Olena and Andrii Tsebenko
Olena tried to stay calm as her husband inched their car through the seemingly endless line at the Polish border, but everything inside her was screaming for him to turn back.
She was nine months pregnant with their first child and terrified at the thought of leaving her home and her country. She didn’t think she could face any changes, not that close to her due date and not without knowing where they were going.
The morning had been a blur – the race out of Lviv after the first bombs hit the city and the brief stop at Andrii’s parents’ house in Sambir. Olena saw the fear in the face of Andrii's mother as she begged them to go to Poland: “Today rockets are falling down and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
“What are you saying?” Olena replied through tears. “I am not going anywhere.”
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Poland
Olena and Andrii fled their home in Lviv, stopping in Sambir on their way to Przemysl, Poland.
Andrii convinced Olena that his mother was right, that they had to leave, and now she was stuck in the line at the border, praying this war would end soon.
Her only comfort came from stroking her swollen belly. “This is my hope,” she told herself. She knew the baby was a girl, the daughter she’d longed for. And she’d already picked out a name: Vira.
Ukrainian for Faith.
Halyna Lazar, Lisa and Eva
Eva woke up early, too excited to sleep. It was Feb. 24 and she was turning 10 – almost a teenager like her sister Lisa. Her parents had promised a celebration later that evening, but Halyna and Bogdan were in a hurry to get to their dry goods store in Sambir’s marketplace. They wished her “happy birthday” as they rushed out the door.
The first bombs struck just after they left, shaking the house so hard that Eva felt sick. She heard more explosions coming from the military base down the road. A neighbour told her: “It’s war.”
As the family fled, the line at the Polish border seemed to go on forever. Halyna hoped the few snacks she brought would be enough for Eva, Lisa and the friends they’d crammed into the car. But on the third day, they had nothing left. Just as Halyna began to panic, she noticed people coming out of their homes along the highway, handing out food to everyone in line. “A miracle,” she said, smiling.
When they reached the border, Bogdan said a tearful goodbye, and headed back to Sambir to keep the house safe and join the fight against the Russians. “You have everything, and in one moment, you are alone,” he thought when he arrived home.
Halyna and the girls settled in the border city of Przemysl. Halyna had spent a day here a couple of months earlier, Christmas shopping with a friend. They’d stopped for lunch at a coffee shop called Fiore.
As it happened, a volunteer offered her and the girls a place to stay just down the street from the café. She walked by it every day and saw the cakes in the window, the people laughing inside. “We were drinking coffee there, too,” she thought as she passed. “Now we are refugees.”
Eva loved the Ukrainian school in Przemysl. She loved her new friends. She loved feeling safe, and she found herself skipping and singing down the sidewalk for the first time since the bombs.
Lisa, however, was put down a grade and couldn’t relate to any of her classmates. And so she skipped class.
By August, Halyna missed Bogdan too much and she told the kids that they were moving back to Sambir. She said it would be better at home.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Poland and back
Bogdan drove Halyna and their two daughters from Sambir to the Polish border, then headed back to join the resistance. Halyna, Lisa and Eva stayed in Ostrow, Poland, and then Przemysl for five months before returning home.
Since Halyna and her daughters have returned to Ukraine, Eva spends hours in her bedroom transfixed by her phone. She reads about every missile strike, every power cut, every death. She twitches at the sound of the air raid alarms and sometimes says to her mother: “Let’s go to Poland.”
Halyna doesn’t want to leave home again. But she’s disturbed by the sirens, too, her head pounding every time they sound. Where are the missiles? Where will they hit?
Pretty soon, Eva will turn 11. And on that day, the war will be a year old.
Nataliya Vtoryhina, Anastasia and Varvara
Like suburban parents everywhere, Nataliya seemed to spend half her life making the 40-minute drive between her family’s home in Irpin and Kyiv. She drove there for work. She drove there to take her oldest daughter, Anastasia, to figure skating lessons and then countless times later when her youngest, Varvara, became a budding star in rhythmic gymnastics. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She and her husband, Alexander, loved Irpin and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.
When the first bombs fell and the Russian soldiers began advancing on Irpin, they had to pack in a hurry. Varvara wanted to take her pet rabbit, Korgik. He’d been a Christmas gift, a special surprise from Santa. The car was jammed but Nataliya couldn’t say no. She tucked Korgik in a cardboard box and made room in the back. “The life of the rabbit was more important than things.”
“This will be our life now,” Nataliya told Varvara as they crossed into Poland. They had to leave Alexander behind in Ukraine along with Anastasia, 28, who didn’t want to abandon her husband. Nataliya’s only thought was getting her daughter to safety. There was no time for tears or second guessing. “We have to be strong.”
At the train station in Przemysl, Nataliya watched as Varvara played with two little girls. They had been left at the Polish border by their mother, who had misplaced her ID and couldn’t cross into the country. Like Nataliya, the girls were headed to Italy, so she and a couple other women took care of them and made sure they got to their grandmother in Naples. Nataliya never saw them again, but she wondered about their mother and the painful choice she had to make.
A few weeks later, Nataliya stood at a sink in a seafood restaurant in Fano, Italy, up to her elbows in dirty dishes. Her two engineering degrees and years of experience as deputy director of an energy company didn’t mean much in this northern Italian town. She’d been encouraged by another rhythmic gymnastics parent to come here so that Varvara could pursue her love of the sport. But there wasn’t much support for newly-arrived Ukrainians and she had to constantly beg for rides to get Varvara to training.
In July, a call came from a Ukrainian friend who had gone to Norway, and she sang the praises of the country’s refugee program. Ready to move again, Nataliya found a volunteer willing to drive them to Stjordal, in western Norway. She packed their suitcases, and Korgik, and they drove off.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Norway
Nataliya and Varvara fled Irpin, stopping in Przemysl before continuing to Fano, Italy. Not finding much support there, they later moved to Stjordal, Norway.
Six months after their move to Norway, Nataliya watched nervously as Varvara competed in her first major competition. Varvara made one mistake, then two, then too many. She finished eighth. As she cried in her mother’s arms, Nataliya thought back to when they were in Fano. Every day while she was at work, Varvara spent time in the refugee shelter with an old woman from Ukraine. The woman used to tell Varvara that if she didn’t do well in gymnastics her mother wouldn’t love her. Nataliya knew her daughter was vulnerable and had taken the comments to heart. Now, as she held her tightly, Nataliya said softly, “I love you. I love you.”
Anastasia arrived in Stjordal in December, nine months pregnant with her first child – a boy to be named Vladislav. They’ve been told they can’t stay in their two-bedroom flat and Nataliya is lobbying refugee officials for a new apartment near a bus stop so Varvara can keep up with training. She’s also trying to learn Norwegian so she can find a job, but she laughs that her mathematical mind struggles with the nuances.
When things become too overwhelming, Nataliya recalls a line from Gone With The Wind. She repeats the words of Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
From his living room window in Irpin, Mahmoud could see the explosions and watch people running for their lives. All his dreams suddenly seemed so pointless. He’d come to Ukraine in 2014, the son of an Egyptian father and Ukrainian mother, with plans to become a surgeon. He spent six years in medical school and was on the cusp of graduating. Now all that seemed over.
As a 25-year-old, Mahmoud would have had to stay in Ukraine were it not for his Egyptian passport. Ten weeks into the war, he was out of the country and in the lobby of a hotel in Katowice, Poland, waiting for a shuttle bus to the airport. He paced, too excited to sit still. He was about to catch a charter flight with a group of other refugees to a place he’d never heard of until a few weeks ago – Newfoundland. All Mahmoud knew is that it’s an island, it’s in Canada and it has a medical school.
But when he talked to the licensing body in Newfoundland, he learned about a vexing problem: To become a doctor, he would have to complete a residency program that only permanent residents or citizens can apply for. But you can’t apply if you’ve been out of medical school for two years, and it takes more than that amount of time to become a permanent resident.
“They are saying that I just have to forget about medicine,” he said once the news sank in. “Yeah, so that’s not a thing that I’m going to do, actually.”
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Canada
Mahmoud left his home in Irpin, and then went to Katowice, Poland, where he took a flight with other refugees to St. John’s, Nfld.
After arriving in St. John’s, Mahmoud found a job working the front desk at the Delta Hotel, but he often thought about returning to Ukraine. It was dangerous, but at least he could be a doctor there.
Then, in October, he heard about an option that gave him hope once again. He quit the hotel for a job at a senior’s home because it qualifies under the Atlantic Immigration Program. The program helps employers hire skilled foreign workers for certain positions and it provides a fast-track to permanent residency. If he’s lucky, Mahmoud can become a permanent resident in a year.
“I am trying my best to get there,” he says.
Olga and Ivan Antoniuk
Olga and Ivan were also in Katowice that day in May, waiting for the flight to this island called Newfoundland.
Olga knew Newfoundland was in Canada but not much else. But it had to be better than staying in Chernivtsi, she thought. Her real estate business had collapsed. There was no construction work for Ivan. The stress had been overwhelming and they were fighting all the time. But now there was hope. Ivan had a Romanian passport and Olga spoke passable English. They could bring the cats – Bella and Simba.
“I need this. I really need this,” she told Ivan. “Maybe we can lead a good life there. A beautiful life.”
She got a job cleaning rooms at a hotel in St. John’s. Ivan landed work in construction and they found a basement apartment downtown. When the landlord heard that they were from Ukraine, he filled it with donated furniture.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Canada
Olga and Ivan fled Chernivtsi for the airport in Katowice, from which they flew to St. John’s, Nfld., with a group of refugees.
Olga’s hotel job was fine but she desperately wanted to get back into real estate. She sought advice from a realtor in town, who was so impressed with her that he paid the $4,000 fee for her to take a licensing course. If she passed the exam, she could join his company. She quit the cleaning job, took the course and aced the test. It wouldn’t be long before she had her first clients.
One morning in September, Olga had to rush Bella to the vet. Their pet insurance didn’t cover Bella’s kidney disease and the vet told Olga the treatment would cost $450. She only had $250. A woman in the waiting room overheard the conversation, handed $200 to a nurse, then walked out.
“I said to the front desk lady, ‘Please explain to me why she did that. Because I don’t understand. I don’t know her.’ And she said, ‘It’s okay. It’s Newfoundland. It’s just people here.’”
Bella died two weeks before Christmas. She’d been with Olga for 16 years. “I was hoping that probably she would live for a long time with me here in Canada. But it’s not what happened. I understand she was old and she lived a good life. And I hope she was happy to live with me and to come here.”
George Fedorov and Yevheniiya Fedorova
George squirmed as German police officers boarded the train in Dresden. He handed over his passport and the officer glared. It was Russian. George explained that he’s lived in Ukraine for five years and that he had fled Odesa on Feb. 24 with his Ukrainian wife, who was sitting next to him. Nonetheless, the officer hauled George off the train and detained him while officers assessed whether he was a threat to national security. After seven hours, he was released and allowed to stay.
After that day, George would’ve loved to burn his Russian passport, but he couldn’t. He had nothing else to show the police: “I’m not related to anything. I’m trying to cut my connection with Russia and I have no connections with Ukraine or anywhere.”
When the war had started, George worried about how Yevheniiya would react. She’d battled bipolar disorder for years and he knew she’d be anxious. But she proved him wrong. Instead of drowning in fear, she focused on getting her loved ones to safety: George, her mom, and her brother. They made their way to Ternopil in western Ukraine, then Przemysl and Ostrava, in Czech Republic, before friends recommended Germany.
Yevheniiya brought her five cats with them, as she couldn’t bear going anywhere without them. She’d taken them in a couple of years ago, after she hit rock bottom. She’d been abandoned by her first husband and had a toxic relationship with her father, an addict. She spent a lot of time sitting on the bathroom floor in tears. But George found a psychiatrist and the therapy helped. So did the cats.
In May, the couple moved to Hartha, a town west of Dresden. They didn’t know anyone in town and they stayed clear of their German neighbours. George worked from home for a gaming company, and Yevheniiya rekindled her interest in photography. Her mother and younger brother took a flat in an apartment building next door. It’s a quiet, withdrawn life, but a relief from the war.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Germany
George and Yevhiniiya left Odesa on the first day of the war. They stayed in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, before fleeing through Poland to Ostrava, Czech Republic. After a few weeks, friends urged them to come to Germany, so they headed to Dresden, then Leipzig and finally settled in town called Hartha.
After they settled in Hartha, George contacted his family in Volzhsky, southwestern Russia. Their relationship had been strained since he’d dropped out of university in St. Petersburg and ran off to Odesa, where he’d eventually met and married Yevheniiya. When he reached them, his mother told him Ukraine is full of Nazis. His younger brother barely acknowledged him. His father wouldn’t talk to him at all.
The call left him conflicted: “In one way, I’m glad that the war happened because I have this reason to cut ties completely. But on the other hand, it’s a shame that my own blood is a victim of this regime.”
He decided to reach out once more. He asked his father, who loves chess, if he’d like to play online. He thought maybe that would help ease the tension. George explained to his dad how they could access a site from Germany and Russia, but his father found a million excuses not to try.
“That’s a bummer but nothing really changed,” he says. ”I’ve never really spoken with him before. I will never speak with him again.”
Every Wednesday in Hartha, the fire station sounds a siren precisely at 3 p.m. It’s only a drill but it has the same eerie drone as the air raid alarms in Ukraine. George and Yevheniiya still can’t get used to it and, for a few minutes each week, they are back in Odesa, running from bombs.
Sonya and Oliver Hawes
The happiest day of Sonya’s and Oliver’s lives was Feb. 22, 2022, the day they got married in Kyiv. A Ukrainian and an American. Sonya had planned to keep studying psychology or open a restaurant. Oliver wanted to design eco-friendly clothing and maybe start a commune one day to show the world how to live sustainably.
Two days into their married life they raced out of Kyiv as the first bombs started falling. After time spent in Warsaw and The Hague, the couple stayed in the suburbs of London. Sonya’s mother had fled to Italy to live with relatives, bringing Sonya’s 18-year-old sister Stella. While there, doctors discovered that the stomach pain that had bothered Lena for so long was pancreatic cancer. By the time she and Stella reunited with Sonya in England, it was too late. Lena was only 51 years old. She died on Oct. 19, in a hospice, begging Sonya to take her to Ukraine.
“Sometimes I feel that I don’t have emotions at all,” Sonya says. “Just empty. And I’m feeling that if something happens, I don’t really care. It’s nothing. Nothing more can happen.”
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Scotland
Sonya and Oliver fled their home in Kyiv, driving through Hungary and Slovakia on their way to Warsaw, Poland. They then spent time in the Netherlands before landing in Bracknell, England outside London. After four months there, they moved on again, to Ayr, Scotland.
In December, Sonya and Oliver moved to Ayr, Scotland. They liked the idea of living in a small town and Oliver’s parents planned to move there from the United States. Stella, who came, too, is struggling with the loss of Lena. Sonya sets aside her own pain and tries to fill in the gap. “But nobody will take that place.”
Sonya grieves, as well, for the baby she and Oliver lost just before the war. The doctors in Kyiv said the miscarriage was a genetic malformation and that Oliver and Sonya could try again. She wonders how they would have coped as refugee parents and starting a family now is far from her mind. “It was hard at the time. But so many things have happened that I’m exhausted.”
They’ve kept Lena’s ashes at a funeral home near London. Her dying wish was to be buried in Ukraine but the war and red tape keep getting in the way. “I have my mother’s ashes. I need to send them to Ukraine,” Sonya tells officials at the embassy. But they’re too preoccupied to help.
In Britain, Sonya has given up revealing too much of herself. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with their inside,” she has learned of the culture. “Because they shut down their emotions, they don’t want to deal with your emotions and they don’t want you to feel that emotion.”
“Sometimes, the days are just like a dream,” she adds. “And you’re just sitting, waiting for something.”
Zinaida Polosina and Sonya Frolova
Zinaida and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Sonya, jumped in the car as the first missiles struck Kyiv. Zinaida had never been out of Ukraine and now she was headed for Hungary and then Poland. They were travelling with friends of her son – a young couple named Oliver and Sonya, and Oliver’s mother. Zinaida didn’t know them well and couldn’t follow their conversation in English. She just held Sonya tight. The child has no siblings and her mother died years ago. Her father – Zinaida’s oldest son – had joined the Ukrainian army.
“When I crossed the border into Poland I was in shock,” she recalls. “I don’t know where they are taking me, I don’t know where to go.”
Zinaida grew up near Kherson. She worked in a bakery for 37 years, got married, had two sons and then got divorced. She retired a few years ago and spent most days watching over Sonya. In Warsaw, she took Sonya to school and jiujutsu classes. But after five months she’d had enough. She couldn’t speak Polish and her Ukrainian pension cheque went almost nowhere. In August, Zinaida told Sonya that it was time to return to Ukraine.
They couldn’t go back to Zinaida’s village because it was under Russian occupation. Oliver’s mother, who’d returned to the U.S., offered her apartment in Kyiv. Zinaida was thankful. But once she'd arrived there, part of her felt lost. She was back in Ukraine but not home.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Poland and back
Zinaida and her granddaughter Sonya left their home near Kherson, stopping in Kyiv before being driven to Warsaw, Poland via Hungary and Slovakia. Missing home, they eventually returned to Kyiv.
From the 14th-floor balcony of her borrowed apartment, Zinaida can watch the missiles when they strike Kyiv. But she won’t leave the flat when the air raid siren sounds. She’s too afraid of power cuts and she can’t climb the stairs. So they cower in Sonya’s room until it’s over.
“I wake up at night. Desperate things in my head,” she says as tears well in her eyes.
After school, Sonya spends most of her time in her room, drawing pictures of houses and flowers and happier times. Her father calls from the front when he can, and for a moment they’re a family again.
Sometimes Zinaida calls her sister, Olga, who lives back home near Kherson where the Russians are in charge. It’s not so bad, Olga tells Zinaida. Her daughter has found work and the Russians pay well. Besides, she says, Ukraine is full of fascists. Zinaida gets angry every time they speak. But she cries at the thought that she’ll lose contact for good.
“I have only one sister.”
Lali Dmitrieva and Mikhail
Lali held up three fingers. “The Russians have driven me from my home three times.” First from Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Then, last March, she fled Mariupol.
“It hurts inside when you lose everything,” she says.
All Lali has ever wanted is to make people happy through food. Not just any food: the sumptuous dishes from her homeland of Georgia, like khinkali, khachapuri and khashlama. She owned a Georgian restaurant in Crimea and managed three more – one in Kyiv and two in Mariupol – before the Russian army invaded.
Last March, Lali and her family had to hide in their basement for weeks. She lost friends and relatives. She watched young mothers weep because they couldn’t produce enough milk and their babies died. The family finally got out of the city in a daring evacuation by bus. Lali and her son Mikhail went on to Poland. Her husband and their older son Alexi, 25, had to stay in Ukraine.
Mikhail made sure he left Mariupol with his most prized possession: a manicure kit, complete with a nail drill, files, polish and scissors. Although he was only 17, he’d been doing his mother’s nails and hair for years. When they got to Warsaw, he and his mother lived in a shelter with women from Mariupol, many still traumatized from what they’d been through. As soon as they arrived, Mikhail pulled out his kit and painted hearts, stars and bright colours on everyone’s nails.
Even as a refugee, Lali wanted to keep making food for people. She tried to find work in Warsaw, but she couldn’t speak Polish and kitchen jobs paid next to nothing. She couldn’t speak English either but friends who’d gone to Ireland told her there would still be better prospects for her in Dublin. So she and Mikhail packed up and left.
Mapping the journey: Ukraine to Ireland
Lali and her son Mikhail were evacuated from Mariupol last March and went to Warsaw. After four months in a shelter for women and children from Mariupol, they moved to Dublin and then Castlebar on Ireland’s west coast.
When Lali and Mikhail arrived in Dublin, they were crushed to find out that the shelter there was closed. They would have to move on to Castlebar, three hours west.
They shared a room with two other refugees at the town’s Royal Hotel and Theatre, joining the thousands of Ukrainians sent to the city. Lali tried to learn English and find work, but there was not much call for a Georgian chef around here. She begged the hotel manager to let her into the kitchen to sprinkle some variety into the bland menu. The answer was no.
Mikhail got a job at a nail salon, but he’s paid under the table and less than the locals. The clients adore him and call him “busy Misha.” He was told to spend 45 minutes on each customer, which is less than half what he needs for the perfection he craves. And so, he’s happiest at the Royal Hotel, using his tools and his talent to make refugee women look beautiful.
Last fall an old colleague from Mariupol called Lali to tell her he’d landed in Toronto. He wants her to come and help him open a Georgian restaurant. It’s farther from home – and she clings to the idea that she’ll be reunited with her family in her homeland – but she’s so excited that she rushed to apply for Canadian visas for her and Mikhail. When the war ends, maybe her husband, an architect, could join them and open a business, too. Even Alexi, now a doctor, might come.
“You have to live and go forward,” she says. “Our family will live again together, and we’ll have the life we had before.”
Olena and Andrii’s daughter was born on March 17 in Przemysl. Three kilos and 140 grams.
Over the last 11 months, Olena has shown Vira pictures of Ukraine and bought her books about the country to read one day. Even her birth certificate has been translated from Polish to Ukrainian.
Andrii, who had left Ukraine mere hours before he wouldn't have been allowed out, wants to go back, but he feels fortunate that he can be with his family.
Now, their baby is almost walking, almost speaking a few words of her mother tongue.
- Story by Paul Waldie and Anna Liminowicz
- Photography and video by Anna Liminowicz
- Editing by Micah Toub, Angela Murphy and Belinda Lloyd
- Interactive design and development by Christopher Manza
- Photo editing by Solana Cain
- Video editing by Timothy Moore
Olena Tsebenko, Sonya and Oliver Hawes and George Fedorov speak with The Decibel's Menaka Raman-Wilms about leaving behind their homes on February 24, 2022. From births to deaths and marriages, they share their stories of how their lives have carried on in the wake of the war. Subscribe for more episodes.