by Olha S.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN COMPTON
The First Easter The first Easter with the Easter Bunny and the search for chocolate eggs, the first experience of living with people who became a family from the first days, a meeting in a cafe that turned out to be the door to a dream job, getting a driver’s licence for the first time at thirty-eight years of age in a foreign country, meeting people who made me feel better and brighter and kinder and a lot of unconditional love that I did not expect but am filled to the brim with it. But also, the first feelings of paralysing fear, grief, and despair, which I had not experienced before. And a lot of questions to which I cannot find answers.
The Girls Finally, my beloved Katya is nearby! How glad I am! She arrived in Kyiv more than six months ago, but I cannot get enough of her. I call her twice a day when I can’t see her in person. How wonderful it is to have a kindred spirit. We met at school when she came from the Voronezh region, and we immediately became friends. That was twenty-four years ago, but I still remember. We could talk for hours about anything and nothing has changed over the years. Even when we lived in different countries thousands of kilometres apart, married, with children in our arms, we were closer than many others who lived in the same house. Sometimes we thought that our souls knew each other from past lives and found each other again. I’m lucky. We’re lucky. On February 23, 2022, we met for breakfast in a cafe. Three close friends. Me, Katya, and Yulia. We met to drink a cup of coffee and chat. We were all scared and did not understand what lay ahead of us. There were rumours about the beginning of the war, but they desperately refused to believe in it. We were together, our families were nearby, our work, home, going to the theatre and the opportunity to call and drink coffee at any time simply because we wanted to chat.
We didn’t want to believe it. We had plans for our lives. It was a workday, I had to get back to work. We had a wonderful chat, so I did not want to leave. I hugged my girls tightly and when I left the cafe, I looked out the window for a long time looking at them. We haven’t seen each other since.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN COMPTON
Note to Zhenya I was lying on a sports mat in the bomb shelter of my daughter’s school and thought about a message for her for the future. I tried to remember the feeling of my body when I felt light and calm. But it was scary. We were here for only three days, but I did not know when I would return home again. Would my home be there? I tried to get back to feeling my body. No, it doesn’t work. It was compressed. I was thinking only about how I could save my family. How and when I could hug them and tell them, “No worries, everything is over.”
Dearest, I’ll not tell you what will happen in the future. The results of the mistakes of the past you will make by yourself. I just want to wish you to be as happy as you can. And please, take care of yourself. Take care of what you like. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, support you, accept you. Who love you. Living here. Giving more than taking. Say thanks more than ask. Spend time, days, hours, minutes with important people, who make your life happy. Learn to let go of everything that is no longer yours. Let humour, self-irony and courage never leave you. Don’t look back too often. Use any opportunity to change yourself and change the world around you. Any. Even the smallest opportunity. Remember, I love you so much!
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN COMPTON
The Eggs On the day before leaving for Lviv, I was more carefree, perhaps because of the false feeling that I could leave my worries behind. There were air raid alerts every two hours, so we decided to leave the bomb shelter and go there only during alarms. The rest of the time we were in my brother’s apartment, five minutes from my daughter’s school, where we hid for the last few days. The last time I was at home, I ran there for ten minutes to pack only necessary things. In the refrigerator there was cooked borscht, fresh cheese, milk, and fruits. “I’ll ask someone to take it’,” I said to myself as I left the house, hoping to be back in a week or two.
“Olya, hurry up, get ready, we need to go to the shelter! Olya, hurry up,” my brother shouted from the hallway of his apartment. “But I haven’t boiled eggs for the girls yet!” “Olya, leave the eggs, get out as soon as possible,” my brother called me without ceasing to rush. “Take Zhenya and go. I’ll catch up shortly.” When everyone left, I calmly boiled eggs, made sandwiches, put pasta and vegetables in a container, and poured hot tea into a thermos. The alarm continued to sound relentlessly. I left twenty minutes later, knowing that our children would not be hungry, even if we had to sit in the shelter until the train left for Lviv.
The Fear I met with fear and grief many times. When the siren sounded in Kyiv, my daughter and niece were on the street and the children were so scared and ran so fast that they fell and hurt their knees. When I, as a volunteer, helped people evacuate from Bucha, Irpin, and Vorzel, I came across stories and events that made my blood freeze. I saw my friend crying, a strong man who managed to survive and escape from the occupied town but who risked everything to save his sister and her children. Children, fathers, daughters, mothers were beaten and died. It is impossible to let go of this fear, this grief. And every morning since February 24th, waking up at 4.30 am, looking through the news feed, I look forward to seeing the news about the end, about the beginning of a new life that will lead me to peace and the beginning of a new old life.
Our Guys We didn’t have time for thinking and planning. We understood that our main task was the safety of the children. And we flew away. Our things, the dog and cat, our kids and faith. That’s all that we had.
We met the guys with the help of a Facebook group for Ukrainians in Ireland. I wrote to Darren. He quickly responded and said that he and his family would be happy to host us. He only asked if we would be embarrassed by the fact that they live in a remote area without public transport. Of course, we didn’t mind. We arrived on March 25th. Lviv-Kraków-Dublin. In the beginning, I was with the girls. Anya, with the animals, was supposed to arrive on another flight in the evening. I was a little worried about how Alice would feel without her mother in a foreign country and how she would endure the flight. But the flight was easy. The girls behaved well, played, and laughed. A man on the plane gave the girls a packet of M&M’s and they were so happy and busy eating they didn’t pay attention to pressure drops and stuffy ears. For the children, it seemed like an adventure. We walked along the long corridor at Dublin Airport to passport control, and I still did not understand how long this path would be. I just repeated to myself, “A few weeks, a maximum of a month, and we can return home.” “Olya! How are you doing? I’m Darren. Nice to meet you all! Welcome to Ireland.” Darren called me when we were processing our temporary protection at the refugee centre. I turned around, saw a familiar face from Facebook and a photo that he sent me when we were still in Ukraine. I ran and hugged him, a stranger who was ready to save us. Our guys, as we later began to call them, did not ask us anything. We did not discuss agreements, any terms or conditions. And we were accepted and surrounded by such love and care that I had not felt in my life. That evening, we talked about the war. The guys help Ukrainians a lot. They help them to find homes, arrange their lives, they help so sincerely and free of charge that I sometimes wondered if I could do the same? How much love is in me, would it be enough for everything and everyone? That evening, Dee said that everything that happens in Ukraine now concerns everyone. It concerns every single person, regardless of where they live and what they do. Everything that happens now should be in our thoughts and hearts. Everyone has the power to change the world a little for the better by filling the heart with compassion, kindness and love and using every small opportunity available to us.
NATO Camp “What an idiot I am!” I was standing at the bus stop for the airport with Zhenya and our suitcases when I realised that I’d made a mistake with the time of our ticket. Our bus left twelve hours ago! “Hi Darren. How are you? I made a mistake and I need your help.” “Where are you? Stay there. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”. Our angel saved us again. And so, we fly to you. Everything is not as we thought. Instead of four or five days together, we were given five hours to meet. Thousands of kilometres, planes, trains, transfers. But we are flying to you. She will see you. Her dad. When you are together - this is explosive energy multiplied by two. It’s always an adventure with fun and amazing discoveries. And an ocean of love, tenderness, sincerity, support, sensitivity, trust. This is pure happiness. And now I wish more than anything that all the children hug their daddies tightly at home, under a peaceful sky. And are never parted again. “Mom, please don’t cry!” But I can’t hold back anymore. I don’t even see you yet, you’re only on the way from the military base to the meeting place, where there are several families like us from all over Europe. I’m tracking your location, ten more minutes, seven minutes, five minutes. You’re very close. Now more than ever for this life-long ye ar. How cold! There’s a strong north wind. We’re standing near a rented tent where we will spend time together. Inside there are wooden tables and benches, instant coffee, tea and traditional pretzels. Why is it so cold? Why can’t we just take you home? Why can’t we go home??? “Hey, mom, you promised me not to cry!”
Goodness We are scattered around the world, like beads from a necklace. Gems that light up the world. Someone has made their choice, someone else is just looking for answers. Someone who believes and somebody who has lost hope. There are those who give up and those who fight to the last. Someone who realised their value, someone else who is just on the way. I am happy to meet incredibly bright people on my way. Starting from Yurko, who sheltered us in Lviv for a month when we had nowhere to go, unconditionally giving up his apartment in the city centre and helping us with everything. I am grateful to Dorik and his wife, who met us in Krakow, found an apartment for the girls to rest before the trip to Ireland and helped with the animals. Infinitely and forever grateful to our guys. Their wonderful children, the creative Alexander, the sensitive and very deep Isobel and the commander and sweetheart Lucy, who became ours too. Rosemary, Eddie, Sisi for wisdom, steadfastness of vision, boundless kindness, and support. Kate, meeting with whom turned my life around. Geoff, who believed in me from the first minutes of meeting in the cafe and gave me the chance to do what I love, and who continues to support and guide me. Dear Darren Green, the best teacher, and a man with a heart of gold and endless patience. My Irish and Ukrainian colleagues and friends who help and support me every day. My neighbours, landlord John, instructors, English teachers Anton and Masha, random people, whom I have no doubt been lucky to meet. Lovely German Karoline, who hosted us for a couple days in Nuremberg and provided a great cultural program while we waited for a meeting with our dad.
A family that lives without us. My loved ones are nearby for wisdom, patience, and love. My daughter, my little and wise- beyond-her-years girl for how wonderful she is. Her friends and classmates, teachers for kind hearts, help and support from the first days. Soldiers, their lives, their families. People who are helping in the rear. Who are with us now and who are no more. We are all scattered around the world. But I am convinced that there is no greater weapon than love, faith, support, and compassion. The more light we see within ourselves, the brighter the world around us will be. This bright light will dispel the darkness.