АвторAuthor: Iryna Hyliuk | Translation: Lisa Bolotova
3 June 2022
Olha Kasyanova from Cherkasy is one of the most active and the most famous community leaders in her city, on top of being a volunteer and an organizer of a myriad of social, educational and other projects. Her voice was heard at all the major local events and celebrations. But that was before February 24… The war has taken away Olha’s favorite job and separated her from her husband, her hometown, and her country. But it failed to take away her hope and fighting spirit. The story of Olha Kasyanova is a narrative and an explanation of why the Ukrainians are the winners in this war.
On February 24, I woke up to a call from my mother: “Olia, the war has started. Explosions all over the country.” I rushed to the window and heard them myself. I went to wake up my children: “Kids, wake up, the war has started.” The older son could not grasp what happened: “What war, mom? I have a test today.” The little one, on the other hand, sprang out of the bed. On the previous evening, he helped my husband pack a go-bag and heard our constant talks about the possibility of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
I usually adjust to stress quite well. I didn’t wait to call my business partner Max, and we scheduled a team meeting in the office. We paid two months’ worth of salary to our employees, hugged, and promised to keep in touch.
That day, nothing was clear. It seemed more dangerous to stay in the city, so we went to the country. We took my mother there too. There were no spaces in the house that could serve as shelters.
“Every time an air raid siren went off, I would drive my family to my aunt, who has a more or less proper bomb shelter”.
Dews [Translator’s note: a short form of the name Andrii] (my younger son) kept saying, “Mommy, I’m scared. I feel like we’re going to die now.” I tried to distract him, but all my soothings were of little to no effect. I think maybe because I was scared myself.
I could feel that fear, which could by no means be allowed to grow into a panic. I knew I had to check it. Controlling my emotions is still my guiding principle. Since the start of the work, I just curb my fluctuating emotions, allowing myself neither outbursts nor despair. There is no time for it now. Since the first seconds of the war and up until now I had known for sure that I must pull myself together and act.
In this regard, volunteering is a blessing. It leaves no chance to freeze and tremble. You do tremble, but you act, act, act.
The decision to leave the country was hard for me. It was dictated by the behavior of my younger son. My older one would say, “Well, if a missile hits, it’s better that we die together.” He believed we should stay with dad. But the younger one was overwhelmed. Maybe he inherited this oversensitivity from us. All the horrors that a child can say to their mother during the war, he heard all of them from him.
One night, I woke up to him crying and screaming in his sleep. It took several days for me to stop hesitating and finally come to that decision.
I don’t know any woman who could make this decision easily. It’s a visceral pain that tears you from the inside. You take your kids and small bags and leave your dear home and dearest person for the unknown. And you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to see again all that you love with your whole heart.
God protected us. We had gone past Bila Tserkva, and an hour later it was hit several times. I was looking out of the bus window and couldn’t help thinking how beautiful Ukraine was, even with checkpoints.
Night. Border. A line. Women and children. All freezing. The Polish border guards offered us tea and blankets. People wrapped themselves up and kept silent, step by step reaching the line where their Homeland ends.
Warsaw East Station. I remember sitting on the ground, my children close to me: the younger, playing with a fluffy penguin he took in the humanitarian hub, and the older, quietly staring at one spot.
Polish volunteers offered us food, free SIM cards, diapers. They advised us, cheered us up, asked a hundred times whether we needed help with transport, lodging, help. Entertainers were playing with kids, mothers were feeding babies, grandmothers were hugging teenagers, children were talking about missiles, bombs, and Ukraine, which is a hundred times smaller than Russia but will win 100%.
We traveled to Vilnius with the Lithuanian volunteers from Stiprus Kartu, an agency that supports Ukrainians. These guys, they have hearts of gold, as do most Lithuanians. As does a great deal of people all over the world, come to think of it: when the war started, they all gave particles of their hearts to Ukraine.
Too many are the stories of lives marred. I collected them at a registration center for Ukrainian citizens, among the crowd waiting in long lines…
Lena, a woman from Khmelnytskyi, brought her teenage daughters to Vilnius but was going back to her husband. She is an employee at the nuclear power plant, so she had to come back to work. She was crying, worried about her girls. I hugged her close, as if she were Ukraine itself.
Ania from Vinnytsia. A small girl with a small bag. She was carrying a little 8-month-old son demanding his helping of mother’s milk. I smiled at her with my eyes.
Marina from Belarus, who had come to Ukraine seven back ago for refuge and now had to flee again. I touched her cold hand. Squeezed it.
Vadym. I asked him what he was doing here instead of being in his homeland, young and mighty as he was.
“He told me that he had worked abroad for a year, but now that he welcomed his wife and kid here, he’ll go to Ukraine to defend his land from ruscists”.
The line at the registration center was mostly quiet. Everyone was paying attention to the Migration Department employees: short of half a hundred computers at which volunteers worked, adding the Ukrainians’ details to the database.
When the registration was completed, Ukrainians were given bags with hygiene products.
And you’re walking with that bag. Holding the hands of your children. Surrounded by posters reading, “Slava Ukraini, heroyam slava!” And carrying some shampoo, tissues, an aching heart and a slip of paper permitting you “temporary residence on humanitarian grounds”…
We came to Vilnius to stay with my cousin. She let us live in her cozy apartment. In this regard, we had it easier than most Ukrainians who didn’t know whether they were going to find lodging or not.
And so started our life “abroad.”
The first month of my new life was busy with cooking for the kids and then being on the line for the rest of the day. I was working as a needs hub. I thank God for a thousand names on my contact list that I actually know.
I kept getting messages like, “Hi Olia, it would be great if you could find such and such an item because the guys have nothing,” or, “Please help us find the people to transport the wounded from Mariupol,” or, “The house opposite was hit today”…
The mode advised by psychologists (where you “care about yourself and don’t carry the war inside”) was something I couldn’t master. I still haven’t.
I took on everything — your classic homefront hamster in a wheel. Organized a charity concert. Negotiated the delivery of a free vehicle for our intelligence unit. Collected humanitarian aid. Attended demonstrations. Organized rallies. Learned to work with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because I saw in what state children from Kharkiv and Chernihiv were… Explained to my younger son why Russians are called the orcs and Russia, Mordor.
I also spoke to my acquaintances in Russia about what was going on in Ukraine. To hardly any avail… My former co-worker, who lives in Moscow now, wrote:
“Unfortunately, you can’t get this idea across to them. For them, you’re all fascists, and that miserable toad is the master of the world, the great leader, and the bringer of peace. I can’t change it. No one will listen. Even my dog is smarter than they are”.
This damn war revealed something rather peculiar.
Most Ukrainians’ lives changed drastically. New circumstances, jobs, statuses… everything new! And no one said, “I can’t live in these conditions. I’m used to completely different things.” Everyone turned into a cog in a machine that imbues it with incredible power. Everyone undertook to bring the victory closer.
How I am amazed at our people! At what they can do! Everyone has shown their biggest strengths. I see how everyone does their best for Ukraine on their own front—still scolding themselves for not doing enough. The truth is, we are a very strong nation. We are the nation of will and action! And it seems to me we have spread these traits to Europeans.
I keep speaking with my kids about the war. I would hate for them to “wait it out” in a peaceful European environment. They know of everything that’s happening in Ukraine. They know that each and every one of us plays a role in how soon we’ll come back home.
So my older son Lioshka wrote an encouraging Ukrainian track and then started writing music for young Ukrainian artists. And Dews was drawing Ukrainian warriors.
Once I saw Andrii making figures with modeling clay, so I suggested we model a character that would personify real people that became heroes. Real heroes of the real war. We could create these heroes, show them and speak about them to the world. And so we started.
Over the course of three weeks, Dews and I made 274 models. Every day, we made something from modern-day Ukraine: the ghost of Kyiv, Nastia Tykha from Irpin, who rescued disabled dogs; Marianna Pidhurska from the bombed maternity clinic in Mariupol; Olia from Kyiv, who with her body covered her two-week-old daughter; our pigeons (our biological weapon) and war geese; guys from the armed forces and territorial defense, volunteers, pickup trucks for intelligence units, Ukrainian homes and sunflowers.
We didn’t know then that our idea would grow into something bigger.
One day we took our big blue-and-yellow bag full of our handiwork and went to Kaunas, to a charity fair in support of Ukraine.
We had many people come to us saying, “Carry on,” “We stand with you,” “It’s so painful,” and, of course, “Glory to Ukraine!” I remember an old gentleman who told me, “Trust me! Every moskal will cry twice the amount of your tears.” When I heard these words, I ran to the organizers’ tent. I could no longer help crying.
Everyone at the fair was interested in Dews’ models. They asked questions, and we told them about the heroes on whom we based our blue-and-yellow characters. The Lithuanians were amazed that this was the work of a child. That this child is from Ukraine. That he didn’t give up and does his best to help save Ukraine. And finally, that these figures embody the stories from real life.
We sold almost everything we had and made 970 euros for Ukraine. I bought chocolate waffles for the kids and left some money for the material.
Suddenly, something marvelous happened! The world seemed to be interested in our crafts more than Dews and I could have imagined. I was flooded with messages: people from many countries ordered Dews’ characters, offered to create a brand for kids, recommended we create a website and send a batch of figures to the front in Ukraine.
And then I got a message from Max. My friend, business partner, and personal genius. He told me, “Olia, this idea is gold. Let’s create a Ukrainian hero universe. So that people from all over the world learn about it.” He meant a large-scale Marvel-like concept. But instead of Marvel’s imaginary characters like Hulk and Iron Man, we could create something real. True. Our own. Ukrainian.
Now, everyone in our country is a hero. Everyone has their own story to tell. And I want these stories to be impersonated in figures, and then, in movies, music, and literature. Because Ukraine is an epitome of courage, human kindness and sincerity and a perfect candidate to become a role model for kids from all over the world.
So we got to work. We called our universe Dewscots. Wonderful people helped us develop a website, draw the characters for animation, write texts about real heroes and translate it, launch an Instagram page, design packaging and merchandise.
We shared our instructions for workshops in the Netherlands. Kids make their own Dewscots and sell them at fairs, telling stories about our heroes to Europeans and spreading the good word about Ukraine through these little toys.
This has a colossal effect because hearing about Ukraine on the news is one thing, but seeing Ukraine in a child’s eyes and hands is something else. We are changing the world. Each and every one of us does.
Every day I’m with Ukraine, in my hands, in my head, in my heart. I follow the news round the clock. In my first weeks in Vilnius, I would wake up at night every time air raid sirens went off in Cherkasy. I didn’t even have sound notifications turned on. This connection is very powerful, and it doesn’t fade.
Neither does my shock at the bestiality of the ruscists. Neither does my admiration for our people. Ukrainians are impressive. With their selflessness, cooperation, humor. Old ladies impress me (do you see them, God?) who wrap their dogs in their headscarves so that the sound of explosions doesn’t hurt their ears. Children impress me who draw flowers around the bullet holes in their fences…
“They are scared—one can see that. But their wrath at the enemy is stronger than fear. As is their love for their land. That’s why it’s “freedom or death” and “Ukraine above all!”
My kids impress me. Since this war started, my elder son grew into an adult. And my younger son learned to feel others’ pain.
I impress myself with my inner discipline and will.
I keep imagining how one day, someone will say this word. Victory. How I’ll up and hurry home! How I’ll be running towards my husband, and there’ll be a breeze soaked with our strength, our victory, and our love. We’ll hug each other tight—as tight as only those who lived through war can do.
And then we’ll lie down in the green grass and will cry looking at the sky. Next to us will be our children, who for the first time will know why we cry because they will have lived through it all too. Because this pain that we are allowing ourselves to endure now must find its way out in tears…
And then there will be bliss. That’s the only way.
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: Lisa Bolotova