‘A journey to nowhere’: mothers who fled war in Ukraine

The stories of four mothers fleeing Ukraine have highlighted the heart-breaking decisions that families have had to make during three months of war.

These compelling images also show what each family packed as they were forced to flee their homes. Some brought just a few changes of clothes, toys for their children and medical supplies, not knowing if they would be gone for weeks, months or even years.

More than 6.3 million people, of whom about half are thought to be children, have fled Ukraine in the hope of finding safety in neighbouring countries in the largest displacement of people in Europe since the second world war. Romania has received 924,000.

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Iryna*, who is seven months pregnant, had 24 hours to decide whether or not to leave Ukraine with her 10-year-old daughter Nikolina*. As violence engulfed the country, Yevgeniy, a church volunteer, offered to help them cross the border into Romania, but with a curfew to come into force the next day, Iryna had almost no time to make her choice.

She didn’t want to go, but took the agonising decision to leave her mother – who was too ill to travel – her home and her life in Ukraine for the sake of her children. “For my child and my unborn baby I decided, if there’s a possibility, I have to go,” she said. “They have their whole lives ahead of them.”

When Iryna and Nikolina arrived in Kyiv station they found chaotic scenes. Thousands of people were attempting to board westward trains and the one they had hoped to catch was full.

Realising that Iryna was pregnant, the train driver offered them an out of order toilet, which was clean. It was a difficult and frightening journey. “At each stop we were so scared. There were harsh quarrels, so we locked the door at those stops. I said: ‘Nikolina, don’t move’, and we didn’t move at all.”

When they finally arrived in Rakhiv in western Ukraine, Yevgeniy met them and drove them to the border. They crossed into Romania on foot, where they’ve received a warm welcome.

Now they’re living in the region of Maramures with a host family in a flat Save the Children helped secure for them.

Nikolina is settling into her new life and showing just how resilient children can be: “People care for us and talk to us more than in Kyiv. I like it here,” she says.

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When Mariya* took a call from relatives on 24 February it was like any other morning in her very normal life as a mum and school teacher. It was the moment everything changed. “They told they’d been bombed.” Five minutes later, missiles hit Dnipropetrovsk oblast, where Mariya and Denys* live. “It was the scariest day of our lives,” she says.

She made the “very painful” decision to leave, but only after a friend convinced her it was too dangerous to stay and suggested they flee together. They took the first train they could heading west from Dnipro towards Romania. “We didn’t know where we would live or how. It was a journey to nowhere. I’ve never come here, I didn’t know where I was going.”

When they arrived in Romania after a gruelling journey – especially for Denys, who was ill on the journey – they received an incredibly warm welcome. “Romanians are very, very kind. I never heard anything about them, but when I got here, they turned out to be open-hearted, kind and understanding people.”

They’re also getting the support they need to rebuild their shattered lives. “We get food and water. They gave us vouchers for children. We can pay with these vouchers in all supermarket they are worth 200 lei. It’s almost 50 dollars.”

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Milena*, 22, feared for her life as the sirens wailed and the bombs fell near her home in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. She lives next to a major gas pipeline and was afraid it would be blown up.

Initially she and her one-year-old baby Bodhan* took refuge in her parents’ basement in Ivano-Frankivsk, but her brother told her Ukraine was not safe so she decided to take Bohdan and her cousins and make for Romania.

Milena organised the journey – where to drive, at what time and how they were going to get to the border.

Her parents are still in Ukraine. Her father stayed and her mother is helping refugees in Lviv. Milena was heartbroken to leave them but felt she had to go for the sake of her son. “My heart is in Ukraine,” she says. “It’s painful to leave my home and country. It was difficult to say goodbye to the men in our lives at the border. We didn’t know if we would ever see them again.

“We packed only the most essential things for my one-year-old – warm clothes, food, documents and laptops. Save the Children have been great – [giving us] food, shelter, cash vouchers.”

She plans to return to Ukraine if and when the conflict dies down.

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“I remember the emotions. It was hard to leave Ukraine. No one wanted to go,” recalls Vira*, a mother of two. She faced the same tough choice as millions of ordinary Ukrainians as their homeland was engulfed in violence.

“It was tearing me apart. You want to stay, but you also have kids to protect. My mother asked me if I wanted to go, and I replied that ‘I can’t, I’m torn apart, I have to stay and I have to go.’”

Vira had a good life in Ukraine, working as a nurse and raising Marta*, three, and Alona*, six months. The war took that life away. The enormity of that loss is hard for us to imagine.

The hardest part was saying goodbye to her parents. “They won’t leave, even in a critical situation. My mother [who works as a paramedic] will go to help. [Leaving is] out of the question.”

She decided not to tell Marta why they were going, treating it like a big adventure instead. But for Vira, who had never been abroad before, crossing the border into Romania was traumatic. “I had a sort of panic attack. I was afraid of the border, and I didn’t want to leave Ukraine.”

The welcome they’ve received in Romania has helped to ease the pain of leaving. “We’ve had so much support here. They’ve given so much more than we expected,” she said. “Toys, clothes, food, everything. We had all that in Ukraine, but here, the scale of it all, the children looked like they were seeing all this for the first time in their lives!” This is the kind of difference your support makes to families such as Vira’s.

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

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