Nastasia Formina: This is the me who can, who does, who acts

Nastasia Fomina and her mother, Victoria, sit at a small table in a bright room in Italy, connected to interviewer, Tatiana Kirova – who has recently returned to Kyiv, Ukraine – via video conference call. 

Nastasia has just joined intO’s team as part of the Researchers in Residence programme. She will be leading the analysis of, and preparing to exhibit, the data that’s being collected as part of the Voices Ukraine initiative. Her first job is to listen to the stories, recounted during interviews, of over 32 refugees from Ukraine. But first, Nastasia and her mother will share their own story. 

Until the war began, Victoria worked at a school in Kyiv. She enjoyed working, studying and her close relationships with her daughter and mother. Victoria’s elderly mother, Nastasia’s grandmother, was a French language teacher and lived not far from Victoria. Nastasia has lived in Germany for two years, but the three generations of women remain just as incredibly close as they have always been. They all felt settled and stable, with good careers and plans to look forward to in the future. 

Victoria explains that living near the military unit and airport in Kyiv meant that the threat of war was looming long before it began. She’d been involved in making preparations at the school where she worked so that the basements would be ready to house students. 

Victoria: It created a strong tension that something bad was about to happen.

During this time, Victoria was in touch with her daughter daily. Nastasia was glued to the news and incredibly worried about her relatives. 

On February 24, Victoria received a message that the school was closed and there would be no work. On the same day, explosions and air sirens began to sound in the city. 

Victoria: I was very worried about my elderly mother, and then I called Nastasia and said goodbye to her. 

That conversation was incredibly difficult for Nastasia, who felt powerless. Immediately she began to act: looking for tickets and calling friends and acquaintances to ask for ideas and help to get her relatives to safety. 

Nastasia: I didn’t have a plan of action, but I understood that they had to be taken somewhere. 

There were no bomb shelters close to the homes of Victoria and her mother, so there was nowhere to run to and take shelter. Nastasia told her relatives to gather all their necessary belongings and wait for help. On February 25, she called Victoria to tell her that she had ten minutes to meet her grandmother and there was no time to wait because a car was coming to collect them: the parents of a friend of Nastasia’s had agreed to help and take the two women to the border at Lviv, in the West of Ukraine.

Victoria: At the time we didn’t really understand that we would end up travelling so far. Our idea was to survive the war in the west of Ukraine. 

Victoria recalls how difficult it was to take the decision to leave her cat, Asya (a shortened version of daughter, Nastiasia’s name) at home in Kyiv. She stresses that Asya is very much a part of the family. Victoria left out plenty of food and water and also left her apartment keys with someone from the neighbourhood who offered to look out for Asya. 

The drive to the border was long and difficult. There were huge queues of traffic and people were panicking and trying to leave the most dangerous areas all at once. While the plan had been to travel to the border at Lviv, the people who were driving Victoria and her mother offered to take them further. With this as an option, Nastasia arranged for them to stop and rest in Lutsk, as she had a friend who lived there. After a night of rest – all together in one room – they set off again and drove to Ustyluh on the east-side of the Ukrainian-Polish border. They got as close as they could in the car, but Victoria and her mother were required to walk the final ten kilometres and the progress was physically difficult and slow. The well-organised volunteer support offered some consolation at this time. The volunteers brought water and blankets to the tired and freezing people waiting in line and there were toilet amenities at one point. 

Victoria: Crossing the border was incredibly difficult and long. It was especially hard on my elderly mother. She fainted several times in front of me and I just had to scream for help. 

There was no proper medical assistance at the border, which made the situation even harder for Victoria herself. She is diabetic and needs to adhere to a strict diet and regular insulin injections. To administer one injection, she had to go to a building where border guards were present, and this meant leaving her mother alone in the crowd for a while. When she returned she couldn’t find her mother. The two women lost one another for a time. 

Nastasia explains that she was in constant telephone contact and experiencing this horror together with her mother and grandmother. She was waiting for them at the Polish border and had arrived early so as not to miss them when they crossed. However, the queues were so slow that it was impossible to predict when they might meet. Nastasia spent 24 hours there, waiting with no sleep. The feeling of frustration that she was so close, but could not help them, was intense. She could only receive and reply to messages, trying to offer words that might support them. 

Nastasia: I was constantly in touch and trying to at least give some advice. It was so difficult. I just kept telling myself that I had to keep going. 

Nastasia remembers how she watched people coming through the border, eagerly watching for the faces of her loved ones. Many of the people she saw had no belongings, and even more arrived alone and were greeted by no one. 

Nastasia: They were simply going nowhere, struggling to process their surroundings and information, and not knowing anything. 

Meanwhile, Victoria and her mother waited in front of the border’s actual barrier for five hours. 

Victoria: I was in such a state that I didn’t care what people would think of me. I just needed to go to the other side. I pushed my mother through as soon as I could and I crawled through on my knees. 

Once they’d crossed, volunteer support was again strong. There was hot food and drinks, warm clothes and people ready to assist with everything. But Victoria had only one thought.

Victoria: I just had to see my daughter as soon as possible.  

Nastasia remembers how the sight of her mother and grandmother – both incredibly exhausted and confused – was very traumatic for her. At this part of the interview, she tries to smile brightly, but tears fall. This was clearly a moment filled with such a mix of emotions. 

Nastasia: I have never seen my mother and grandmother in such a bad physical and moral state. I wasn’t prepared for it. I’ll never forget it. 

Nastasia then took her family to a hotel in the city of Lubin to rest. After a short time they journeyed on to Berlin, where Nastasia lives. Both Victoria and her mother needed urgent medical attention and as displaced people, who didn’t speak the language, it was really hard to get help. Nastasia had to support them and advocate for them, every step of the way, so they could receive proper treatment. 

Victoria: I can’t imagine how people get settled in foreign countries without relatives.

After two weeks, some comfort and optimism was delivered in the form of Asya the cat. The person who had been feeding and looking out for Asya had also been forced to flee Kyiv. So, Nastasia found a volunteer in Kyiv who broke into Victoria’s apartment and collected Asya, and then passed the cat to a friend of Victoria’s who was due to leave the city. This friend had four cats of her own but wasn’t able to leave the country with them because of their age. Nastasia arranged transport from Lviv to Berlin for this friend of her mother’s, and also found accommodation for her. As Nastasia already has a cat of her own, Asya isn’t able to live in her Berlin apartment – but she’s staying with one of her friends and Victoria is able to see Asya often. 

After two months of sharing her small apartment in Berlin, Nastasia took her mother and grandmother to Italy and their plan is to stay for two months. It is proving to be a valuable chance for the three women to recuperate from their experiences together and process what had happened to them. 

Nastasia: I’ve been so worried about the stress that my mother and grandmother have gone through. Arranging to come to Italy felt like something I could do to help them to relax and recover. 

In recalling the difficult path they have taken, the women both agree that the war has greatly changed their perspectives and priorities. For them, it has highlighted the bond they have and the beauty of family and relationships. And, for Nastasia, it has delivered a new sense of resilience. 

Nastasia: The war revealed a part of me that I had forgotten – a very real part. This is the me who can, who does, who acts and can solve issues. I can see now how I had been missing this part of me. 

It is still dangerous in the Kyiv suburb that Victoria and her mother call home. There are still air raids and occasional shelling, and Nastasia’s cousin’s home has been completely destroyed. The pictures of this hit Nastasia very hard; they were a very real reminder of how everything can change in just an instant. Victoria’s home has so far survived but it still feels too dangerous and unpredictable to contemplate returning. Soon, the three generations of women will leave Italy and return to Nastasia’s flat in Berlin. Victoria is so glad to be with her daughter, but she still dreams of the end of the terrible period of wars and returning to her native home. 

Nastasia is looking for separate housing in Berlin for her mother, grandmother and Asya, but the process for this involves many stages of various document administration and registration. She is prepared for it to take some time. 

Voices Ukraine

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