In the morning, we rushed to the train station. It felt strange seeing the streets empty, like an apocalypse. Shelled and burnt-out cars sat on the side of the road. Just then, the Russians began bombing the city center. I felt like it happened right next to us. Exhausted and helpless, I feared for my child’s life.
KHARKIV, Ukraine — In the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, colleagues who lived in different parts of the city communicated with me regularly. As they began leaving the country, my worries grew. When Russia started shelling our district, they bombarded the house where my mom lived, very near to my own home.
That night, my child could barely sleep. I stayed up all night, worried sick. At one point, I heard a military plane land near our house. I believed it to be the same plane which dropped bombs just minutes before. That night quickly became the worst night of my entire life.
Hearing the sounds and convinced we would not make it to the morning, I ran to cover my child with my body. I began praying, and promised myself we would leave Kharkiv the next day if we survived.
In the first days of war, we thought we would return home in a week or two. I refused to believe the invasion would last this long. It all felt surreal. I watched as Russians shelled not only military targets but also civilian infrastructure. They shelled everywhere, including densely populous districts of the city. The situation grew more and more terrifying.
As the second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv sits 30 kilometers south of the Russia–Ukraine border. I saw Russian tanks from the first day of the invasion. It seemed that Moscow deemed Kharkiv a key target. Eventually, Russian troops withdrew from the city, but during the first 10 days, we constantly ran in and out of the underground shelter and slept there.
From that first moment on February 24, 2022, fellow Ukrainians hid in cellars and underground rooms in private houses or block of apartments. We used buckets for toilets, and many did so in front of strangers. People barely slept or ate. The lack of fresh air and light felt stuffy and humid as people faced overcrowding. I heard horror stories of people dying in shelters due to lack of resources and equipment.
In the morning, we rushed to the train station. It felt strange seeing the streets empty, like an apocalypse. Shelled and burnt-out cars sat on the side of the road. Just then, the Russians began bombing the city center. I felt like it happened right next to us. Exhausted and helpless, I feared for my child’s life. If we selected the wrong path, it could lead us to our deaths.
At the train station, an enormous crowd had gathered. Having reached the underground area, we felt a little safer. I picked up my heavy bags and my child, and we ran. Men appeared and helped carry our belongings. The memory still pains me. They kept saying, “You are safe.” I just wanted to be on that train. We stood around waiting, uncertain of what was happening. Moments later, they told us our tickets were invalid. The rest of the crowd squeezed into the train until nobody could move.
We sat and waited for what felt like an eternity for the next train to arrive. Two hours passed. As the crowd moved towards the entrance, a man shot a gun into the air and everyone became hysterical. My husband insisted we return home, despite the missiles flying through the air. We spent another two sleepless nights in Kharkiv, before we attempted to leave again.
I always loved my city. It felt like home, but I experienced incredible relief when we left. Even though I abandoned everything – my belongings, my house, and my memories – a huge weight came off my chest. We had our lives, and that mattered most. It took six hours to get to Poltava due to traffic jams. Usually the journey takes two hours. It seemed like everyone was leaving at the exact same time. Perhaps it was trauma, but I felt so unsafe and kept thinking, this city could be next.
I worried endlessly about my mother. The taxi services no longer worked, and I had no idea how to get to her. Someone volunteered to pick her up and bring her to the train station. Miraculously, she made it to us and once the family reunited, we made our way to Poland. For my daughter, adapting to a new life proved difficult. As an autistic child, I felt so sad for her. We went from Poland to Italy, obtained social housing, and slowly began to adjust. I learned Italian and we returned to some sense of normalcy, but it never truly felt like home. It became apparent quickly, even if I obtained work, it would never cover all of our expenses.
In Italy, like anywhere, people never fully seem to understand how refugees feel. I faced assumptions that we had no money and did not want to work. Locals acted like we got better benefits from the government than they did. Being a refugee feels terrifying. It strips you of your home, distances you from your loved ones, and leaves you feeling uncomfortable and out of control. We faced a new land and starting over with what little we had. A feeling of isolation came over us, sensing we were never fully accepted in the community. I felt constantly displaced and alone. Even finding a speech therapist for my child proved challenging.
My young daughter spoke no Italian, so she struggled to make friends and fit in. Guilt overwhelmed me as we sat in shelters. I tried to distract her for the bombing in Ukraine with cartoons and toys, hoping she might soon forget the terror. However, before arriving in Italy we stopped in Warsaw for a while. Every time a plane passed by the airport; she jumped in fear.
The Russian invasion in Ukraine traumatized her. Seeing me so scared scarred her deeply. Now, back in Ukraine, we are starting over from zero. Slowly, my family and I work to take back control of our lives. I remain uncertain about staying here. Nowhere truly feels like home anymore, but I continue to search for that comfort.
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