Germany is the second country in Europe after Poland in terms of the number of Ukrainians who were forced to leave their home country because of the Russian invasion. This figure is close to a million. It is as if all people left a big city, and left behind memories of the first days of the war. A million Ukrainians is a million stories, hardships of moving to the West, suffering.
Among them are people who continue to care for those who could not leave. And they will do so wherever they go, because their guide is their own heart, full of love and compassion.
When Ukraine becomes part of the European home, it will be much easier for these people than for others to adapt to new rules and customs. Sharing values and helping those who are in need is what it means to be European.
For society, he is Albert Pavlov, director at Happy Child Foundation in Zaporizhzhia. And at home, for his family he is father and husband: support, provider, brain, center of the family universe. And it’s quite big – a wife, eight children and an adult boy with special needs, whose guardian is Albert. Russia’s war with Ukraine proved that being head of a family is the most important and challenging task. But, as it turns out, volunteering, helping others is also a feasible mission.
The war caught the Pavlovs in the village of Ukrainka, 18 kilometers from Vasylivka. Albert, together with like-minded people, has been creating family-type children’s homes under the auspices of the Happy Child foundation since 2001. For more than 10 years, the Foundation has been fine-tuning a system of rescuing children from serious illnesses and orphanhood. And such homes became a vivid example: orphaned children can also become part of a loving foster family. Enthusiasts managed to open five such homes in the Zaporizhzhia region, in the villages of Ukrainka, Liubymivka, and Kalynivka.
“Before the outbreak of the Russian invasion, we followed the news and thought: if the worst happens, an attack from all sides, then we’ll leave,” says Albert. “We understood that we wouldn’t be able to live under occupation. I know every stone in the built houses, we planted hundreds of trees. It’s hard to imagine that something may be bitten off this.”
The Vasylivka community with its administrative center in the town of Vasylivka was occupied in the first days of March. Fighting near the village of Ukrainka began on the fourth day of the invasion.
At three in the morning on February 24, Ukrainka heard some rumbling coming from Melitopol.
“Everything was somehow surreal. My wife woke me up and said: we’re being bombed, we need to pack,” the events of that night have imprinted in memory.
It wasn’t easy to do it, because the family had not only a lot of children, but also a lot of animals. They were hurriedly given to the neighbors. The Pavlovs had an 8-seater mini bus, but they had to take 13 people. In Zaporizhzhia, they were going to take two more girls, Albert’s daughters from his first marriage. What’s more, they managed to squeeze their clothes, sleeping bags, tents, and all the tourist equipment into the bus. And a bald sphynx cat Basia, which they didn’t want to give to anyone.
Children in the Pavlov family – aged from 3 to 18.
It took them two hours to pack and then they left. They didn’t know where, somewhere to the west. At first, the traffic was lively in both directions. Then long queues for fuel began to line up. And delays, traffic jams, bad roads…
“Sometimes, you crawl 20 kilometers per hour in a dense stream of cars, you can’t stand it anymore and turn back,” sighs the father of the family. “The main road is blocked, a bridge was blown up or something else. We saw a destroyed air defense system, smoke near Dnipro. An hour after we passed the Starokostyantiniv airfield, the news reported that it had been bombed.”
It was eerie, as if in a half dream… The older children couldn’t understand the absurdity of what was going on, wondering all the time how it could be. They were constantly on the phones, checked the information. They ate snacks in the bus. During the journey, the family was helped by church communities. In Kropyvnytskyi, a church gave them food and beds for a night, then in Ternopil and Khmelnytskyi. 4-5 hours of sleep, and again 20 hours of driving.
“Looking at others who drove under fire, I understand: we were lucky,” the man reflects. “The poor cat screeched in the carrier, having done its cat stuff. You can imagine the smell. The kids were sitting wherever they could: in the arms, on the floor. Everyone was uncomfortable. But we were moving on, we couldn’t stop.”
On the third day, we went to the Carpathians. Those were the hardest 300 kilometers. Self-defense forces began to set up checkpoints, literally in every village. Therefore, there were many kilometers of traffic queues near settlements. Neither volunteers nor equipment could pass.
“We got into a traffic jam on a pass in the Carpathians. Dead night, frost. There were problems with gasoline, because we warmed ourselves with the help of an engine,” continues Albert. “Everything froze, nothing moved.”
It is a border zone, so we couldn’t get out and stretch ourselves. People relieved themselves next to cars. The atmosphere was unbearable, fights started to break out between drivers. They did not let those who tried to pass without waiting in line. The father of a large family felt overworked and desperate.
“I didn’t see a way out, so I started waving a flashlight as the police drove by. I asked to be taken out of line, because the kids were freezing, there was almost no fuel left in the tank,” recalls Albert. “And they took us out.”
Thanks to police assistance, they arrived near Uzhgorod at 4 a.m. They stopped at a church, then at a shelter. They tried to come to senses, but they couldn’t. The Perechyn shelter could give the family only one room. Just imagine: 13 people, from toddlers to elders, and a cat. It was unforgettable!
The Pavlovs stayed there for three days, and during that time the town’s population doubled. Everyone helped the large family, volunteers also joined in. And then trouble came – three-year-old Dima fell ill. He was sick: nauseated, vomiting, and getting worse every day. And the adult Pavlovs decided to cross the border in Chop, because they didn’t want to go to hospital in a town where there were already problems with medicines and doctors.
“The moral aspect was tough. I planned to live actively,” sighs the head of the charitable foundation. “But we have children with special needs: a hyperactive child, and those with diseases and congenital developmental abnormalities. In addition, we have a dependent adult with special needs. There were difficult discussions about what to do. It would have been better for us to return, but not for the children…”
They faced financial problems immediately. They could not pay by credit cards in village shops, but they had to eat. And then the foundation’s partners from abroad began to help them.
Little Dmytryk seemed to have caught a viral intestinal infection. So the family hurried, without even stopping to sleep. They drove through Hungary all night, and reached Budapest in the morning. They stopped their bus in front of the parliament building on the embankment, wondering what to do next.
“A man knocked on the bus window, brought us a package of food from McDonald’s, and gave us a thousand forints,” Albert says. “And acquaintances prompted us to go to Vienna.”
So they did, they were in Austria in the evening. They had to urgently call an ambulance due to the baby’s dehydration. He and his mother were taken to hospital. Four hotel rooms were booked for the Pavlovs.
In the capital of Austria, a refugee center had already been set up, where volunteers brought this large family. The center was supposed to open in 2 days, so the family from Ukrainka became a kind of test-takers.
When it seemed that all the troubles were already behind, life challenged them with another test.
“Imagine, you leave in the morning, and the car with your belongings is gone,” Albert smiles. “Although I was sure I parked the car correctly, I didn’t notice a small prohibition sign.”
Relevant services work well in Austria: their bus had already been evacuated somewhere. Volunteers helped the Pavlovs, they learned about a tow truck company. They went there, but the conversation was short – a $350 fine.
“I said: all the people helped us. Will you be the first not to?” Pavlov recalls. “They returned our car for free!”
The hospital, Dmytryk was admitted to, impressed the family with the level of service and attentive staff. Yulia’s clothes were dirty, because she had not let her kid with severe diarrhea off her hands. In addition, Dmytryk vomited right on the documents… The refugee boy received medical assistance at the highest level, and his mother received food from a restaurant.
The Austrian government paid 2,000 euros for three days of the child’s treatment.
After their youngest recovered, the Pavlovs went to Munich, where they were offered a guest house. They had to part ways. Mother and some of the children went by train. The children were in shock, they did not want to get into the bus because of fearful memories associated with it.
“Like a cell for someone who has served time in prison,” Albert compares. “Our cat went in the car, it was not stressed.”
Germany checked the Ukrainian family more thoroughly. They had to be tested for coronavirus. Besides, border guards took fingerprints of children over 14 who did not have a foreign passport. Finally, the family reached their destination – Fischbachau, a small picturesque tourist village in the Alps with lakes nearby. This is an expensive resort, but the Ukrainians were accommodated for free, given 4 rooms on the second floor of the building. What’s more, local residents donated food, clothes, and gave bicycles and scooters to them.
The children went to local school. Only Dmytryk is still at home with his parents. After a short adaptation, Albert and Yulia began to help the occupied territories, their Rozdolska community. Could it be otherwise?
“Applications started coming in,” Albert recalls. “One after another. They increased in geometric progression. We began to help our village of Ukrainka, then Liubymivka and the neighboring villages. Then – the whole community. We expanded.”
At first, they received applications via Viber, then an online form was created. Now up to 500 applications are received daily. They organized help through a village shop when their bank cards were activated.
They collected information about who needed what in the database, and sent it to Zaporizhzhia to volunteers who bought the things people needed. The delivery to the occupied villages took 7-10 days. They established new relationships with those who donated. Albert says they need more, but 4-5 million hryvnias per month are currently flowing through the foundation.
“There are different opinions: to return, to volunteer,” reflects the head of the Pavlov family. “But we made our choice when we adopted so many children. We can be super volunteers, but then we have to send the children somewhere. Or, when we come back, we’ll be another family applying for help.”
There are big problems with communication in the occupied communities, people do not have reliable information, so they do not know how to evacuate. They stand at checkpoints in Vasylivka for weeks, not being able to leave for the Ukraine- controlled territories. The foundation helps families with many children financially so that they can rent a car and leave. To escape life under occupation, sometimes at their own peril and risk.
“While we are here, the plan is as follows: to be as useful as possible to our compatriots, to encourage people to share,” Albert summarizes. “As soon as there is an opportunity, we will return.”
And for now, he tries not to open a photo of his house on his smartphone, so as not to get upset.
In June 2022, thanks to donations from all over the world, the Happy Child foundation transferred more than UAH 2 million to 340 families with many children, IDPs, and families with children with special needs. They worked mostly in the Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Kherson regions, both in the temporarily occupied territory and in the Ukraine-controlled territory. More than a million hryvnias was transferred in the form of food certificates to families of IDPs and large families in Zaporizhzhia.
“We still have dozens of times more applications than we can handle,” the founder of the foundation notes. “The crisis in the country is intensifying, more and more people are feeling the effects of the war. We have to make hard choices every day and help only in the most difficult cases. Unfortunately, psychological and financial “fatigue” from the war in Ukraine is growing in the world, and the amount of donations is decreasing. Therefore, we appeal to everyone who reads these lines – you can help financially and informationally.”
Article is prepared within the project “Countering Disinformation in Southern and Eastern Ukraine” funded by the European Union.