Viktoria: It’s near impossible to work with a small child

Viktoria sits at a table in a small cafe in Katowice. She holds her young daughter, who is playing with a little toy, in her lap. On the table, there is a coffee and some sweets for the child. 

Before the war, Viktoria and her four-year-old daughter, Sophia, lived with their loving husband and father, Ivan, in Kharkiv, in central Ukraine. Viktoria is a primary school English teacher and also ran her own cleaning business in the city. She describes her life as very happy, settled and full of things to look forward to. 

On February 23, Viktoria and Ivan enjoyed their 9th wedding anniversary. It was a bright, sunny day and the family went for a long walk. It would have been a relaxing day, but something was strange: they noticed many military vehicles heading to Chuguev – a military city near Kharkiv. The volume of vehicles was alarming and it put Viktoria and Ivan on alert – although they didn’t imagine that it was anything to do with war. That evening, Viktoria received a text message from a friend: ‘Pack your things because tomorrow you will be attacked.’ 

We just didn’t believe it, because there had been several similar messages before, on different dates, and nothing had happened.

The city of Chuguev can be seen from the windows of their home in Kharkiv. At 5am on February 24, Viktoria woke up to the sound of bombing. It was so loud that the windows were vibrating. It was terrifying.  

I ran out to the balcony and saw how the explosions were turning the sky bright white. 

Viktoria ran to wake her husband and they began to gather the necessary documents and belongings that they would need to take away with them. Viktoria couldn’t stop shaking and began vomiting from the stress and shock. 

I called my parents, who live in a village near Kharkiv. My mother was crying and screaming and also in shock. Their village was also being attacked.

At 6am, Viktoria and Ivan woke their daughter and left their building. They didn’t know where to find a bomb shelter but decided to run to Ivan’s parent’s home, on the opposide side of the street to theirs. 

Shocked people were running everywhere, jumping into cars and speeding away. Some were just in a daze and others were going to work as if it were a normal day. 

There wasn’t appropriate shelter in Ivan’s parents building, either, so the whole family went to a local church that had a cellar and were soon joined by others from the neighbourhood. The cellar was big but very dirty and cold. They all remained there for ten days. Viktoria would run back to Ivan’s parent’s home to collect food to share with everyone in the church, and neighbours who had cars would try to find and deliver them supplies. 

Soon, the children in the cellar began to get sick. There was barely any food and no medicine available.   

My Sophia didn’t take off her winter hat and coat during those 10 days. It was so cold. We slept in our winter clothes.

Next, the adults started to become unwell, too. They didn’t even have tea to drink, only hot water. After Sophia’s condition deteriorated, Viktoria decided that they had to leave the cellar. She decided to travel to Poltava, the village where her parents lived.

The journey wasn’t at all easy. A neighbour offered to take them to the railway station in his car as there was no public transport running. Reaching the car was the most frightening experience of Viktoria’s life. There were sounds of explosions and shooting all around and they had to run through the noise, expecting that they and Sophia could be shot at any moment. 

We had no choice. It was impossible to stay in the city. 

They drive through the sounds of bombing towards the station. It was clear that people all around were in a panic and trying to get away as quickly as possible. 

I remember driving past one man whose car had broken down. His family and kids were in the car. It was cold and they were stuck. The man was crying for help but everyone was shocked and anxious. I didn’t see anyone stop to help him.

Once at the station, the queue took the family two hours to pass through, but eventually they reached Poltova and united with Viktoria’s parents. However, after just two days the air sirens started sounding there, too. It was impossible to sleep or even stay calm – night or day. But Viktoria had made contact with an old friend who was living in Poland and offered to help her to settle there. Viktoria invited another friend, Irina – and her children – to travel with her and Sophia. Ivan and Irina’s husband were to stay in Ukraine. 

On March 13, Viktoria, Irini and their children began their journey to Poland. The first evacuation train was cancelled, so they had to wait all day and until the late evening for another one. When the curfew began and all the lights were turned off they had to wait in total pitch black. Many people had gathered to take the train to Lviv and it was total chaos. When the train pulled up, people were running in the dark and blindly pushing into each other. 

It was dark everywhere. I remember the screaming of children and people trying to find each other in the chaos.

Viktoria heard Irini calling to her and she and Sophie jumped into one of the crammed carriages and found them there. It was cold, dark and very cramped. But when they reached Lviv they were met by volunteers who helped them to find a bus to take them onward. 

They crossed the Polish border in Uhryniv. It took them two hours to pass the checkpoint, but everything was well organised. Volunteers met them with plenty of food and hot drinks, and found them warm places to rest. 

Throughout all this time, because of constant tension and fear, I couldn’t eat. I could eat only after we crossed the border.

A bus then took them to Lyublin. Here, there was a huge gym that had been equipped to house refugees until somewhere more permanent was found for them to stay. It was comfortable and there were lots of people around to help. 

I liked the place very much. It felt like total safety and comfort. 

After three days in the gym, Irina decided to travel on with her children to Switzerland. Viktoria and Sophia left for Katowice, where Viktoria’s friend was to meet them. The friend had found a Polish family in Mikolow, who were happy for Viktoria and Sophia to stay with them. Ivona and Robert – the owners of the home – prepared everything that Viktoria and Sophia might need for rest and comfort, also providing them with food, clothes and a doctor. 

I had been afraid to wash our clothes when we were in the cellar, because you have to be ready to run every minute. So we came to their house very dirty and I felt very ashamed.

They stayed with Ivona and Robert for three days and then moved to an Institutional hostel in Katowice – and this is where they are still staying now. The conditions are good. Volunteers bring food, medicine, clothes and toys for the children. They live together with around 500 other refugees from Ukraine, but each family has a separate room. 

We like the place and the support here. But we want to go back home so much. Although, we have no home….our flat was burnt out and Ivan’s parent’s house is also near-destroyed. It would be impossible to stay there.

Little Sophia talks about her burnt toys every day. Both mother and daughter are desperate to see Ivan and try to rebuild their lives together. For now, Viktoria is trying to learn Polish and is working as a cleaner while her daughter is at kindergarten, but Sophia gets very sick often, so the situation is difficult and unsteady. 

It’s almost impossible to find a job if you have a small child, but I keep hope for a better future. 

Voices Ukraine

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