Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.
Life in Kyiv seems to be back to normal. Gyms, restaurants and stores have reopened except for Zara and McDonald’s, although McDonald’s plans to start reopening its venues. It all looks like nothing happened and the war is somewhere else or in the past, and not around the corner. People do worry but mostly keep their worries to themselves.
With more locals coming back, I hear more and more stories about their escape. None of them are cheerful and it’s difficult to comprehend what people went through trying to protect themselves and their children, what hardships they had to face on their way to safety and living in foreign countries not knowing the language and being isolated from their husbands and parents. Men under 60 can’t leave Ukraine under martial law. For many elderly, the difficulties of traveling weren’t medically feasible..Therefore, the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees were women and children, and many families have been separated.
When the war broke out the bus and railway stations were overcrowded with hastily packed and desperate women with children. Most of them were leaving without any particular destination in mind. Like in the Fastball song:
They made up their minds
And they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going without ever knowing the way?
Anya was at home with her husband on February 24 when she got the news about the war. Their teenage daughter was staying with her grandmother at this time. CNN claimed that Kyiv would fall within the next 4-5 days. The first curfew was from February 24 through February 28. People were locked in our apartments, some with food and medications and some, like me and my husband, without.
In the beginning, Anya, 35, a breast cancer survivor, had no intention of leaving. But the first two weeks were indeed scary. Few pharmacies and groceries were open, shelves had slim pickings and lines were horrendous. Banks and transport were not operating.
When the curfew was lifted, Anya walked to her mother’s apartment from the left bank of the Dnipro River to the right—across a bridge that is almost a mile long—and walked for another hour. When asked what were the most horrible moments during the first days of the war, Anya said “the fear and the wind when I was crossing the river.”
Anya left on March 6 when the fear was so overwhelming that it became unbearable. She left behind her elderly mother, who wasn’t fit for the journey, and her husband. With just two backpacks and a duffle bag, Anya and her daughter Ira reached the railway station where hordes of people were trying to board the trains to the West.
Anya told me that her train to Lviv was so overcrowded that people were standing through the whole trip like herring in a barrel. Also, there were no lights and no heating, and despite the closeness of strangers’ bodies, it was still freezing cold. Yet, some people managed to sleep standing up regardless of children and mothers weeping.
Then more hours in outdoor lines to board the buses to the Polish border. “When I saw crowds there, I felt absolute despair,” says Anya. They were trying to reach Krakow because Ira’s friend from her dancing group was there. “Not that we could rely on the teenage friend’s assistance, but at least it was a living soul that we knew.”
Anya was lucky to meet a Polish journalist in Lviv who offered to give her and her daughter a ride to the Polish border. At the border in Przemysl there were two huge tents: in one, Poles provided refugees with food, warm clothes and medical assistance and in the other, women and children slept on the floor in sleeping bags or whatever was on hand while waiting for transport.
The journalist who gave Anya and Ira the ride also researched the volunteers’ websites and found a host for them. Eventually, Anya ended up in Krakow’s suburbs, hosted by a young couple. Anya and Ira stayed with them for five months.
In Poland, refugees don’t get financial assistance directly like, for example, in France or Switzerland. The hosts receive government aid. Although housing and food were provided, Anya was too proud to take any cash money. She wanted to make some money on her own and she posted ads on Facebook and, along with Ira, started cleaning apartments and houses. Before the war, Anya worked as an office manager in a law firm, and had never thought her career would take such a turn. She added manicure and pedicure treatments to her list of services and was hustling from one job to another across the city using public transportation, which was free for refugees in the first months. Soon Anya was making enough money to feel independent and live by her own means. The winter was over, and then the spring, and Anya stayed almost through the whole summer in order to finish her cancer treatments. Anya says that Poles were extremely sympathetic and always willing to go the extra mile trying to be helpful and supportive. Both Anya and Ira launched friendships that will last a lifetime.
What’s amazing is that the young couple that hosted Anya and her daughter had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. By the time Anya was ready to leave for Kyiv, the couple announced that the wife was pregnant. Anya got the nickname “our dear stork.”
According to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko two-thirds of Kyiv’s four million residents have already returned to the city. Many refugees will probably stay abroad and will try to build a new life there but Anya insists that she always wanted to go back because, as she put it, “my people, my heart, my life is in Ukraine.”