More than one million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes since the Russian invasion began. Most had only minutes to pack and even less time to think about what to take.
What do you bring when your world has been upended? Sure, you’ll pack clothing, documents and maybe some food. But what else can you cram into a suitcase, a backpack, a purse, a plastic bag or even a pocket that will remind you of the life you’re leaving behind? What can you hold on to that will keep memories alive?
We asked refugees arriving at the Polish border crossing at Przemysl to show us the things they just couldn’t leave without.
Martha Bas stuck to the basics as she madly flung things into her bags. “Only medicine, warm clothes for children and documents,” she said, noting that the medicine was just in case one of her two children got a fever on the journey. They left everything else behind, including two pets — a parrot and a hamster. Beyond what little she brought, “we just have God.”
While his mother jammed clothes and other essentials into suitcases, 13-year-old Matvii Bas reached for something else; a notebook he uses to practise Japanese. He fell in love with the language a year ago while watching anime films and he spends hours writing Japanese characters. His mother teaches English and she’d rather he learned that instead. But Mavii’s heart is set. “I love this language,” he said as he flipped through the pages.
Anna Delihovskiy can barely look at the photo without coming to tears. She and her son had to leave in such a hurry they couldn’t take Willie, her six-year old Chihuahua. He stayed with her husband, who’s now fighting the Russians. While she misses her husband and trusts they’ll be reunited, for some reason it’s the photo of Willie that hurts most.
Nadia Melnychuk could have left everything behind in Lutsk as long as she had her three sons: Nikita, 13, Andrej, 8, and her four-month-old puppy, Lucky the Grey. “Yes, I have three sons,” she said smiling as she held Lucky in her arms. “We couldn’t leave without him.” It took four days for the family to get to Przemysl and all three made it just fine.
“This my hope,” says 15-year-old Jaroslav. He holds up the one-litre canteen he’s been carrying across Ukraine to Poland. This is no ordinary canister. It’s the one favoured by his brother, a soldier in the Ukrainian army. Now it’s a reminder of him and what it takes to keep going. “If I have my canteen, I always have water,” says Jaroslav. “And I will survive.”
Patolia Shailja, 19, came to Ukraine a year ago to study medicine. Now she’s trying to figure out how to get home to India. Just before jumping on a bus in Kyiv, Ms. Shailja made sure she had warm clothes, some chocolate bars and a stash of US dollars for a plane ticket. “I hope to finish my studies,” she said. “I want to be a doctor.”
Gana Gorbunowa didn’t spend decades as a nurse in a Kyiv hospital to slip up now. With the pandemic still fresh in her mind, Ms. Gorbunowa, 68, made sure she had her COVID-19 vaccination certificate — in multiple languages — as she ran out the door of her flat. She carried the document in a smart plastic folder, along with her passport, and proudly showed it to a Polish border guard.
Natalia Panasiuk has a habit of taking off her wedding ring when she’s doing chores around her house in Kyiv. So when she had to leave quickly with her three-year-old son Andrej, one thought raced through her mind; “I cannot leave without my wedding ring. It’s something I must bring.” As they got off the bus in Przemysl, Ms. Panasiuk’s husband, Olexander, was waiting. They shared a long hug, with the ring secure on her finger.
As she raced around her house in Chernihiv, Tetiana Novytska made sure to pack her favourite dress and her best shoes. When she walked the final few kilometres to the Polish border, Ms. Novytska stopped to pick up something more precious: a pine cone and a leaf from an oak tree. She carefully tucked both in a side pocket of her purse. “It’s a little piece of Ukraine that I’ll always carry with me,” she said.
Lyda Tsehelnyk, 44, carefully unwrapped the fraying birth certificate and smiled at the memory of her grandmother, Zoia. She was born in Poland and died in Ukraine in 1963, according to the death certificate, which Ms. Tsehelnyk, 44, had also packed. The Polish connection was now something to celebrate, she told her children. “If we stay here we have documents to prove we have a Polish grandmother,” she said loudly.
Darina Tsehelnyk, 21, couldn’t have made it to Poland without her family and her cane. She’d had an operation on her knee a few months ago and even hobbling has been painful. But there was no time to think about that as she, her mother and two cousins made the long trip to Poland from Kyiv. “I can’t go quickly, but my family understands and helped me,” she said.
Ukraine wasn’t Abderrahman Tiji’s first choice when he was home in Morocco thinking about where to study pharmacy. But he’d found a good program in Kharkiv and decided to enrol. Five years later and on the cusp of graduating, Mr. Tiji, 26, has been forced to quit the program and run for safety in Poland. He grabbed a record of his grades as he ran out the door, hoping he can finish the degree somewhere else.
Dina Cierkosy, 55, is so sure she’ll return to her apartment outside Lviv one day that she brought all of her keys — one for the front door of her apartment building, one for the garage and two for the seventh-floor flat she shares with her husband, Vietali, her daughter, Lena, and their seven-year-old parrot Tedi. How convinced is she that Ukrainians will beat back the Russians? “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Alina Kuban’s phone is filled with pictures of her mother, Anna, and she quickly pulls up one of her favourites: a shot of them celebrating last New Year’s Eve in Kyiv. But Ms. Kuban, 28, has arrived in Poland alone. She implored her mother to come with her, but her mom wouldn’t budge. “She doesn’t want to leave,” Ms. Kuban said, holding back tears. “She wanted to stay and not lose the house.”
Tina Shoniia, 26, went into panic mode as she rushed to get out of Kyiv. “I was just pulling random things into a bag,” she said. But she wasn’t going anywhere without her two dogs — Tequila and Kiwi — or their passports. “I just knew I had to have the documents for my dogs and some money,” she said.
When there’s little time to pack it’s hard to get choosy about clothes. But 11-year-old Nastia Metiak knew there was one T-shirt she had to bring. She’d bought it two years ago at a shop in Lviv. It’s jet black, which she loves. “I don’t know why it’s my favourite,” she said, holding it tightly. “But it is.”
Angelina was tired, hungry and cold by the time the bus finally arrived in Przemysl from Lviv. But at least the three-year-old had her prized rabbit doll “Maly” and her mom, Irena. “We couldn’t leave without it,” Irena said, rolling her eyes. She’s a single mom and it’s been just the two of them on the journey out of Ukraine. Irena wouldn’t have it any other way. “We are only two. We are doing the best for each other.”
He used to run the legal department of a bank in Kyiv. Now Konstantin Skrypka, 43, is sleeping on the floor of a shelter in Przemysl desperately waiting for his wife. They’d split up on the way. Mr. Skrypka took their two children across the final stretch on foot, while Ms. Skrypka went in the car. It’s been three days and she still hasn’t shown up. He’s trying to stay warm, in a Whistler, B.C., windbreaker, and keep up his hopes without crying too many tears.
Most children forced to pack in a hurry would probably stuff their backpacks with laptops loaded with games. Not Victoria and Bogdan Boyko, nine-year-old twins from Lviv. They packed their textbooks for math and grammar. They would have taken more but for their grandmother, 84-year old Zenobia Smokorowska, who accompanied them on the trek to Poland. “Grandma said that’s enough,” Victoria said mournfully. They’re heading to Warsaw to reunite with their mother, and resume their studies.
When the call came to get out of Odesa, 35-year-old Natalia ran for the cupboard where she kept the family photos. “It was the first thing I thought about,” she said. “I was saying maybe this one, maybe this one.” She jammed a few in an envelope, including two of her favourites: a shot of her as a teenager, which brought back memories of her childhood, and a photo of her son, Amir, graduating from kindergarten. “I couldn’t leave without these pictures.”
Dmytro Trushkova, 13, doesn’t usually wear the cross he received on his baptism. But when his mother said they had to get out of Kyiv in a hurry, he made sure it was fastened to a chain on his wrist. “It’s protection,” said his mother, Liudmyla. As proof of its power, she shows videos on her phone of the bomb blasts that missed them and the Russian tanks they evaded.
The birthday card with the colourful drawings and decorative envelope had hung in a special place for months in the Medvedchuk home. Seven-year-old Lera Medvedchuk had made it for her mother. When the family rushed out the door for Poland, Vika Medvedchuk ran for the card. She folded it neatly and put it in her handbag. “I just had to bring it,” she said.
Lera isn’t the only artist in the Medvedchuk household. Her sister Zenia, 10, draws portraits of her mother. They too are put on display, usually on the side of a work table Ms. Medvedchuk uses for her sewing business. Zenia’s latest creation was also among the family treasures Ms. Medvedchuk tucked into her handbag in the final few minutes she had in her home.
George Fedorov left Russia for Odesa, Ukraine, five years ago for a better life. The 24-year-old programmer settled down, got married and developed a passion for music. He knows he stands out as a Russian among refugees in Przemysl, but he has no time for Vladimir Putin’s “massacre.” When fury and worry grow too overwhelming, he pulls out a small music box he got as a New Year’s gift from his wife. He doesn’t really know how to play it, but the sound that it makes is soothing enough.
Evgeniia Fedorova, 31, used to work with homeless people and veterans in Odesa, and she often knitted in her spare time to relieve the stress. She’s never needed her needles and yarn more than right now. As she sat on the floor of a shelter in Przemysl, the quick repetition of stitches offered a familiar escape from the turmoil all around. And with every move of her hands, her nails glistened patriotically; blue and gold for Ukraine.
It’s a small yellow notebook that Oksana has had for three years yet doesn’t contain a single entry. Her husband bought it for her during a holiday in Cyprus and she’s kept it in a special place ever since. When the Russian attack began, the pair had to separate; Oksana, 39, headed to safety in Poland while her husband stayed behind in Lviv. As she ran out the door, Oksana grabbed the notebook, a reminder of happier days and a place to write down some memories.
Alisa Brevnov, 12, loves the sea and never misses a chance to go to the beach. Last summer, her uncle took her on a trip from her home in Kyiv to Odesa on the Black Sea. She spent hours happily scouring the coastline and picking shells for souvenirs. When her mother told her to quickly pack up to leave, Alisa knew just what to bring: one of her favourites from last summer.
Olga Gabrilyan, 42, knew exactly which photos she had to take as she madly packed her belongings in her home in Kharkiv. One was a picture of her as a child with her parents. The other was from a professional shoot her photographer boyfriend organized last year. She’d had dozens to choose from but cherished the one of her with wings. “I felt very good with these wings,” she explained. “Because I can fly away, and be by God.”
In the frantic rush to leave her home in Dnipro, 14-year-old Milana Volkova knew she had to bring books. She can’t live without reading and her room was filled with dozens. But she could only fit a couple in her backpack. How to decide? She finally settled on three that she hadn’t read yet, including one from the Harry Potter series. As soon as she made it to a shelter in Przemysl with her family, Milana plopped down on her suitcase, opened the cover and shut out the world.
When Elena Stadnyk’s mother frantically called and told her to get out of Kyiv with her baby, Ms. Stadnyk’s brain froze. “I started brushing my teeth,” she recalled with a laugh. “And then I was thinking, what am I doing brushing my teeth. I’ve got to get out of here.” She quickly threw together a suitcase and grabbed any gold jewellery she could find, just in case she needed something to sell. That included a bracelet that had been given to her eight-month-old daughter, Alisa. They made it to Przemysl without selling a thing. “I never would have sold that bracelet,” Ms. Stadnyk confessed. “She only has one thing.”
Kateryna Skrypko had finally got her big break as an actress when the Russian invasion began. She’d landed a star role in a television drama called Water Police, which just started airing in Ukraine. A second season was in the works, but now everything is on hold and Ms. Skrypko has fled to Poland. Not all is lost. As she left her home in Kyiv, she took a copy of a book by Konstantin Stanislavski, the Russian drama master. “I’ve wanted to read this for five years,” she said. “I never had the time. But I guess I do now.”
When the bombs began falling around Kyiv, 13-year-old Simon Delihovskiy became so anxious he couldn’t eat. He implored his family to head to Poland. His mother, Anna, finally relented. They had to leave Simon’s father behind and spend four days on the road to the border. “I was scared at first,” Simon recalled. He still managed to pack the one thing that he couldn’t live without: his laptop.
As her family scrambled to pack, Svitlana Brevnov raced to a drawer in their flat near Kyiv and rummaged around inside. They’d bought a Ukrainian flag a while ago and had never gotten around to putting it up on a wall. But with Russian tanks on the streets and her family running for shelter, she wanted the flag. She finally found it and stuck it in her knapsack. “This is my country,” she said as she waved it in Przemysl. “This is my motherland.”