As war in Ukraine drags on, some refugees dream of returning home

08 mart., 2024

Yulia Romashkevich remembers the shock two years ago when she woke up in the early hours to the sound of Russian airstrikes on Ukraine. “My daughter woke up to eat,” she recalls. “I heard the first explosion and immediately started waking my husband.”

For about a month there had been speculation of a potential Russian invasion as President Vladimir Putin shored up his vast military along Ukraine’s borders. But Romashkevich didn’t believe it would happen. 

After five minutes of panic on the morning of Feb. 24, she knew that her family would have to flee Ukraine to ensure their safety. “I (was) on crutches. Our dogs had recently given birth to puppies. We had seven puppies and a six-month-old baby,” she said, addressing the difficulties that she knew lay ahead. 

At the time, Romashkevich, 28, was working as a social media specialist for a local marketing agency and renovating a new apartment in the town of Kramatorsk in the Donbas region. She was also still recovering from a car accident and caring for her daughter, Polina.

The young family gathered up a few belongings ready to leave Ukraine. They first spent two nights in Dnipro and then moved for three months to the Kirovohrad region to stay with friend’s of distant relatives the family had not met before the war.

Then, in the summer of 2022, they decided to move to Lithuania where Romashkevich’s husband had been studying remotely at a university. A Lithuanian family offered them free housing in a small cottage in the village of Vershkania, where they stayed the summer.


Yulia Romashkevych with her daughter Polina (Copyright: Yulia Romashkevych)

“They did their best to make sure that we did not feel the loss,” she said. “When Polina had her first birthday, I was crying because this was not how I imagined my child’s (birthday). They brought her a bunch of gifts.”

Since the war started in February 2022, nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

While millions have returned home as the war is concentrated in the east, many – like Romashkevich – have not. 

Eventually, Romashkevich decided to move to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. They moved into a garage that had been converted into an living accomodation. 

As part of a European Union scheme to support refugees, the family was receiving a monthly income from the Lithuanian government as well as free housing. But Romashkevich wanted more financial security and she began searching for a job.

During her search, she found a journalist position at the Bucharest, Romania offices of an international media company. Although the position meant relocating several thousand kilometers away, she saw an opportunity to not only to survive but to grow while the war continued.

The young family then moved to Bucharest in February 2023, where she worked for the international media RFI for almost a year. But Romashkevich didn’t feel as connected to people as they had in the Baltic country, so they returned to Lithuania this January. “We felt like strangers (in Romania) for the whole year,” she said.

Romashkevich and her husband, Dmytro, had never wanted to live abroad but were forced to because of Russia’s war. Now, they are afraid to return to Ukraine and haven’t been back since they fled and became refugees.

“I definitely won’t take my child there, because if something happens to her, I will never forgive myself,” she said, adding tearfully that she fears not being able to a attend a funeral if a loved one dies in the war.

Tanya Novikova, a 20-year-old IT professional who lived in Kharkiv with her parents, escaped the Russian invasion in March 2022 to neighboring Poland. But she fears she will never get a sense of home again.

When the war started, Novikova was renovating an apartment in Kharkiv and intended to move there when it was finished. On the day the war started, her older sister who lives in the United States called her, and said, “Look out the window, the war has started,” Novikova recalls.

In disbelief and shock, the IT simply stared at the wall. After sheltering in the basement with her mother and grandmother, they decided they would leave to stay with her father in Balaklia, a town situated about 90 kilometers from Kharkiv.

They arrived in Balaklia before it was occupied by Russian forces, but “a few days later, the flag of Ukraine was taken down and the city was taken under occupation,” she said. “It was very scary, there were strong air raids, our windows and doors were (broken).”

It was the early days of March 2022, just weeks after the war started. The situation in Balaklia was becoming more perilous and frightening, so the family decided it was time to flee.

“It was the most terrifying few hours of my life because there were no green corridors,” she recalls, referring to humanitarian routes to allow citizens to safely leave. “People in cars driving towards us were opening their windows and shouting at us not to go. Cars were shot up all around us.”

She recalls driving past a column of Russian vehicles on their way out of Balaklia. “Russian soldiers were coming towards us and they threw us all out of the car,” she remembers. “And we’re standing there with a machine gun pointed at each person’s head – I start crying.”

After a brief search, the family was released. Novikova then took an evacuation train to western Lviv and then from there to Poland, where her sister had flown in from the U.S. to wait for her.

“It was an emotional state, it was terrible,” she said of becoming a refugee. “I was crying twenty-four-seven.”

After a few months in Poland, they went to Georgia where her father is originally from, and where they had relatives. Living in Georgia was difficult not only because of the instantly raised prices, but also because of the large influx of Russians. Eventually, Novikova moved to Bucharest in Romania alone in the summer of 2022.

She has been living there ever since, where she suffered a year-long period of severe depression. “When I left Kharkiv, I had only one T-shirt. I wasn’t interested in going out to buy anything, I was just ashamed,” she said. 

Her mother and grandmother have since returned to Ukraine. Novikova, who suffers frequent nightmares, longs to return home. But as the war continues she is frightened to make the journey.

„I was just starting to buy tickets but then I read the news (about bombing),” she said. “I didn’t go to my friend’s wedding because I was really scared. I don’t want to die.”

Despre autor: Alexandra Stara

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