those who went abroad, mostly they were migrant workers. This made the country’s already bad demographic situation even worse. According to the State Border Guard Service, almost 3.3 million people left Ukraine between 2011 and 2021. The number of those who left significantly decreased after 2014, and there was a positive trend in 2020, when the coronavirus made Ukrainians return home en masse. In total, 2.6 million Ukrainians did not return home during the decade.
The war opened all the floodgates, and a real flow of immigrants moved into Europe. It was a forced, but such a desirable journey to a large, rich home, and that desire of Ukrainians to become part of Europe to some extent caused Russia’s military attack.
Today, being safe, people are discovering a new world, trying to adapt to unusual traditions and rules, accumulating strength for a new post-war period of their lives.
I am one of those who do not have a home. In six months, I’ve lived in 6 countries, 8 cities, slept in 15 beds. That’s the statistics. I have a very cozy apartment on the seventh floor, facing a road to the temple, but it is in a city where time has stopped and where I cannot breathe. Therefore, in April, I put a few things in my backpack, threw my apartment keys in there and left.
It was cold in Odesa, very cold… I lived in a huge apartment in the city center – white walls, furniture from Ikea, designer lamps. And all that was free. Humanitarian aid of a professor from Cambridge, a Ukrainian.
Privoz, Passage, coffee with a view of anti-tank structures, wind from the sea, dreams of a warm sweater.
I met Odesa volunteers from the Christian center. Fragile Aniechka brought me two sweaters – one the color of fire, the other of ashes. They were very warm.
I spent the next day with them. I went to humanitarian warehouses, to a shelter for refugees, to the train station, where they handed out sandwiches, juice and apples.
Hundreds of people waited for evacuation trains in a bomb shelter at the Odesa train station. Children sat quietly next to adults, who stared at the wall, did not respond, as if numbed by the finality of the choice to become refugees and the horror of the future.
Aniechka handed out sandwiches, whispered something, straightened someone’s clothes, stroked someone’s arm, persuaded someone to take another sandwich or juice. She seemed to be lightening up all that basement horror, and people slowly came to life. That was the first time I cried, looking into the faces of those fleeing the war. Ania comforted me by straightening my ash-colored sweater.
Then we went to the old Odesa yards to distribute humanitarian kits. Women of all ages lined up waiting. We called them one by one and handed out heavy bags of food. They thanked and asked for medicine. All the while, our driver Illiusha was sitting in the car, giving a lecture to students of the technical university in a fine-tuned voice. Something about ships and cargo.
A day later, Illiusha and Ania took us to Palanka, wished us a good journey and returned to Odesa to volunteer and teach.
Somewhere near Chisinau…
Moldovan volunteers met us in Palanka. Students. They gave us food and sent us to a refugee camp located somewhere near Chisinau. It was a Christian camp. Brother Ian received us.
Two women from Odesa, two women from Mykolayiv, and two women from Kherson were accommodated in a small room. They had been there for the second week and had not decided yet where to go next.
The refugee shelter, located somewhere in the steppes between Transnistria and Moldova, had strict laws. You could glorify only Christ and had to follow the routine. One of the newcomers was expelled from that Christian paradise for saying “Glory to the Heroes!”
We stayed for two days, debated with Brother Ian about ethics and told the inspectors from Romania that the horrors of the Russian occupation were real, that the picture from Russian TV channels did not correspond to real life. They believed us. It was May, and a war was going on somewhere far away…
The road to Germany
We traveled to Munich on a huge comfortable bus. Women, old people, two male parents of many children, a lot of kids, dogs, cats – in two days all of us fell in love with a German family couple of volunteers. They never got tired to entertain the kids, brought them juice, cookies, fruit, and water. They played games and smiled.
Countries flew past the window – green Romania, gloomy Hungary, pastoral Austria. At gas stations in Romania they gave us cola, in Austria all children were given ice cream.
A huge volunteer center at the train station in Munich handed out cups of hot, thick soup and coffee. Next to us, a Romani camp was taking a rest. They left their place in Transcarpathia and rushed along European roads, singing and dancing on German trains.
My stop is Halle. A small ancient city, the birthplace of Handel, with a tower and a market on the central square sheltered Ukrainians, opened all its museums, organized excursions, events, contests for children. It generously shared spring sunshine and delicious strawberries with Ukrainians. And humanitarian aid, which was distributed at volunteer stations to those who had arrived with a few things in their bags. Special attention was given to kids –the best food, clothes, toys, groups, psychologists, doctors… And for adults – language courses, job and study offers, humanitarian packages.
Bansted and Sutton
I changed small cozy Halle for huge London. I got to London suburbs under the “Home for Ukrainians” program. I overcame distances, language imbalances, mastered the culture that I supposedly knew from books, movies, and conversations with London friends. Reality was different from Jane Austen’s novels and BBC series. Myths and reality eventually became a single puzzle, but the picture turned out to be quite mixed.
A special place in it was occupied by the part that can be conventionally called humanitarian. At Stansted airport, I saw the first volunteer station, where a chubby red-haired British man explained for a long time what I was entitled to. I understood almost everything and took the opportunity to travel to my destination for free.
Then there was rich Bansted, where I lived for a while on the top floor of a cottage, along with pets: three cats Lucifer, Felix, Stravinsky and two snakes Igor and Stepan of indeterminate sex. The owners of the house and all those pets took me to the nearby town of Epsom, where there was a large volunteer center. The center was run by two dried English roses – real ladies in tweed suits and with a string of pearls. They perfectly corresponded to the type widely reproduced in British movies. Lady Nina complained that the Bansted public did nothing for their refugees, they delegated everything to Epsom, gave me a huge bag and made a royal gesture – pick what you want.
There were big boxes with packages, sachets, cans, bags all around the center. You could take anything and a lot. And people did. There were also racks with clothes and boxes with shoes. At the volunteer center, you could sign up for language courses, which were held there twice a week. There was a children’s room, and teenagers, sitting comfortably on the table, spoke in an amazing mixture of English and Ukrainian.
At the center, I also received an invitation to a party, intensive language courses at the college and an invitation to tea from volunteer Jane, who lived in Banstead.
In Sutton, a more democratic area of London, where I moved because of my incompatibility with snakes, the volunteer center was served by two plump women who were so worried about Ukraine that they gave me all their treasures – the most delicious jams, candies, cookies…
They insisted on giving me a winter jacket, but I said that I would definitely be home in the winter, and I had my favorite warm jacket there, so I didn’t need an extra one. The entire center escorted me to the exit, invited to the church to sing Ukrainian songs together. I promised, but did not keep the promise, because I decided to return home to Ukraine.
Poland met me with real warmth. Both human and meteorological. Summer, June, greenery… The Poles gave me food at all train stations, issued a free ticket to Przemyśl, gave me a bunch of sandwiches there and sent to spend the night in a gym. The train to Kyiv was leaving the next morning.
In a car that took me to a school in a Polish village, I met a couple. She was a fiery Roma, and he – a quiet, intelligent Armenian who considered himself Ukrainian. They wandered around Europe in search of shelter. I think I persuaded them to fly to Ireland. At night, as I was lying on a hard folding bed, I heard a telephone conversation. They suggested their entire Roma family flying to Ireland. And I was going to Kyiv.
How can I not love you, my Kyiv…
I rented an almost empty apartment in Lukyanivka. They gave me a pillow, a blanket, a cup and a pan. Everything else had to be found somewhere.
I looked for volunteers and humanitarian centers. In Kyiv, you can get humanitarian aid in the area of actual residence. I found a humanitarian center in a kindergarten, waited in a short line, got a large box with food – there were even almonds and chocolate. On the second floor, where there was a small storage room, I found sheets, pillowcases, T-shirts and pants.
People of Kherson were allowed to attend theater performances humanitarianly, i.e. without tickets. There were also lectures on history organized for them. At the Kyiv markets, when they found out that you are from the occupied south, they gave you greens, vegetables and even flowers. And life was beautiful until, on the morning of June 26, four missiles fell under the open window of my rented apartment. I stopped sleeping. And decided to go to Chernivtsi, a region where no missiles had ever landed.
An entangled city where streets intersect and make you move around a circle. Chernivtsi officials came up with a Jesuit plan to make everyone, who arrived in their city, move around the same circle and lose any desire to receive humanitarian aid.
To receive it, you must stand in a huge line for a coupon for humanitarian aid, which specifies the time you can come for it. Those who live in shelters do not have the right to humanitarian aid. There is also an electronic queue, but it is not available to everyone. An answer to a completed questionnaire comes a few weeks later.
I tried to get through to the officials’ deaf hearts, even managed to have an appointment with Natalia Frunze, director of the Department of Social Policy. She listened to me, but she is not going to change the situation. Besides, according to her, the Chernivtsi City Council has already run out of resources, and there will be no more humanitarian aid.
I visited my colleagues from a well-known Chernivtsi newspaper, but they were not interested in the topic. I looked through their publication – advertisements and “jeansa”. I understood everything.
The city volunteer centers are also very strange. One of them had to be called only on Friday from 11 to 12 p.m. I set a record – I made 57 calls in an hour. All that time the line was engaged, and after 12 no one answered the phone…
I went to another center, signed up to receive a survival kit. They fixed the time and place. I called to clarify the coordinates, but no one answered the phone. So I was left without that kit. And I gave all the humanitarian aid from the Chernivtsi City Council to people in the shelter.
How they do it in Bucharest
Now I’m living in Bucharest. During the war, Romania sheltered thousands of Ukrainians. There are a lot of people from Odesa, Kherson, Mykolayiv. It is easier for refugees from the south to get there. You can get a temporary protected status within an hour. The procedure is well thought out and automated: give your passport to a Ukrainian-speaking girl, then listen to a lecture about your rights and obligations, in a few minutes you are photographed and issued a document that you are protected by the Romanian state. And with this document, you have to walk two hundred meters and stand in line to receive the first humanitarian aid.
Ten people at a time are allowed into a huge hall. The administrator first selects women with children. The room is zoned: registration, clothes for refugees, you can pick up something for yourself and your kid, a place where care kits are issued, a food zone. Slowly, without haste, you go through every zone and leave with full bags. For some reason, I received men’s and women’s kits and became an owner of several toothbrushes and pastes, shaving cream, razors, pads, towels, women’s underwear, soap.
The food kit was quite eclectic – pickled beets, canned pineapples, a can of meat, rice, beans, cookies and grapes. Food for refugees is issued once every 10 days, which is three times a month. This is Romanian volunteers’ aid to Ukrainians. And it is quite generous – yogurt, vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, butter and oil.
Ukrainians in Romania can also count on free housing. The owner of the housing who accepted the Ukrainians is paid 50 lei per day per person, 20 lei per day for food. The owner receives the money, and he must give the food money to his tenant. There are international funds in Romania, which also help Ukrainian refugees.
And most importantly, Romanians are very hospitable and friendly towards Ukrainians. And they don’t like Russians. I’ve recorded several cases when, on trying to speak Russian, I noticed contempt and reluctance to answer. Now I speak only Ukrainian. And with great gratitude, while cooking something in my small kitchen in Bucharest, I remember the whole great chain of humanitarian aid that passed through many countries and cities, connecting people in their desire to help Ukraine.