Zhenya and her family spent their entire lives in their hometown in southern Ukraine. She began her career as a cook at a sports school and dedicated 30 years to her profession. Life was simple, and they were content in their hometown. But then – their lives took an unexpected turn when their city was occupied for nine months.
Zhenya clearly recalls those harrowing days, where fear and uncertainty filled their hearts: “It was very frightening. Military vehicles roamed the streets at night, shining their lights to identify those who remained in the city. We hid, not knowing what they were looking for or why. One of our neighbours witnessed them taking a man away one day, and we never found out where he went or what happened to him. This happened on multiple occassions.” said Zhenya. Their city was gradually becoming a ghost town; stores closed, and people resorted to makeshift trading to survive. Eventually, the family decided it was time to leave.
Zhenya remembers a particularly chilling moment when a missile struck a pharmacy near their home: “It felt like our kitchen had disappeared. The impact was deafening, and our neighbours gathered in the hallway, terrified. After a few minutes, an even louder explosion rocked us as another missile struck a bakery closer to our building. It was the final straw, and we knew we had to evacuate.”
Zhenya’s mother, Alla, lived in a different part of town and Zhenya needed to reach her and stock up on supplies. Convincing her elderly mother to leave was a challenge, but they could not bear to leave her behind. They were determined to keep their family together.
“My mother lived in a different district, and we needed to go to her place and also buy some groceries. Convincing my mother to leave the city was a delicate process. She hesitated due to her age and disability, and the thought of leaving behind a home filled with cherished memories was hard for her. However, out of concern for everyone’s safety, including our child, we eventually persuaded her to come with us, ensuring she wouldn’t be left alone,” said Zhenya.
When they were packing their belongings, they left most of them behind. Speed was of the essence as they embarked on an evacuation train journey to the western part of Ukraine. As they boarded the train, they had no idea of what lay ahead. Many others joined them, some accompanied by their pets. Among them was Zhenya’s family, who brought along their cherished cat – but the journey was tough, and unfortunately the cat didn’t survive.
“We got on the train, and we didn’t know anything about where we were going. We just wanted to get away from all the horror and save our loved ones, and ourselves.” said Zhenya.
Upon arriving at the western part of Ukraine, they were divided into groups, given a small amount of money, and directed to collective centres. The conditions were far from comfortable, but the people who welcomed them were kind and helpful. Zhenya, however, couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from her family. She recalls a moment of panic and distress:
“We were accommodated in the premises of an elementary school. When we arrived there, I experienced a panic attack, and I cried for a long time because women were housed separately from men, and I didn’t want to be separated from my family. The conditions there were dreadful, but the people who received us were very kind and helped us in any way they could,” she said. “We lived there for four months”, she added. One day, Zhenya’s husband received a call from a Medair representative – it was a turning point. Zhenya trusted the voice on the other end of the line, and hope began to flicker.
“My husband called me and informed me that people from the Medair organization had arrived. He said to me, ‘Zhenya, these people seem kind-hearted.’ I felt something in me that made me believe in them, that they would help us. I thought to myself, ‘Finally, there might be some hope in our lives.’ I had hope for the improvement of my family’s life.”
Zhenya then continued with a smile on her face, “My husband and I contacted the Medair staff, who not only provided us with all the steps and information about their Alternative House Solution program but also inspired my husband to actively seek a new job. We immediately started asking our neighbours about vacant houses, and my husband began searching for work in the area, but we couldn’t find anything. Then I thought, ‘Why should we live in this region when we can try moving to the city?’ My husband and I went online, and miraculously, he was able to find a job in the city”.
Medair played a pivotal role in supporting Zhenya and her family during this transition, offering guidance on the relocation process and assisting them in finding suitable housing options in the city. Despite the challenges, the family swiftly found a new apartment and employment for Zhenya’s husband in a city. Within a week, they had moved into their new home. Their gratitude towards Medair was immeasurable.
“Having our own place renewed our spirits and inspired us to rebuild our lives, all while helping others. The Medair team’s kindness and open-heartedness moved us greatly, and we hope that more people will be encouraged to help those in need,” said Zhenya with delight in her voice.
Towards the end of our conversation, Zhenya shared, “We really want to go back home, and we dream of the day when all this hardship comes to an end, when people no longer have to suffer. But for now, we’re trying to build our lives here. The Medair team has been incredibly kind and caring. We hope others can see their example and help those who are in the same situation as our family.”
This story demonstrates how one family managed to endure challenging times and find a fresh start with the support of Medair, as well as their own faith and resilience.
Medair services in Vinnytsia city, Central Ukraine, are funded by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed here are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organization.