АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Yuliia Demchuk
13 September 2022
A mother of two daughters, Yuliia Fomichova from Cherkasy, was dreaming of celebrating her birthday in Italian Verona. But she couldn’t have thought under what circumstances her wish would come true. Together with millions of Ukrainians the woman crossed the border to save her children. What help Ukrainian refugees get in Italy, what local people know about the war and why Ukraine loses the information war to russia, Yuliia Fomichova told Monologues of the War project.
The 24th of February was a very busy day for me. I was planning to sign two very important contracts plus daily work on my projects. In order to prepare well, at night from the 23rd to 24th of February I was working till 5 am. I went to get some sleep. I woke up from a message from my older daughter’s teacher about remote learning that day.
“I had no disturbing thoughts at that moment. My child is in the first class but she was going to school only for 2-3 months. Epidemic, lockdown, constant pseudo minings of schools, extended holidays due to the problems with heating. Because of all this we were mostly studying remotely. I was even glad that I could sleep for 30 more minutes.”
But not this time. My colleague woke me up with a request to give him the address of the Blood transfusion center. I was working on popularization of the donor movement for some time and was aware of different issues. I was surprised, why so early? And he said: “The war began.” I remarked that the war had been going for 9 years and didn’t take him seriously. But when my brother called and said that there were explosions in Smila, I finally woke up.
Everybody has a different reaction to stress. I freeze. I need to stop and look around. Only that day I started packing a go bag. “Windows in my apartment face a big supermarket. I was standing there watching people carrying out big bags, buying up everything.” I had a stack of products for several days and it seemed that there was everything necessary in the first-aid kit.
During the first days I couldn’t pull myself together. Of course, like most people I was crying. I didn’t hide from my children what news I was reading. They got scared. The youngest daughter had indigestion and when my friend suggested leaving with her I couldn’t because of my sick child and I still didn’t decide if I needed it at all.
“I remember entering the shop and seeing no products, rows of empty shelves but there was a stand for a spoon. It was so nice. It would suit my kitchen well. I took that stand and thought: “People are buying up sugar and flour and I will buy a stand?” But then I decided that it would be a symbol that I was not going anywhere and continued creating comfort at home.”
During the first days a lot of people were persuading me to leave. I was not ready. Then, of course, the situation worsened. First air raid sirens. I was going to bomb shelter with my children. Sometimes children got tired and fell asleep but we needed to come back home. Sometimes at night. And there was no street lightning, everything was turned off. You are groping, bypassing potholes in the pavement, carrying your sleepy child.
And then products disappeared from shops. I asked in the chat if it was everywhere or only near my home. My friends decided to bring me some products because they understood I couldn’t go far with my children. “Then I thought that the girls were going to take care of me instead of their own safety. I would be a burden for them.”
During this period, for 2-3 days, you couldn’t pay by card in the shops and there was a shortage of cash in the ATMs. For me it was a nuisance. Everybody recommended that children should sleep dressed, but my girls refused to do it. I was worried because of that: what if we need to run out of the house, it’s freezing outside and my children are not dressed.
All these factors overlapped and when the person who was ready to take us to the border called me, I agreed. I packed everything in half an hour, took a very small suitcase, dressed my children, took two hamsters and set off.
I didn’t know where we were going. My friend who had been living in Italy for a long time was inviting me. I called her on the way and she said that she was ready to receive us. I was monitoring queues at the borders in telegram-channels and we went to the one that had no queue at that time.
It was easier for me to think that I was going to visit my friend for some time, until the situation became clearer. I have relatives in Poland and a friend in Italy. It gave me confidence.
We crossed the border on foot. Nobody was meeting us because we packed so fast. That’s why I mobilized. I told myself that everybody has their own mission and my mission is to save the lives of three Ukrainian girls. I was carrying it out selflessly.
“There was a constant feeling that everything would end tomorrow. Tomorrow. There was also a feeling that I would come to the border, stay overnight and could come back. There wasn’t a thought that there would be nowhere to come back.”
I love my country, I love my Cherkasy. I had an opportunity to move to the capital but I refused because Cherkasy is my comfort zone. That’s why I couldn’t even assume that we were leaving for long.
There were around 50 people in the queue at the border. I was looking at them and thinking that different people were standing there. Poorly educated, who didn’t know where to go next, hoping only for volunteers. Near them – wealthy people. Everything one woman was interested in is how much she had to pay for her husband to cross the border with her.
“We became equal, all at once: wealthy, poor, educated, poorly educated, good, bad, impudent and shy. All Ukrainians were made equal by the war. We became the same, in spite of our social status, world view and wealth level.”
When we crossed the border I found an English speaking Polish border guard and told her that we needed a place to spend the night. The border guards took us to the center for refugees from Ukraine.
“Now I’m thinking: “Wow, how could I get into the strangers’ car, go into the unknown at night with my children and put them to sleep in an unfamiliar place.” But at that moment I was only thinking of solving current issues.”
The next day, American volunteers who came to the Polish border to help, took us to Wroclaw. It was 600 km from the place where we crossed the border. And finally in Wroclaw, among our people we could get some sleep. I felt safe there. In a few days, my friend and her husband picked us up in their car.
She’s my close friend. I relaxed there and expressed my emotions. I wanted to cry for several days and everybody to leave me alone. “While walking with my children I was meeting other women from Ukraine. During the first day they were sending children to school, kindergarten, they were looking for a job and dwelling. But I wasn’t doing any of that, because I moved temporarily.”
An interesting moment. My birthday is on the 8th of March and I wanted to celebrate it in Italy. I dreamt of visiting the city of Verona. I was buying the tickets but Italy extended the lockdown due to Coronavirus. My trip was canceled. I was buying the tickets for the 7th of March and ironically we came to Italy exactly on the 7th of March.
During those several hours that I was sleeping at night from the 23rd to the 24th of February, I dreamt of celebrating my birthday in an unfamiliar place on the shore of an unfamiliar lake among people that I didn’t expect to see.
The dream turned out to be prophetic because it was the biggest lake in Italy – Garda. That’s where I was on my birthday. “My dream came true. I visited Verona and other Italian cities. But it did not happen as expected.”
My children are great. I have never been on maternity leave and always went on business trips with them. As my children’s father has been fighting since 2014, we were visiting frontline towns to see him.
We often traveled long distances, so my children are very patient. And here they were behaving well because they’re trained. They were shouting “Slava Ukraini” to our soldiers on checkpoints. I am very proud of them.
When we had the first air raid siren in Cherkasy, I didn’t know what to do. I was running to the windows, spreading mats in the bathroom, I ran to the staircase to find out where my neighbors were going.
“At that time my 6-year-old older daughter, who was trained during pseudo minings of schools, got dressed, dressed her sister, took the go bag and asked: “Mum, for how long are you going to run? Let’s go to the bomb shelter.”
My friend received not only me and my daughters, but also her sister with a child. That’s why we couldn’t stay for long and found a dwelling in a village near mountains. That’s when I noticed changes in my children’s behavior. It was unusual for them. I couldn’t deal with them, they weren’t listening to me.
“I was very worried, but the psychologist said that it was their reaction to emigration. At first everything’s new and interesting but when they realize that nobody knows when we will come back home, they start behaving like this. Since we’ve been home, everything has fallen into place.”
If before the 24th of February I could always provide for my children and me, that morning I woke up practically without a job. I got a lot of free time. I spent it with my children and started doing what I could do well – volunteering, gathering money for the army. I understood that my mission is to save not only the lives of my daughters but of other Ukrainians as well.
“A lot of men from my circle were fighting on the frontlines and my friend and I were buying in Italy products that weren’t sold in Ukraine and were sending them to our soldiers.”
We traveled a lot. We’ve visited several cities in Italy, stayed in Germany, the Czech Republic, and a little bit in Hungary. In this way I was trying to restore my resource. Communicating with my children and volunteering became my joy. But even there anxiety found me. A lot of my friends and acquaintances are on the frontlines. My children’s dad is fighting, they were worried.
“To be honest, despite the fact that I’ve seen fighter planes only once from the window of my apartment, it made such an impression on me that even in Europe I got scared of the sound of a plane.” For example, in Italy we lived in the province where granite is mined in the mountains and helicopters and planes were flying low and often. I got scared every time.
In Italy there are a lot of refugees from different countries – Syria, Libya, Iran. That’s why Italians are used to refugees. And here came another nationality. They pitied us in a human way, tried to support, helped. Charitable organizations, separate volunteering initiatives were working. Mostly, those were Ukrainians who lived there for a long time.
“At the same time, when we started talking about the war, I heard a question from most people: “When will your Zelenskyy surrender? Doesn’t he feel sorry for your people that he can’t give in to putin and it will stop killings?” Meaning they are not blaming putin for killing us, but our president for not giving up!”
They see it not as a war of nation against nation, but as a war of presidents. And it’s us to blame that we were attacked and that this war is not ending. When we lived with an Italian family in Rome, the local TV was always turned on. They were always saying something about Ukraine in the news.
“I’ve noticed two vectors of event coverage. The first one – Italy is helping refugees from Ukraine: here’s a camp for Ukrainian children, the help is given. And the second vector – poor russian soldiers! How difficult it is for them to carry out denazification.” It was very annoying but I understood that Italians were getting information from such news.
Once I was walking past a book store and my daughter said: “Mum, is that putin?” I looked and saw 3 racks with books about putin! Near the books of russian oppositionists there were books about the biography of “the big leader”, who is shown as a hero. It’s very frustrating. On the one side there are yellow-blue city lights everywhere and on the other side Italians are not condemning russia for attacking us.
“If we ask for weapons, it means we want to fight, therefore it’s us to blame for this war.” I was showing my children Ukrainian cartoons and they were interrupted by ads. For example, videos about Europeans buying russian fuel and sponsoring war in Ukraine. And sometimes ads were openly pro-russian: how russian volunteers evacuate people from Nazi Ukraine. It means we’re losing the information war, in Italy for sure. Italians are not on our side.
“I am very grateful to everyone who was helping us here, making our life comfortable. That’s why I didn’t want to direct my negativity at them, because we’re fighting with russia, not with Italians.”
I had a chance to meet russians in Italy. They asked the same questions. They also believe that we are to blame. I had a situation: I was with my children on the playground, a woman came to me and said that she was russian and had lived in Italy for a long time, working as a babysitter. She said she sympathized with us. “I replied that I sympathize with them because the whole world hates them, not us.”
And there was a situation in Rome. I took my children to the Experimentarium where children can conduct various experiments, learn about the surrounding world. At the entrance I heard russian and understood that the women were from russia.
“I came up to them and asked if they were having fun there with their children while Ukrainian children were being killed?” They said: “Why in front of the children?” And I’ve got an obsessive idea. I was following their children to every location and saying: “russia is killing Ukrainian children.” Eventually, those russian women left.
Almost every day I was packing suitcases and saying that I would go home tomorrow. Something was always holding me back, but I had no strength staying abroad anymore. Plus it’s very hot in Italy. You can go outside only early in the morning or late in the evening. My children were asking to go home and we waited for my friend to come for her daughter in her own car and pick us up. “Ironically, on the same day when we came to Cherkasy a missile hit the bridge over Dnipro.”
A stereotype occurred, that came back only those, who had where to come and people to come back to. But my decision was illogical: our apartment is rented, I’m divorced and have no job. But I still wanted to come back home.
People are different. Some of them want to use a chance to give their child European education. They adapted, went to school, got jobs. I didn’t embrace it. I left temporarily. We wanted to come back home and we came back home.
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 Hyliuk | Translation: Yuliia Demchuk