Sophia: It feels like going up and down on a swing

Sophia is sat at a table outside a cafe in Katowice, Poland. ‘Sophia’ is not her real name; she has asked that we publish her story under an alias because everything is still so uncertain and frightening. She is 27 years old and works for a gas company. Before the war began, Sophia lived with her family: her mother, father and younger sister in Kyiv, where she was born. She led an active life; outside of work she was an amateur singer and dancer and also enjoyed illustration as a hobby. She cherished daily interaction with her close circle of friends. 

Because Sophia works in a company that is closely tied to politics, she was aware of the threats of war from Russia. 

The talks started a long time ago, right before the New Year. We were concerned but no one could really believe it would be possible in the 21st century.

On the 24th of February, Sophia and her relatives were sleeping at home. Sophia’s father woke them up with the news that it had started. The family home was in Kyiv’s Obolon region and one of the main highways to Kyiv is near to them. They could hear and see the explosions in the area from their home.

I was at a complete loss. I’m young and I have never experienced something like that in my life.

The whole family felt desperate and didn’t know where to run to. They packed belongings and food into bags quickly. It was obvious to them that leaving the city would be very risky and frightening, but the prospect of staying didn’t feel possible either. They felt like they had no choice but to leave. They left in their two family cars with Sophia’s father leading the way in the first car, and Sophia following him in her car. 

Despite the fact that my dad is 50 (within the military age) we still hoped he could leave the country with us. But he was saying that he wanted to return and protect the country.

The drive to Poland was exhausting. They were trying to bypass the most dangerous areas and there was heavy traffic everywhere. They often sat in traffic jams for hours and many cars were being driven erratically and jostling as people tried to re-route or remain in convoy with other vehicles. There was a real atmosphere of panic on the roads.

Until it happens, you can’t know what it feels like to pack your life into a suitcase and run to nowhere. 

During their journey, Sophia’s mother contacted her sister, Sophia’s aunt, who has lived in Poland for several years. She invited them to come to her home. Their journey to the Polish border was via Bucha, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv and took three days. In cities close to the border, volunteers were making food for children and the elderly. 

Because of the huge stress we couldn’t eat or sleep normally. We each slept for about two hours during three days in the cars. The only thing we could think about was how we could get away faster. 

On the 27th of February, the family crossed the border at Kracovets. Sophia’s father wasn’t allowed to go with them. It was very hard for Sophia’s mum to separate from her husband. 

It’s been hard to cope with the separation from my dad.

Sophia says that they met many kind and helpful people on their way: some people were offering lifts and transport and the volunteers at the border were so supportive. 

It was a relief to realise that the Polish government made the documentation procedure so much easier to help to save Ukrainian refugees.

Sophia’s aunt met them at the border and took them to her place. Later, Sophia, her younger sister and her mother changed where they were staying as another relative, who had four children with her, was also heading to Poland. 

She has four children and one of them was extremely distressed because of the bombing.

We were very frustrated for the first three days after our arrival because we didn’t understand what to do next or where we could go. We were fixated on the news from Ukraine and really concerned about our Dad. Volunteers accepted Sophia and her family into their home in Katowice. Now, the three of them feel much safer, but they are still very anxious about the future. All the family’s property is left in Ukraine. Everything they have worked for over the years is in danger of being destroyed. Sophia worries that there might not be a home to return to in Ukraine. 

We are nobody here, we don’t know how to lead the Polish lifestyle. It feels very lonely. 

Gradually, Sophia, her mother and sister started the administration for refugees in Poland. It was a frustrating and humiliating process as they were often given contradictory information. They stood in long lines with other Ukrainians for four days and eventually completed the immediate necessities. At the nearest railway station, Polish volunteers from ‘Red Christ’ helped them with information and also gave them mobile sim cards. 

For now, the home where Sophia and her family stay is free. The owners don’t ask for money for their use of public utilities. Sophie is continuing to work online and her younger sister is now studying online. Sophia’s mother, however, has found it really hard to find work. She had a well paid job in Ukraine but is working as a cleaner. They are finding the language barrier very difficult as almost no one speaks Ukrainian and few speak English. The three of them have enrolled in a free language course to learn Polish. 

A further frustration is that Sophia’s car registration plate has been stolen. The task of trying to replace it with a new one feels very complicated. 

We are still constantly reading the news. It feels like going up and down on a swing. There is no understanding what to expect and how to plan our future lives. 

Sophia remembers how she, and her close friends in Ukraine, tried to communicate the truth about the war in Ukraine to their Russian friends. None of them wanted to believe what they were saying and some even blocked communication with them entirely. Sophia feels that those who search for the truth and believe it are in the minority in Russia. 

On the news, Sophia hears about other countries and the services they are offering for refugees. However, she believes that Poland has the best conditions for Ukranians now. 

The family wants to go home. They hope that the war will be finished soon and that they will unite with Sophia’s father in their native country. But they dread what they might expect on their return. 

Voices Ukraine

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