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When these families fled Mariupol in 2022, The Globe followed their perilous journeys. Today, far from their homeland, they mark the passage of another year since Russia’s invasion began

As the war in Ukraine enters its third year, more than six million Ukrainians are living abroad. Some are building new lives, while others languish as initial enthusiasm for their arrival wanes and government support dwindles.

The Globe and Mail has been following a group of families who were among the first to leave their homeland when Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. A handful have returned to Ukraine but most remain outside the country.

Four of them – Anastasia Svizina and her husband, Yevhen Svizin; and Lali Dmytrieva and her son Misha – made their way to the west coast of Ireland, where they took shelter with 74 other Ukrainians at the Royal Hotel in Castlebar.

All four fled Mariupol in spring 2022, as Russian troops closed in on the city.

Theirs is a story of hope, pain and the struggles of two generations: a younger one looking forward and ready to start afresh, and an older one shaped by the past and pulled by the memories of home.

Anastasia and Yevhen flip through a calendar of important events in Ukrainian history, where Feb. 18 – a day of deadly police raids on Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests in 2014 – is illustrated with burning tires. After 2014’s protests against a pro-Kremlin regime, Russia annexed Crimea and aided separatist rebels in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk.

Anastasia Svizina, 26, and Yevhen Svizin, 29

I don’t know how life works, you know, but this is like magic


It had to be magic. Anastasia couldn’t think of another explanation for how their lives had been so transformed in just one year.

When the couple arrived in Dublin in August, 2022, space in the city’s shelters was tight and Irish officials were scrambling to find alternative accommodation. Anastasia and Yevhen were sent to Castlebar, a small city 250 kilometres away where the government was paying for hundreds of hotel rooms for refugees. Castlebar was best known as a regional holiday destination, but jobs and housing were scarce. Anastasia and Yevhen had come to Ireland because their English wasn’t bad and they had high-tech skills they thought would be in demand. But after handing out their résumés all over town, they heard back from no one.

Then, in December, someone from a market analytics company in Dublin called TAMI contacted the couple at the hotel asking them if they were looking for work. They thought it was a scam, so they didn’t reply. They’d never heard of TAMI and they hadn’t sent any résumés to Dublin.

But TAMI’s boss, Liz Fulham, had read about Ukrainians in Castlebar and she kept persisting. She followed up and then brought them to Dublin for interviews. In January, she offered Anastasia a job. She also threw in a furnished, two-bedroom flat in a trendy part of town, and said the couple could live there rent-free until they settled down.

“Really, I don’t know,” Anastasia says, searching for words. “It’s like an angel, like a miracle in my life.”

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Anastasia now works as an operations manager at the Dublin-based tech company TAMI.

Liz doesn’t think of herself as an angel, just someone eager to lend a hand.

She’d already helped two other Ukrainian families find housing in Dublin and covered their utility bills for months.

“I just think, as humanity, we should all be reaching out to people,” she says.

As to how she came across Anastasia and Yevhen, it was serendipity.

One day in December, a story popped up on Google from a Canadian newspaper she’d never heard of: The Globe and Mail. The article was about Ukrainians living at the Royal Hotel and it included a photograph of Anastasia and Yevhen sitting on a staircase.

“The picture just grabbed me,” Liz recalled. Anastasia, she says, stood out. “You could see she was a very strong person.”

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This is the picture of Anastasia and Yevhen that Liz Fulham saw on the Globe and Mail website, in an article where Anastasia spoke about their frustrations finding work: 'People around us are always smiling and saying, "You know English very well and you will find a job easily." But the reality is not so positive.'

By February, everything seemed to be going perfectly.

Anastasia proved to be a fast learner and impressed Liz with her ability to take on multiple tasks. TAMI didn’t have a position for Yevhen, but his English was improving and he’d picked up some online work with a company in Ukraine.

Then Liz had another idea.

She knew Anastasia’s mother, father, brother and sister-in-law were also refugees; they’d fled Mariupol through Russia to Georgia and on to southern Turkey, where they were staying with friends. There, they’d been caught up in the earthquake that struck the region in early February and destroyed much of the area.

Liz suggested they join Anastasia and Yevhen in Dublin, adding that TAMI could help cover the costs. Anastasia’s brother and sister-in-law could stay with the couple in their apartment and TAMI would find another place for Anastasia’s parents.

And so, on Feb. 21 – Anastasia’s 25th birthday – Liz handed her the best gift she could imagine: the keys to that flat.

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At her apartment, Anastasia plays a ukulele given to her by a friend. Her boss at TAMI helped her and Yevhen cover the costs of living here.

Anastasia called her family as soon as she could.

“When I told to them that we have such an opportunity, that they can come here and we can hug each other and they will be in a safe place, they just were very happy,” she recalled.

They’d all been through so much, so fast. They’d celebrated Anastasia and Yevhen’s wedding just a few months before Russia’s invasion. They’d stuck together on the harrowing bus journey through Russia to Georgia – the only way to leave Mariupol once Russian troops took control – and they’d waited in fear when Yevhen was pulled aside by soldiers and had to explain that his Norse tattoos weren’t Nazi symbols.

They all got to Turkey but life there was hard. They couldn’t speak Turkish and lived on the small salary that Anastasia’s brother, Viktor, earned from a Ukrainian technology firm that kept him employed. Anastasia and Yevhen headed to Ireland to try their luck, in the hope the others could follow.

Now that day was coming.

Home is where you make it, so the saying goes. So why not 4,000 kilometres away in Dublin?

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Yevhen and Anastasia were married just a few months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Before coming to Ireland, they had been in Turkey, but found it hard to make a living.

In May, they were finally together.

Yevhen’s mother joined, too. She also left Mariupol through Russia and then went to Belarus and Poland, where Anastasia came to meet her. With the help of Liz once again, the two of them flew to Ireland.

The reunion was everything Anastasia and Yevhen had hoped for. But as weeks and months passed, the parents had second thoughts.

Anastasia’s father worried about his mother in Mariupol, who had been diagnosed with cancer, and Yevhen’s mother fretted about her mom, who was well into her 80s and frail.

They could see that their children had a future in Ireland. The kids spoke decent English and Viktor’s wife, Anna, was learning. Viktor still had his job with the Ukrainian company, and he was looking for something in Dublin. Anna had worked in a law office in Mariupol and had transferrable skills. Anastasia and Yevhen were working, settled and happy.

Their parents didn’t see their future in Ireland going that way. All three were in their mid-50s. They couldn’t speak English and their prospects in Dublin were slim. Their lives, their identities, were wrapped up with Ukraine and the place they called home: Mariupol. Yes, the Russians occupied the city, but they couldn’t control people’s hearts or their minds.

So just before Christmas, they said a tearful goodbye to their children and boarded a flight to Finland. They crossed the border into Russia, caught a bus to St. Petersburg and then another one to Mariupol.

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On Anastasia's phone, a picture shows what was left of their Mariupol apartment in 2022. Her parents moved back to Mariupol and they stay in contact.

Anastasia was heartbroken when they left, but she understood their decision.

They keep in touch by phone. Anastasia’s parents told them their flat was still in one piece. They didn’t have much heat this winter but the electricity stayed on. Anastasia’s father found a job working on the tram lines and Viktor said he’d figured out a way to send them some euros.

Yevhen’s mother lost her house during the invasion and she’s living with her mom. She’s seeking compensation from the Russians, but so far no luck.

A year ago Anastasia felt certain she would return to Ukraine. She’s not so sure any more. “I really love Ukraine and I really miss Ukraine. But I don’t know if we would have such possibilities like here,” she says.

She’s been promoted at TAMI and she’s comfortable enough in English that she’s started using local expressions such as “lovely” and “grand” with co-workers.

“They told me that I’m Irish,” she says with a smile.

In Castlebar, Lali Dmytrieva and son Misha recall the tense early days of the war, when they fled Mariupol with the help of a Polish charity group.

Lali Dmytrieva, 53, and Misha, 18

It is not my life to sit still


Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Lali and her family had finally found peace in Mariupol.

There had been so much upheaval over the years. They used to live in Crimea, in a big house in the country where she ran a restaurant – but they fled to Mariupol after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Only six years before that, Lali had been forced to leave her homeland of Georgia when the Red Army invaded South Ossetia.

Mariupol was bliss. Her husband pursued his architecture practice while Lali ran two Georgian restaurants in town and one in Kyiv. Her older son, Alexi, studied medicine and Misha dreamed about becoming a fashion designer.

Then on Feb. 24, 2022, the city turned into a war zone.

They had to split up to survive. As Russian troops advanced on the city in April, a Polish charity helped Lali and Misha, then 16, get on one of the few bus convoys allowed out of town. Martial law restrictions prevented adult men from going abroad, so Lali’s husband and Alexi, 24, headed to Odesa and Dnipro.

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Lali, in the red turban, works with other Ukrainian families in the kitchen of a safe house in Babice Nowe, near Warsaw, in March of 2022.

And so, in Poland it was just the two of them – Lali and Misha.

They lived in a safe house in Warsaw with a dozen other women and children who’d also been evacuated from Mariupol. Lali kept Misha close, worried about his schooling and how he would adapt. He was still a child in her eyes, vulnerable and shy.

Lali looked for restaurant work and thought about starting a catering business from the house. But her inability to speak Polish proved too difficult to overcome. A friend encouraged her to come to Ireland. There was better government support here, they told her, and Lali might have a shot at opening a restaurant.

On a fall day in 2022, Lali goes for a walk in Castlebar and picks up documents from the Royal Hotel front desk. At the time, she, Misha and a Ukrainian mother and daughter shared a room; Lali and Misha would later get their own space.

In August, Lali packed up their few belongings and she and Misha caught a flight to Dublin.

They didn’t stay in the city for long. The shelters for Ukrainians were full and they were told to go to the Royal Hotel in Castlebar.

There, they shared a room with a mother and her daughter – one double bed for them and two singles for Lali and Misha. But after a few months, they moved into room number 132. It was small – just big enough for two beds, a table, two chairs, two nightstands – and its one window faced a wall. But it was a space of their own. They didn’t have many personal touches to add, just a few pictures of Jesus that Lali carried with her from home, and a small wooden cross.

But all the time, she worried. How would she ever find a job in this small town? How would she ever learn English? And how would she help Misha adjust?

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In 2022, Misha does the nails of a fellow Ukrainian refugee at the hotel in Castlebar. Misha has been passionate about hair styling and fashion since childhood.

In the end, Misha found his own way.

He mastered English, shook off his shyness and landed a job doing nails at the Glo Beauty Clinic in Castlebar.

He’d always had a passion for hairstyles and fashion, ever since he was a kid and dressed up his dolls. Glo wasn’t the kind of place that would develop his creative talent, but it was a start.

He earned minimum wage and often worked six days a week, taking every extra shift available. The clients loved him. They called him “Busy Misha,” wrote rave reviews online and showered him with tips.

He’s started saving up to enroll in a beautician program at the local college, and began dreaming of one day opening his own hair salon.

One thing is certain: He’ll never return to Ukraine. “It’s not an option to turn back,” he says. He doesn’t have many Irish friends yet but he knows enough people in Castlebar to feel at home.

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Lali visits a Catholic church in Castlebar in 2022. The church would sometimes hold services in her Orthodox tradition, but only in English.

For a while, Lali also tried to connect with people in town. She went on daily walks and attended church regularly. But English proved harder for her to learn than Polish, and as frustration set in, she slowly withdrew.

There was also painful news from home; her mother had died of a heart attack. Some better news came as well: Her son Alexi had left Ukraine and taken a perilous journey through Russia and crossed into Latvia. Lali breathed a sigh of relief when he called to say that he’d made it to Poland, where he would live with his girlfriend, a doctor who fled Ukraine when the war began. There, he furthered his radiology studies, and found work in a hospital.

By the time 2023 arrived, Lali didn’t leave the hotel very often any more. She spent most of her days in the room, texting friends far away. She also kept in touch with The Globe, her messages a timeline of her despair:

  • “I hope to move to a big city before the summer” – March
  • “I have no change, everything is bad” – May
  • “I’m doing terribly. I still can’t find a place to live or a job” – June
  • “I think I’m in a tunnel where you can’t see the light” – July
  • “I’m tired of everything, I don’t see any way out and I don’t know what to do” – September
  • “Everything is bad for me and I want to leave this country” – November

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Lali cooks khachapuri, a Georgian bread, in her hotel room earlier this year. Lali fled Georgia when Russia, acting on behalf of a Kremlin-allied breakaway state, invaded the country in 2008.

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Lali, a former restaurant manager, isn't allowed to cook in her room but keeps a small toaster oven.

And so, now it’s Lali who relies on her son. He’s her translator and her breadwinner.

Misha is 18, and eager to strike out on his own. She’s happy about his growing independence, but it only deepens her loneliness.

She’s drawn back home, to Georgia. Her 81-year-old father lives in Zugdidi, in the western part of the country, and the longing to be with him intensifies each day she’s in Castlebar.

Misha understands. Every few months, he and Alexi pool their money and buy their mother a plane ticket home. She spends a few weeks in Georgia, reconnecting with her father and her roots. As soon as she returns to Castlebar, they start saving for the next trip.

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Lali, returning to Dublin from a recent visit to Georgia, greets the son of a friend from Ukraine.

Lali has never been sure about how long the government would keep paying for the hotel, so she kept looking for an apartment in town. But there was never anything available that would suit them.

Then, finally, a lucky break.

Just before Christmas, one of Misha’s clients told him she knew someone in town who owned several flats. A two-bedroom, fully furnished apartment had become vacant.

The rent was €1,200 ($1,750) a month plus utilities. Misha did some quick calculations: Lali receives around €800 a month in financial support from the Irish government, and if Misha kept up the hours at Glo, he could cover the rest.

He called the landlord.

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Misha, picking up the keys to a Castlebar apartment, smiles with the landlord.

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Lali hugs a friend from Ukraine at the hotel, which she is happy to say goodbye to.

They moved into the flat in February.

Lali has unpacked their possessions and set up the pictures of Jesus on a table next to the cross. She’s thankful to be out of the hotel but weary of trying to make yet another place home.

After 16 years of being forced to start over – in Crimea, Mariupol, Warsaw and now Castlebar – she’s leaning more and more toward returning to Georgia for good.

Alexi says don’t. “The Russians could take everything away again,” he tells her. He encourages her to come to Poland instead. Misha says he’ll be fine on his own and she can always return for a visit.

“I am still dreaming of starting a restaurant,” she says. She’s just not sure where.

War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

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