АвторAuthor: Iryna Semenova | Translation: Violeta Shenkaryuk
22 August 2022
Natalia Korol fled the war twice – in 2015 from Donetsk, in 2022 — from Cherkasy. She has a joyful profession — an organizer of children’s parties. But her life was not always filled with the same events. In 2015, together with my children and my husband, I had to leave a large house, which had just been renovated and furniture had been bought. They chose Cherkasy as a temporary, as it seemed to them at the time, shelter. And in the spring of 2022, they were forced to flee the war to Italy.
Everyone hoped that this would not happen, but something told me that anything was possible. And on February 23, when I was leaving work, talking to the administrator, she was tense: “I feel something.” And I said: “Everything will be fine, there will definitely not be a war.” I reassured the team that everything would be fine, because our psychological state is very important when working with children.
The first time it was a surprise. In 2015, when we left, it was horror and fear. And on February 24, 2022, my husband’s sister called me and said: “Natasha, the war has started, I hear explosions.“
It was 5 o’clock in the morning, my heart started pounding, I prayed for my parents who are in Donetsk, acquaintances, relatives… And already at six o’clock a relative from Kyiv called: they are in Podil and hear everything nearby. I woke up my husband, we moved the children into the corridor, because fighter jets started flying over the Dnipro at Mytnytsia. Ours, but it was still scary.
I said that I had driven enough and if the war caught me, it would catch me everywhere. Next was Irpin, Bucha and Kharkiv…
In Cherkasy, people are fearless. Our people in Cherkasy are not afraid, they did not hide during air raids. And when Donetsk was bombed in 2014, no one warned us. When I told the story in 2015, the people of Cherkasy sympathized, but they could not fully understand.
How many nights we had in the basements, the girls have chronic sinusitis, because they slept small in these basements. Then the tags came, and it was scary that someone would paint them on our house.
At that time, we already went to the “tabachka” (the humanitarian center of Cherkasy is located in the premises of the former tobacco factory, “tabachka” among the townspeople – ed.), made “Molotov cocktails”, helped, organized and went in whole teams. And that time we didn’t go, because there were many air raids, we didn’t sleep at all. I got a call from a friend from the Luhansk region, she is already a second time migrant. She said: “I’m very scared, I want to go. We should save our children.” We had half an hour to make this decision. To throw it all away again.
We traveled for 6 days, not knowing what we would eat and where we would be each morning. My husband didn’t go with us because he had a lot of volunteer work to do. We traveled in a cargo bus without seats, took beanbags from my club and traveled on them for two days. My husband was constantly in contact with the driver, monitored what was happening along the way and warned where to go and where not to go. There were many traffic jams and it was very scary to drive.
We drove through Bila Tserkva through the center. And 40 minutes later, where we were driving, there was shelling, and these houses, which we were driving past, were already destroyed. It was as if something was catching up with us, and we were running and running. And then, half an hour after our passage, another city was also bombed. As if God was protecting us. But we didn’t say anything to the children.
It was sometimes cold, sometimes hot, we drove like we were in the 40s. The eldest daughter had sinusitis, she drank an antibiotic all the way and was sick. Sometimes the connection was lost – neither a mobile phone nor the Internet – we even drove without a navigator. We were three adults and four children. Seven places in total. But in the morning of that day, another woman with a child was begging. She was even ready to stand. It was a very uncomfortable ride, but we couldn’t leave her, so we took her to Lviv. Friends helped, they were in touch all the time: they monitored gas stations and the availability of gasoline.
We arrived in Lviv and went to the center where all the refugees were registered. We were registered as refugees and sent to school. But we did not stay there for the night. Because “arrivals” have already begun in the Lviv region. We were fed and we immediately went to the border. Crossed Krakovets. We stood for 17 hours in the cold without toilets. The youngest passenger in our company was 9 years old, another boy was 16 years old, girls were 12 years old and 18 years old.
It’s just cold and 17 hours. Then the registration took a long time. Ukraine was unprepared for this. Volunteers were shouting at children, there were people with carts, small children, and it was 5 a.m. in the morning when we were getting closer to the border. It was chaos and it was the scariest night of my life. Because it was 7 degrees below zero, my daughter was turning pale and said that her toes were falling off. I wrapped her in all the things I could find. We sang the national anthem, “Oy u luzi chervona kalyna”, “Khutoryanka” and warmed ourselves as much as we could. I made friends with a group of girls. The queue was two or three kilometers long, and everyone was listening to these songs.
The border guards had potbelly stoves where children could warm themselves. And when we were already approaching, our 16-year-old boy came up to them and said: “The potbelly stoves are not working.” He went to find firewood and start a fire himself. And when we crossed the border, there were barrels under which fire was burning, like in American movies. We warmed up there, and since we didn’t sleep in the truck for two days, then stood all night, the children fell asleep in those tents.
We are very grateful to Poland, because it was waiting for us. At the border, things were not checked at all, they were simply marked. And as soon as we crossed the border – we got into warm tents, volunteers approached each child – candy, juice, water, they took off our backpacks, helped us to get to the place where we were registered. We cried, that’s how we were met in Poland: coffee, tea, and sandwiches, they found me a pain reliever for my headache.
There was a whole headquarter here, there was a place to wash hands, treat them with an antiseptic. Everything for children and adults.
Buses came every two to five minutes. They opened the doors and took people to the shopping center, which was set up for refugees – there were beds, a pharmacy, and toilets. Many stalls with food: kebabs, sweets, potatoes, water, juice. Just come and take what you want and eat as much as you want. We ate and slept for 4 hours. We just fell asleep. I still have “survivor syndrome”. That I am safe, and someone remained in danger in Ukraine.
And when we woke up, we began to think about what to do next. We decided to try Italy. We knew that Poland was already overloaded. Because there were many people with very small children who would not go any further. And in Italy, in our opinion, people by temperament, as in Ukraine, are cheerful, friendly, emotional, and open. We decided to go to Rome.
We split up, my friend went to make out SIM cards so that there would be Internet. And I go to the help center. There were a lot of volunteers there: they shouted that there was a bus going to Krakow, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, all of them were free buses.
I asked about Rome. They said that direct buses rarely run, so you may have to go through Krakow.
And there was a guy nearby (later we got to know each other, his name is Michael). He said that he came from Britain and that he is ready to help Ukrainian refugees because he has a minibus. Exactly 7 places. And he agreed to take us. We went to the help center and they confirmed to me that this person can be trusted.
And I ran to ours: there is a guy who can take us right now. I hurried, because I wanted some clarity. We got on the bus. The children immediately fell asleep. It was already March 7.
He drove us to Krakow, took us to the same center for refugees, but there were no more places there. Michael offered to go to the hostel, and said that he would pay for everything. And he is 22 years old. Quite a child. We went to this hostel, ate, washed, washed things and “chilled out”. Already at breakfast, Michael said that he would take us to the center, where we would get free tickets to Italy, and he would go back to the border to rescue people.
We asked Michael if he had been to Italy. He said that only in one city – in Parma, but he liked it. And we decided to go there.
We took tickets for the next day. It was necessary to spend the night somewhere. We did not stay in that hostel, because it was expensive, and all the seats at the railway station were taken.
Our Nikita grew up quickly because he felt like the only man. He started looking for a place for us to spend the night and found a monastery through some Ukrainian acquaintances. There was a shelter there. We arrived there on March 7, we were placed on the 3rd floor, the conditions were very good. We had separate rooms, they gave me all the means for personal hygiene, I could wash my white jacket, which was full of smoke and soot after the fires on the border. We were fed with very tasty Polish dishes, and we fell asleep again.
In the morning, while everyone was sleeping, my two daughters and I still went to the main square to two churches. They saw how it is when pavement and roads are washed. It was very nice when we woke up on March 8, and all the women had gift bags, creams, deodorants, candies, and personal hygiene products.
I was very afraid for the children, so that they would not have retraumatization. The older one still has memories from 2014, and they were traumatic memories. She was 11 years old, and she grew up rapidly. We didn’t know what would happen to us then, so we conducted briefings in case my husband and I died: what to do, how to save ourselves, how to get water, and so that she understood that she was responsible for little Zlata. The eldest daughter grew up in an instant. And the youngest was 4 years old then, and when we were hiding in the basement, we turned everything into a game for her: now that’s how you have to listen to fairy tales or watch cartoons.
The scariest moments I remember from 2014, when we ran into the basement at night for the first time. The husband took the younger daughter in his arms in a blanket, I held the hand of the older one, they ran to the basement, immediately the husband and the younger daughter jumped down, then I threw the older daughter into his arms, I myself remained upstairs, because I could not jump, by that time I already had the first operation on my spine, I was in a lot of pain. And these eyes of Masha, the eldest daughter, are filled with tears of fear, horror for me, because they are already below, in relative safety, and I am still above, and the children shouted: “Faster, mother, jump, jump.”
We lived in the occupation for 9 months, left in May 2015, we still hoped that we would be recaptured. My house is intact, but it has not been lived in for a long time. Full occupation and all 8 years of hostilities — everyone who could, left. And my parents stayed in Donetsk anyway, and this is my sorrow and my pain.
The train took us from Krakow to Vienna, there was a transfer to Venice, then to Bologna, and from Bologna to Parma. Transfers are short, 15 minutes each. And Italy was not ready to receive us. At the very first transfer in Venice, we approached the carabinieri, because we are used to volunteers who help at every station. While we were checking the documents, we were late for the train, and the next one was only an hour later. We didn’t have euros, only hryvnias.
In Italy, it is not so easy to exchange money: either at the post office or in banks, but if you have documents, it is also advisable to order money in advance. There are no ATMs at the stations, and there are no shopping centers, as we do.
We got off the train and went to look for help from the police, because no volunteers were found. And the police looked at us without understanding. We started telling them that we are refugees from Ukraine. They found us the address of the prefecture (city council). We thought they would take us away, help us, because we are without water, tired, and hungry in an unfamiliar city. No, we went by ourselves. When we arrived at the prefecture, we were met by a girl: “Do you come to us? And we do not deal with these issues.” We sat on the floor and said that we are not going anywhere, do what you want with us. Or we will spend the night here. And they had to process us. Then they brought us water, ordered a delicious pizza for us, the children just fell asleep on the chairs.
And later, the representatives of the charitable organization did come: a very cool organization, young guys and girls, and so cool! We are still very grateful to them.
On the day we arrived, there were already 100 Ukrainians in Parma. Two cars came for us, a minibus and a passenger car, they took us outside Parma, to the village. They settled in a house near the church, very comfortable. Previously, they hosted children from Chernobyl for several years here, and the rooms are adapted for such a stay. Everything is cool, clean, beds, linen, kitchen: everything is fully furnished, and household appliances, and all the products are there.
We were met by 10 people. They fed us. We talked through translators: Ihor from Ivano-Frankivsk, who has lived here for a long time, helped a lot, we are very grateful to him (when Ukrainians started coming, local Ukrainians who have lived here for a long time began to be involved in translations).
The next morning I woke up before everyone else, went downstairs, and was asked what we wanted for breakfast. I was so uncomfortable: how am I going to order this? What will be, will be. They started offering this and that. And I settled on scrambled eggs with bacon.
And when they were cooking scrambled eggs with bacon, I offered to wash the floor in the meantime. This is how our life in Italy began.
And after breakfast, all the volunteers from that organization came to us, hugged us, asked what we needed. They carried bags, packages, food, shoes, juices, drinks. Ordinary people just came.
The next day we said: no need, everything is there, because the refrigerators were “clogged” with products. Ukrainian women who work here as caregivers used to come. We were welcomed by ordinary people. We started to get registered: a minibus arrived, and we went to get the documents. We didn’t have a single free day to just be at home, because we were constantly doing all these documents according to the schedule.
We arrived on Thursday, and on Saturday we had a holiday. Children drew us pictures and garlands. 9-year-old Misha had a birthday, he made a cake with Spiderman. And in response, we made a holiday with scientific experiments: 10 experiments for Italian children – they were delighted.
And from the first day we started asking how we can help. It was uncomfortable for us that we live, we are fed, and we do not pay anything. That’s why we’ve been helping to clean up the area since then, Natasha (the friend I left with) arranged all the bushes and decorated the area near the church. I have already held several events for Italian children. And last Thursday I had my first scientific lesson with Italian children.
Natasha and I have already received the A1 certificate in Italian. For this, we passed the exam. At the everyday level, we already know the language, and now I have read books. I am studying scientific terminology in order to continue my activities here for local children.
Zlata, my youngest, and Misha went to school, but they were not students, but listeners. A psychologist worked with them and they were taught the Italian language. This is during April-May. Now they go to a children’s summer camp, communicate with children, and improve their vocabulary.
My eldest daughter Maria is now in the UK. The dean of the faculty suggested, through his acquaintance in Britain, that it is possible to go for an internship in a chemical laboratory in London, and Masha was the only student who responded. She is 18 years old, she finished her second year at Cherkasy National. And now he has been living in London for 4 months, studying and working. She has improved her English and has fully socialized, and is already helping those people who came to London. She works in a Ukrainian school, now she is a teacher’s assistant.
The plans are simple: to return to the homeland. But I already know that I went to Cherkasy for three months and stayed for 7 years. Therefore, until there is peace, we will not return. I will not be able to endure the third time running away from the war, either morally or psychologically.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Iryna Semenova | Translation: Violeta Shenkaryuk