Valentyna: I’ve never been abroad before

In a small cafe, in the city of Katowice, Poland, a woman with sad eyes sits at a table. She is gazing into the distance, deep in thought. Her arm is hugged over her chest and her hand pats her shoulder, seemingly unconsciously. On the table in front of her is a cup of coffee and a printed theatre ticket, but the ticket is not for a performance that she’ll ever see. The ticket is for a play that, because of the war, was never staged. It’s a small symbol of her previous life and, as Valentyna explains, her story starts with the ticket. 

Valentyna is a Ukrainian language teacher from Kharkiv. She is a great lover of Ukrainian culture and theatre and instils this passion to the students she teaches. Valentyna’s husband, Yuriy, is a medical doctor. Together, they have two grown-up sons, aged 32 and 27, who also live in Kharkiv and have followed in their father’s footsteps to become doctors. Valentyna is clearly very proud of her sons as she talks about their intelligence and kindness; family life was very happy and settled. But now, Valentyna is in Katowice and her two sons and husband remain in Ukraine to fight. 

Valentyna’s family in happier times

I’m afraid that I’ve started to hate all men who are running away from the war.

Valentyna’s ticket to Franko’s theatre, in Kyiv, had been booked two months in advance for the evening of February 24, 2022. It was particularly good timing as Yuriy also had to deliver some documents for an educational course in the city. She had circled the date in her calendar in order not to forget. 

On February 20, Valentyna received the first warning that her plans might change. One of her sons phoned to ask if she had packed an emergency bag in case she had to leave home quickly. Her son has a friend who is a soldier; he had been aware of the threatening situation and had started to warn people. But Valentyna didn’t take the warning too seriously. She told her son that she would prepare her bag once she and his father had returned from their theatre trip to Kyiv. Her son urged her to reconsider and, after their call, Valentyna gathered her documents, two pictures of her family and a small towel. 

They began their journey to Kyiv by train in the late evening of February 23. There was a military soldier travelling with them in the carriage. At 5am, Valentyna was woken by the sound of his phone ringing and couldn’t help but listen to his side of the conversation. He was asking questions like, ‘How about the others? Are they alive?’. It was clear that the Russian attacks had started. That’s when Valentyna saw that she had a voicemail on her own phone; a message had been left by one of her sons. 

Mum, our city has been attacked. My brother and I are heading to the railway station now. 

Valentyna and Yuriy arrived in Kyiv. The department where her husband was supposed to take his documents had already closed – as had the theatre. They decided that they would stay in the city for one night and then return back home. However, when their son called again everything changed. He told them that it was too dangerous to return to Kharkiv and that they should head to Western Ukraine. They agreed to meet their sons in Lviv. They had travelled with very little, although Valentyna had packed her documents, the two family photographs and her small towel. 

I felt like I had lost my grip on reality. Something big was happening, but I really couldn’t understand what to do or where to go. 

Valentyna and Yuriy waited in a queue for four hours. It seemed that it would be impossible to get tickets to go anywhere. Finally, they were able to book an intercity train to Ternopil. 

The train moved twice as slowly as it would usually because of the threat of air raids and possible ground attacks. They arrived in Ternopil at 5am on the morning of February 25. The railway station was completely overcrowded and it was forbidden to turn on any lights. They were directed to a bomb shelter, where they had to wait until the train to Lviv arrived. On this second train, Valentyna was able to snatch a small amount of sleep, laid out on the seat of the train. 

The couple arrived in Lviv at 8am on February 26. It was cold, windy and grey – and the atmosphere was static with anxiety in the usually warm, friendly city. Air raids were sounding all around. Yuriy didn’t feel well and Valentyna managed to book a hostel in the city centre where they waited for their sons to arrive. 

At 11am, Valentyna’s sons arrived. They had a plan to move forward to Uzhgorod and all together they began to review the documents that Valentyna had packed. Among them were the records of their mortgage payments. Once of the sons took the records from her, saying that they wouldn’t be needed anymore, and then threw them in a nearby bin. 

This memory is so symbolic for me. It seemed as if he had given up on our previous life and the hope that we might return to it. 

Together, the family waited in a long queue to buy their tickets to Uzhgorod. After some time, her sons broke the news that Valentyna would have to take a different train to them, which was taking people to Przemyśl on the Polish border. Yuriy and their two sons would remain in Ukraine. 

I was utterly lost. These are the most important people in my life. My husband is the best person in the world and a doctor sent from God.

Yuriy looked awkward as Valentyna’s sons led her to the train. Once she was seated inside, she took a photo of her beloved family through the window glas. She has not seen them since. The train started moving. 

I was moving to nowhere. I’ve never been abroad before. 

Once in Przemyśl, Valentyna moved through passport control very quickly and was met by volunteers. She felt completely lost and embarrassed, but the volunteers helped her to find somewhere to stay. The Polish host family came to the border and collected her, taking Valentyna back to their home. It was a relief to finally wash and get some sleep. When Valentyna awoke in the morning, the first thing she did was call her sons. They told her that they and their father were joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She was initially shocked, but understood; her sons and husband are brave and principled and would have refused to shy away from protecting their motherland at such a time. She feels an intense combination of worry and pride for them. 

Once Valentyna was a little more settled, she decided to track down an old friend who had lived in Poland for some years. The friend, based these days in Mysłowice, invited her to stay. This is where Valentyna how stays, while her husband and sons are working in the military as doctors, helping to save badly wounded soldiers. 

They are risking their lives every minute. I live from day-to-day, praying and crying. 

Valentyna can’t call her family, so she just watches a small, green light in the messenger app that helps to reassure her that they are alive. 

In just a few moments our family was turned upside down. We’ve left the homes we own, our jobs, and we’ve separated and are now in different countries. 

Valentyna is trying to distract herself from awful thoughts and works as an online Ukrainian teacher. It is a relief to be able to support and help her students during this really hard time. She is also trying to study and learn Polish, but is finding it really hard not to be distracted by her worries. She has a photograph of her husband wearing military uniform. 

He is different now. He looks totally different. 

The news from Ukraine only makes Valentyna feel worse; the situation is so dangerous. She feels dispirited and gets very little pleasure from communicating with anyone else. She remembers her former life as a teacher, having worked in her institution for 30 years. She was always a social person and enjoyed collaborating with others. 

I miss that all desperately. I miss my students and colleagues. I want to see them all again. But when it’s hard for me now, I think about my sons and husband and how much harder it is now for them. 

Remembering her previous, joyful life is painful and Valentyna is crying. She hugs her arm across her chest and her hand begins to pat her shoulder again. 

I love our town, our streets and school, the square and the library. I even love the puddles on the square. 

Memories of her and Yuriy’s routine Friday coffee dates warm Valentyna’s heart. Her thoughts are always with her family and her town, her home. She wants to return and be with those who are closest to her again. She says that she takes no satisfaction or joy from being in a foreign country. 

Once Valentyna’s online teaching job is finished she wants to try volunteering. 

People say that when you support other people you support yourself.

Voices Ukraine

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