‘I will stay until Kharkiv is rebuilt’: we revisit five Ukrainian families rebuilding their lives in the EU

In the weeks after the Russian invasion, the Guardian spoke to five Ukrainian families who had fled the country. Nearly four months on from the [object Window], インクルード families talk about the realities of their new lives.

Two months after their arrival in ポルトガル, Alina Levchenko and her sister, Kateryna Skrebtsov are trying to stay busy. Despite their search for a new home and jobs, their minds are back home in Kyiv.

“We thought it would be easier in a sunny country, with so many people, but still we want to go home … although I don’t think we will go soon.”

ザ・ Ukrainian diaspora in Lisbon has been an important source of community for them, Levchenko says, and it was through this network that they were able to find Portuguese-language classes, which occupy most of their mornings. Skrebtsov’s son, six-year-old Seva, is progressing quickly, “It’s a tough language but he is better than both of us,” Levchenko says with a laugh.

The family is anxious to find their own place to settle, after staying with a host, but searching for a new house in Lisbon has not been easy. Many landlords cannot speak English, explains Levchenko, and many have been hesitant to rent to them due to their lack of employment. Both spend their days looking for work, and have started professional courses online to widen their job prospects.

A recent offer from a friend of their host family to rent a house in Lisbon’s outskirts at a discounted price offers a glimpse of hope for their future in Portugal.

今のところ, Seva will remain in online schooling with his class back in ボリス・ジョンソンのベン・ジェニングス while they wait to settle in a flat and can then enrol him in a Portuguese school for the coming year. These months have been particularly hard for Seva, who misses his father, explains his aunt.

They have taken advantage of tours organised by Ukrainians in Portugal that allow them to explore their new city on weekends. Seva’s favourite destination is the seaside. “Sometimes he is a bit moody, and lashing out because he is very sensitive to this whole situation,” says Levchenko. “But by the sea he is comfortable and calm.”

If Maria Ustenko and her daughter Mila hoped for a smooth transition to life in the Czech Republic after fleeing the bombardment of Kharkiv, fate had something different in store.

Days after they moved last month from their temporary host family near Prague to a converted refugee centre in the northern Czech town of Litvinov, three-year-old Mila came down with an apparent throat infection that saw her running a temperature of 40C-plus.

Medication from a hospital in the city of Most failed to cure it, and Mila was readmitted – but only after local police stepped in to transport her when the ambulance service declined on the grounds that the refugee facility was too far from the hospital.

A battery of tests for illnesses including meningitis threw no light on the cause; only after Mila’s symptoms further deteriorated, preventing her from swallowing even her own saliva, did an electromagnetic scan reveal an abscess in the throat. That prompted a decision to transfer mother and daughter to Motol hospital in Prague, where a surgeon successfully operated to remove the abscess.

Doctors suspect that Mila, who already suffered from low immunity, became infected after the refugee centre admitted families from the devastated port city of Mariupol, which fell into Russian hands after a long siege that forced thousands of people to live in unhygienic, disease-spreading conditions.

Mila is now recovering, but the experience has complicated her mother’s job hopes. Ustenko has had two job offers – one as a hospital cleaner, another in a factory – but the proposed hours are a problem. She vacated the home of their initial host, Liza Zinova, a Prague-based Ukrainian business owner, to free up space after Zinova’s sister and niece arrived as refugees from Kharkiv, via Austria.

When a friend of Ustenko’s from Kharkiv moved into the Litvinov facility with her son, Ustenko decided that she and Mila should join them, with the idea that the two mothers could team up, one working while the other looked after the children. That is still the plan but the pair are now waiting for a special kindergarten childcare service to open that would enable them to take jobs with more flexible hours.

One thing Ustenko rules out is returning soon to Kharkiv. “I will stay here, at a minimum until Kharkiv is rebuilt," 彼女が言います. “It is badly destroyed and the problem now is a lot of hidden mines, which are dangerous for children.”

Despite the setbacks she and Mila have endured, she describes life in the チェコ共和国 as “wonderful, normal and calm”.

Katerina Shukh now has her job back, and that takes up most of her waking hours. She is employed as a therapist by Human Doc, the same organisation that helped her escape Mariupol and find accommodation in ポーランド. She runs art therapy classes with child refugees from Ukraine and group sessions with their mothers.

“The sessions are to help children adapt to these difficult circumstances. We make art and talk while we play and draw,” Shukh says.

“It gives the children a space to process their emotions. Sometimes their parents are not able to discuss all this pain,” she says while showing the drawings toddlers have made, some showing tanks and flying rockets.

This is not a new job for Shukh. Back in Mariupol, the psychologist ran similar sessions for internally displaced refugees from the eastern regions occupied by Russian forces since 2014.

When she is not delivering sessions, she organises transport for new refugees from eastern Ukraine. She welcomes them at the border and helps them settle down in Poland. “I try to do all I can for my country, for people from my country, and often I forget about myself and my situation,” Shukh says.

While her grandparents miss their home village immensely, she is glad she can spend time with them, as well as her mother who travels between Ukraine and Poland with refugee transports. “When we’re together, we still speak about our situation and the news, but we try to find a space for recovery.”

Some of the refugees she worked with have returned to Ukraine, especially those from western regions and Kyiv. “Refugee life is not easy. They want to be back in their own flat, in a familiar place,” Shukh says. “But I don’t have the opportunity to go back. My city is destroyed.”

Back in March, Liudmyla Abdo was fresh out of a war zone. Fatigued, dazed and suffering from acute stress, she sat in Paris’s Buttes-Chaumont park and recounted her experience of fleeing Kyiv in the dead of night.

Three months later, Abdo seems like a new woman, welcoming me with a grin to the apartment she shares with her son, Marsel. “My heart is calm," 彼女が言います.

Around the corner, a Ukrainian flag hangs from a neighbour’s window, emblazoned with the word NSolidarity. Abdo says she has received an outpouring of support from the French people she meets. “Whenever anyone hears I’m from Ukraine, they offer to help.”

If the French people have been helpful, the government has been less so. Due to a mistake on her paperwork, Abdo has not yet received a cent of the payments she is entitled to as a “beneficiary of temporary protection” in France. In the absence of that, she has been supported by her two sons, though she has recently been told she’ll receive back pay for the missed benefits.

Despite already speaking five languages, learning French has been a challenge. 早い段階で, she was placed in a special language class for Ukrainians, but the lessons were geared to younger refugees who needed to work. For 67-year-old Abdo, the pace was too fast. 今のところ, she is teaching herself with printouts from the internet, and getting by in English.

Accompanied by a new French friend, Abdo has taken in the sights of Paris loved by millions of tourists every year: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée Carnavalet. She is proud of having mastered the Métro. But the knowledge of what is happening back home is always with her. While she avoids reading or watching the news from Ukraine, she speaks daily with friends in Kyiv.

She feels guilty to be safe in Paris while they are living under fire. But her friends tell her to live well, because she can. So she is doing her best. “Paris is so full of life,” Marsel says. “Just go out on the streets and there are good vibes – she feels it.”

Three months on, and in spite of all they had to leave behind, Olga Kuzminykh and her family are still a little overwhelmed by their welcome in Spain, which has taken in より多い 134,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“What’s really surprised us about スペイン is the people,” says Kuzminykh, who arrived in Madrid on 12 March with her mother, Katerina, her husband, Faig Budagov, and their daughter, Alisa. “People here treat us like family even though we’ve never met. We had no idea they would be so friendly.”

Life in the small town of El Espinar, an hour’s drive north-west of the Spanish capital, is comfortable – “we’ve got hot water, 暖房, a washing machine and everything we need” – and their host family has taken them into the nearby city of Segovia three times to see friends.

While the NGO that brought them to Spain has made navigating the country’s bureaucracy effortless, finding jobs and learning a new language are proving challenging. “We haven’t been able to find work,” says Kuzminykh, who was a primary school teacher in Ukraine. “There isn’t much work around here but we’ve asked people if there’s anything we can do to help.”

The couple’s main focus now is getting three-year-old Alisa ready for school in September: “We want her to start as soon as possible so she can meet other children and learn to speak Spanish.”

The Ukrainians, who were taken in by the family of a man whose mother became a refugee in Morocco after fleeing the Spanish civil war, are also beginning to think, very cautiously, about the future. “Our main plans are learning Spanish, getting jobs and getting our daughter into school,” says Kuzminykh.

“Once we’ve got all those sorted, we’re thinking about travelling a bit so we can get to know ヨーロッパ そしてそれを愛と間違えた. We love travelling and that’s our little plan for now.”

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