«I want to breathe the air of my home and help here.» The story of a Ukrainian refugee who returned from abroad

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Lviv Now narrates the story of a Ukrainian refugee who, together with her seven-year-old daughter, left Odesa abroad in early March and has now returned home despite the shelling.
Photos by Olha Klymenko

Photos by Olha Klymenko

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Olha Klymenko is from Odesa, she is 37. Her daughter, Olesya, is 7, she loves to draw and adores animals. In early March, they had to leave their native Odesa for Poland, but then returned. On Easter day. Olha says that the feeling of home cannot be replaced, although in Poland, they did not need anything, because everyone was trying to help. Olha told Lviv Now why she and her daughter already came back, whether they plan to leave again later, how they were met in Poland and how Odesa is living now.

Odesa is still under intense fire from orcs, recent shelling damaged a number of houses, a boiler house, and a civilian enterprise in the city, destroyed the runway of Odesa airport, and killed civilians, including children, there are wounded as well.

Grandma and a cat are waiting for you at home

When the war started, I didn’t work. I studied at the travel agency «Tudoy-Syudoy», planned to become a translator and guide in Odesa and Bessarabia. There was a month left before graduation, I had to take an exam. Prior to that, I worked at Brynzarnya for two years. This is a hotel farm where goat cheese is made. It’s such an eco-gastronomic tourism. Brynzarnya is located in my native village, Prymorske, where my mother now lives.

We have a very patriotic family, we raised Olesya as a patriot, and she sang the Ukrainian anthem when she was 4 years old. Now, as for the war, she watches the news with me, is aware of everything happening to our country, asks when it will end, and understands everything.

Read also: Pain behind the white door. Stories from a modular town for refugees in Lviv

When we were going to leave, I told Olesya that this would be such an adventure for us and that she would remember how everyone hugged her for 2 months in Poland and gave her many presents. We had many adventures: we lived first in one family, then in another one, then rented a house. Olesya even didn’t want to leave when I said we were coming back. But there was an incentive that we go to our grandmother, and your cat is waiting for you at home.

I went to Poland, and my Polish friend continues to volunteer in Odesa

I have a Polish friend from Krakow, whom I met in tourism, he is currently volunteering in Odesa. He helped me a lot to go, we got to Poland for free with volunteers. We lived first with our mutual friends in Krakow, and then in Gdansk we lived with other friends. And he stayed here in Odesa helping the city and the whole of Ukraine. And so it turned out that I went from my country to Poland, while he stayed and did something for our victory. And what would I do? In Poland, of course, I helped as much as I could, we organized charity concerts and other activities there. But I needed more. I did not have the strength, resources, or mutual friends to do something big. Maybe then I will return to Poland, because I have to think not only for myself: I am responsible for my child. I do not know. I am always in despair and doubt: I did the right thing or not, what to do next, how to be. I’ve been thinking a lot these days about coming back.

Olha and Olesya in Kwidzyn

Odesa is calm now, but it’s absurd. For example, I walk along the Cathedral Square in the center of Odesa, a siren sounds, and people sit, drink beer, children walk on the playgrounds, and parents sit next to them. A bell rings from the cathedral, and at this time a siren. No one even moved to flee. Odesa is calm, and it’s even scary.

Romania – Hungary – Slovakia – Poland

We had a very difficult road to Poland. Volunteers from Krakow brought two buses of humanitarian aid to Odesa, and we joined them on the way back to Poland. The first point of the route is the ferry crossing on the border with Romania: Orlovka (Ukraine) – Isaccea (Romania). There we waited for the volunteers, they left the cargo, and we boarded a ferry with them and crossed to Romania. My older sister and daughter went with me. My mother stayed at home, she did not want to go. We were quite worried, and that’s one of the reasons I came back. I just couldn’t… She was left alone. Without anyone.

Read also: Native faces of unbreakable Kharkiv. Personal war stories from the outpost city

So, we went to Isaccea. We waited from the very morning, from 9 am to 4 pm, until the volunteers arrived: they missed one ferry, so waited for another. There were a lot of people, and I was afraid that we would not be able to fit on this ferry. In Romania, we were met at the border very well. Volunteers made tea and coffee for us. While the daughter was walking, she was constantly offered: «Do you want a hot dog? Do you want candy? Take a toy. Take another toy. There are some other delicacies for you.» She went through about ten stages of such gifts and was very excited.

Krakow. Volunteers we came with. One of them is Andrzej, we stayed the night with his family. Also, my sister and daughter are in the photo

When we arrived in Krakow, we stayed overnight with the volunteer who brought us. It was a night from 7 to 8 March. This is an incredible family: he, his son and wife made such a beautiful dinner, and brought us gifts with flowers, toys for Olesya. She was also given a package of clothes and a blue jacket.

I thought we were going for a week or two

The next day, we had to continue our journey. There were so many refugees at the train station in Krakow. I understood that not everyone there travels within Poland – some go to Germany or beyond. There were just a lot of people lying on the floor, children, items, cats, and dogs. It was so sad and scary. I didn’t even realize what I was doing here, where I was. And when my Krakow friends offered me to show the city, I simply couldn’t accept its beauty. This scene from the station impressed me a lot. I can feel it even now. Numerous, extremely many people, standing in endless queues, take tickets (these were free tickets throughout Poland). In Krakow, we took a free ticket to Malbork, where we were met by a mutual friend, who hosted us. We lived in Kwidzyn near Gdańsk and Malbork in northern Poland, near the border with Germany.

Malbork. Europe’s largest castle of the Crusaders

I became friends with Beata, who hosted us, in the summer when she came to Odesa as a tourist. When the war broke out, she wrote to me on Facebook: «How are you? Can you come? It’s dangerous for you there, we are waiting.» A stranger I knew one day invited me to come to her. So I didn’t just go somewhere to look for something: I had a place and people waiting for me.

Olesya and Beata

I thought I am going for a week or two, then it would be over, and I would be back. Many people, as soon as they arrived, looked for work, sent their children to school, looked for housing, took out health insurance, and applied for financial aid from Poland. And all this was done on the second day after arrival. I didn’t do any of that: Why? I’m not staying here for long. I also said to Beata that we were not planning to stay for long. I was embarrassed that they offered: «We give you housing, and food, you do not have to pay for anything.» They brought us some aid from all over the town: clothes, toys, food. My daughter, while we lived there for 3 weeks, went to dances, met girls, and has already started learning Polish. The attitude of Poles to Ukrainians, to «uchodźcy», refugees, is incredible. I will remember it for the rest of my life and say that it’s unbelievable what they did and what they do for Ukrainian refugees.

Read also: Native faces of unbreakable Kharkiv. Personal war stories from the outpose city. Volume 2

I want to breathe my air and I want to help

We lived with Beata in Kwidzyn, and at some point, I realized that I needed to do something further, look for housing. I can’t live long with strangers, even if she’s a good friend of mine, because I don’t know when it all will end, how much longer we will stay at their house. She also has her own family, her own children. We helped do something in the yard or cook dinner, but it’s still an inconvenience. My sister and I decided that we should have separate housing. This is very difficult in Poland now. Millions of refugees are all seeking housing. We did not stay in Kwidzyn, we went to Sztutowo, a small town in the north. We lived there for 2 weeks.

The Baltic Sea. Sztutowo, Poland

Then we went to Gdańsk, lived there for 3 weeks, and rented accommodation. The season is already starting, and Gdansk and Sztutowo are tourist cities by the sea, and it is expensive, because there, like in Odesa, rent is paid by days. There are no more people who can offer accommodation for free or take into their own house. 

Gdańsk. At the bus stop

Road home with volunteers

I called my mother, and asked how my friends were. One of my friends stayed in Romania, one in Austria with two daughters, another in Germany with her daughter, and one more in Germany with her son. I made a group «Friends-mothers», and we communicate there. One friend lived in Lviv with her relatives. She returned to Odesa too, and we met yesterday. And another friend of ours, who is in Romania with her son, is also due to arrive by the end of the week. Everyone misses home very much. Although, I have a friend who lives with her son now in Nuremberg. She has found a job, receives social assistance, and says she will stay there. From the beginning I felt that she would stay, now I am packing her things and sending to her. I couldn’t do like this. With all the wonderful attitude towards us in Poland, I still want to go home.

Way Home

It’s difficult for me there, because everything is not mine, I was born in Ukraine, I am very home person and I really want to be at home. I want to breathe my air and I want to help. I just couldn’t work there. I watched the news and didn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t learn Polish, I couldn’t do anything, and my brain just didn’t work. It seems to me that I should be here, at home. I now left my daughter with my grandmother in Prymorske and came to Odesa. Here I go to a charity concert. I have a lot of ideas now on how to help the country, I communicate with friends, everyone is a volunteer, and I want to join them and do some of my own projects too.

Charity Cake Concert. Kwidzyn, Poland

For those who are leaving now, I advise looking for housing 

For those who are currently going abroad, I advise you to look for housing immediately. No need to go without knowing where. At first, Polish helped Ukrainians with housing a lot, because there was an opportunity, now it is less and we should not expect it. I was faced with the problem that my friends were asking for help to find housing. But I can’t find it either. And my friend Beata can’t, because it just doesn’t exist. You need to understand it, accept it, and realize it.

Also, you should not abuse all these free aids. To be honest, sometimes I was ashamed of Ukrainians. For example, we were in Gdańsk, where a charity match between Shakhtar and Lech took place, and organizers took a symbolic price of 10 zlotys. All funds went to help Ukraine. Everything is there to help Ukraine, at every step – «to help Ukraine». We came and bought tickets. We were standing to buy a hot dog and talking to a woman, also from Ukraine, and she asked: «What did you pay?! It should be free! « She doesn’t even understand what a penalty is in footbal, and came because it’s free. So it’s important how you can help, and not use help just because, if you really don’t need it.

Also, if there are any charity concerts or actions from Ukrainians for Poles – join them. For example, I signed up for an activity in Gdańsk: Ukrainian refugees held an event for Poles and cleaned up garbage in parks and beaches every Saturday. I think this is very important if it so happened that you had to leave home to do something, help in Poland, Romania or somewhere else where you were sheltered. I am not such a leader who founds some movements, but if I return to Poland, I may start something, I have some ideas.

We need to tell the whole world about the war

In Gdansk, I was in the museum of the Second World War, it is very interesting. You can just walk there all day. I strongly advise everyone to visit it, I wrote a review of my impressions and parallels between Poland in World War II, and now with us.

Museum of the Second World War. Gdańsk, Poland

We need to gather information in various aspects now. Assistance to the army, charity events, aid to refugees, all this must be documented, so that later, when the war is over, we need to make such an interactive museum. The audience at the Polish Museum is teenagers aged 15-18, our history should be interesting to our next young generation too. I want us to have such a museum after the victory, because we need to show it to the whole world, to tell our children. There is also a museum in Sztutowo like Auschwitz, because there was also a concentration camp. I went to this museum when we learned about the atrocities of the Russians in Bucha, Hostomel. All these museums are created to remember the war and never repeat it, but now everything is happening again in my country. 

I always want to cry. There are no more tears, but still... First such an exaltation: we can do everything, I can do everything, and then a moment of despair.

By the way, Odesa now gives concerts on a balcony. We had such a hub space, there were performances, bands performed, and now on Saturdays, at 2 o’clock, there is a concert on the balcony. They make symphonic covers for Ukrainian performers. Now, I’m leaving at 2 o’clock. In the meantime, I will make stuffed cabbage and take it to our volunteers.

By Kateryna Bortniak

Photos by Olha Klymenko

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