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Refugee Diaries: Images of home, old and new

In this ongoing project, POLITICO is hosting a sort of digital diary following Ukrainian refugees across Europe as they adjust to lives forever changed by war. 

For this installment, we asked six refugees to illustrate their experiences with videos or photos, and to tell us how things have changed. Their answers included stories of adjustment and loss, deep grief and small pleasures, and in one case a return to home to Ukraine.

Anna Vyshniakova

Location: France

Photo 1: This mural is close to Centre Georges Pompidou [the art museum] and was widely shared on Facebook and Instagram by Ukrainians. It’s a reference to the Delacroix painting [“Liberty Leading the People”], and it kind of gives me hope. It makes people think of Ukraine for a second and not to forget that there’s a war that is still going on.

Photo 2: This is a picture of Pierre Soulages work at the Georges Pompidou museum. I really love his work because of his play with black color, it has so many shadows and nuances, you can understand it in depth and find some beauty in it. Friends taught me how to understand modern art, because my understanding of it stopped at the impressionists, the rest was a total mystery to me. Now I’m searching for art courses and really want to develop that, every week I’m trying to dedicate one day to a museum. Paris is the best city for that because art is in the air. 

Photo 3: I was cooking at a friend’s house, and cutting the ingredients for borscht. When I was still in Ukraine, I loved to share Jewish traditions and dishes. Here I decided to share Ukrainian traditions. Cuisine is a very good kind of diplomacy.

On a separate occasion, we also gathered a team of ten people (including my grandma!) cooking typical Ukrainian dishes for a charity event, where we managed to gather €9000 for those who are starving in Kharkiev (see video).

As told to Elisa Braun

Larysa Deshko

Location: The Netherlands

This is Topaz in a silver framing, in the form of snakes with crossed tails — the caduceus. I put this jewel in my bag and brough it with me on February 24, when Russia bombed Kyiv.

I think this sacred object is at least 200 years old. I got it from my great-grandmother, Yulia Karazina. I think it may have originally belonged to my great-great-grandmother, Varvaria Kovaliska, who was the mother of the founder of Karkhiv University, which was opened in 1805. 

All of us in our family are very proud of this educated woman. She was friends with the famous Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda for many years. This year is the 300th anniversary of his birth. Like Christ, he had no home, and he traveled and stayed with different people. He spent his last days with Varvaria’s family. She buried him in her park, and they established the Skovoroda museum in her house.

The museum was destroyed by Russian troops a few months ago. It’s a personal loss for me —  and for all of Ukraine. 

The Netherlands is a very smart country. Although I haven’t been lucky enough to make close friends with Dutch people yet, I’ve been exploring their huge streets and parks for four months now. They are wonderful and beautifully decorated. Bicycle paths, public transport running on schedule — to the minute, plants everywhere on the streets… I’m in love with them.

Most Ukrainians love their land, plants, flowers and trees. And here, there’s an unusual variety of greenery, there’s always something in bloom: daffodils, lilacs, azalea, rhododendron, roses… 

I like the attitude of the Dutch toward the environment and toward life. They’re in no hurry, but they know how to work well. They know how to protect and care for the environment. They don’t collect mushrooms so as not to upset nature.

The ducks are serene in the ponds and canals, and they feed their chicks. They aren’t afraid of people at all. I think that birds live well here, and probably the people too. 

As told to Carlo Martuscelli

Olena Ostroverkh

Location: France

Photo 1: This is the backyard of the house where I’ve lived for four months now. It’s my friend’s mother’s house. She lives here alone, and her son visits her sometimes. It’s what I see when I wake up and open the window, or when I look out the kitchen.

There’s an old fountain she switches on every morning. The sound of the running water’s very calming. For me, the fountain now symbolizes France, somehow. It’s an extremely beautiful country; peaceful, old. That fountain brings me peace, it calms me down.

The south of France is a perfect place. A lot of people vacation here, or dream about it. And the paradox is, I’ve been here a very long time, for four months, but still I want to go home. Everyday, I’m worried about the war.

The owner of the house, she’s amazing. I can’t imagine anyone having so much compassion or patience. It’s nice to have a guest for three days, but when it’s almost four months… I can’t imagine being half as kind.

Photo 2: I bought these shoes in Kyiv last autumn, when I was preparing to run a half-marathon. Apparently, when I was packing to leave on February 24, I grabbed them — they’re one of three pairs I took with me. I started running every day almost as soon as I got to France. Now, I run every morning. I run through the vineyards here.

Running is something I’d been doing for a long time. It helps me a lot mentally, otherwise it’s easy to just go crazy. I’m an artistic person, and a very sensitive one as well. All the news, all the pictures from the war, they’re extremely frustrating and difficult for me to take. Mentally, it’s been crazy hard for me, and for all Ukrainians. Running helped me a lot. You read the news in the morning, and then you take your shoes and go running.

In the picture, I put the shoes on cut grass because it’s a smell I remember from childhood. It’s very peaceful for me.

Photo 3: My friend was visiting Ukraine, and she was passing by my parents house, where my husband now lives. So, I asked her to bring me back some things. First, I asked for coffee. Each pack of these contains a variety of coffee from all over the world. When I first had it, oh man, it was amazing. We love a good coffee. Apparently, now in Kyiv, they’ve learned to roast it really well.

The sweets are quite special because they’re directly from my native town, Lutsk. They’re called “Lutsk Souvenirs.” You can find a Snickers or a Toblerone anywhere, but these candies you can only find in Lutsk.

And grechka [buckwheat]. I miss grechka. I know for Europeans it’s something very weird. But for us, it’s so good. It reminds us of home.

As told to Carlo Martuscelli

Nelli Karpachova

Nelli (right), with Sasha (left) and Lyuba (center)

Location: Belgium

Russia killed my husband. Not on the frontline in Ukraine. But here, in our Brussels apartment. 

Sasha died in front of me.

It was the beginning of May, a bit less than two months after we arrived in Belgium. I was studying for my French class on the living room table, and Sasha was helping me out since he’d taken classes back at school. 

I heard him snoring and thought it was strange because he was literally just talking to me. Then I saw his eyes turn white. It was all so sudden. 

I immediately called Lyuba, my daughter, and she called the ambulance. They arrived within five minutes, but it was too late. He had no pulse. 

The doctor said it was a heart attack. No wonder, with all the stress we’ve gone through since the start of the war. 

What happened then is a big blur. I didn’t know whether it was day or night. We organized Sasha’s funeral, but since his dossier hadn’t been reviewed by the social service office yet, they said they couldn’t help cover the funeral costs. It all takes so long to be approved. 

I haven’t been able to secure an income to pay for the cremation either, as I don’t have access to the Belgian job market yet. The language barrier also doesn’t help. 

We were so desperate, but we couldn’t even sell our house — which is in the Russian-occupied territory of Donetsk — to cover the costs. It’s half destroyed. Who would buy it there now anyway? So, we’ve been asking for money from relatives. It’s something relatively common in Ukraine, to have people give a small donation to the family when someone passes away. But still, I hate owing people money. 

Je m’appelle Nelli. J’ai 59 ans. Je suis comptable. 

My French is slowly getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. One word I understand now is “courage!” — it’s what Belgians say when they hear I come from Ukraine. I want to thank the Belgian people for their help — more than the authorities… 

When I’m not in language classes, or at the warehouse sorting donations for other Ukrainians, I read the news. It can quickly become an obsession, but I want to know what’s happening back home. Every minute of it. Day in, day out. 

To take a break from the news, I go for walks in the parks of Brussels. But then it makes me think of Sasha. We often went for walks together, to Parc Brugmann or in the Cinquantenaire.

I often go back to that specific tree in Parc Brugmann that Sasha’s hugging in the photo. I stand in front of it and close my eyes. I feel like he’s hugging me.

As told to Camille Gijs

Maria Bodnar

Location: Ukraine

I’m now back in Kyiv and have already been here for the last three weeks. The city has changed a lot since I first left, it’s very different to how it used to be. I’m back at the apartment I shared with my mother, not far from Irpin and Bucha.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to visit our house in Gostomel because there’s a danger of mines. When I walk around the city these days, there are anti-tank hedgehogs in place and banners everywhere that read, “Thank you, Lord, that we have lived to see this day.”

There’s also a change in how you discuss things with old friends and family. When you meet with people nowadays, you always ask, “How are you?” but also, “How did you survive?”

The main reason I decided to come back to Kyiv from Germany is that I couldn’t find work or a new apartment in Berlin. It was very difficult searching for my own place, and psychologically, I couldn’t allow myself to just stay in Berlin for free any longer. I’d initially gone for just a week at the start of the war, but I ended up staying for months. I just couldn’t do it any longer.

In the future, I hope to go back and work in Germany, so that I can afford a place of my own. I feel that I’ve also changed and grown up a lot during this time. In the past, I allowed myself to ignore certain things. Not only politics, but the wider world. Before the war came, we were a bit in our own world, like children. Now history is happening in front of our eyes.

On the way back to Kyiv, driving through Ukraine, I felt I was going through an apocalyptic landscape. I understood that this was not a film, not stories from a textbook. It’s our life. I saw the consequences of the horror and grief that the war brought to our country. It was impossible to watch without tears.

As told to Joshua Posaner

Dmytro Lysytskyi

Location: Germany

Photo 1: My 24th birthday began with congratulations from the members of my family who moved with me to Leipzig. It wasn’t my first outside of Ukraine: I turned 22 in isolation while studying in Poland during the early stages of COVID-19 in April 2020, and travelled abroad with my girlfriend for another.

We had breakfast together — I don’t remember exactly what we had — but friends and family back in Ukraine or elsewhere rang soon after. My girlfriend and I took a walk around the city, visiting the museum of modern art, ending up at a beerhouse. We had dinner at home with my mum, grandparents and my girlfriend. In the picture, you can see a cake we bought from the supermarket and some decorations my family had put up for me.

I spoke to my dad on the phone, who had returned to Kyiv from western Ukraine. He called me and said everything was fine. It was a quiet day in terms of the war.

Photo 2: My girlfriend and I went to visit my step mum and two half brothers in Munich a couple of weeks ago. It was the second time we saw them since they moved there after leaving Ukraine; the first time was in early April, to celebrate my youngest brother’s birthday. 

We had a nice weekend with them. The photo was taken in the main square. They showed us the city and some places they like. The first time we travelled to Munich, we played football and swam in a mountain river. 

I missed them so much and they had missed me too. In Kyiv, we were living in the same home but on different floors. 

All of us had a call with my dad back in Kyiv. He just said spend time together, I don’t want to interrupt you guys, enjoy it.

Photo 3: After searching online, my girlfriend found an amazing pizza place in the centre of Berlin when we visited there recently. It’s not far from Leipzig, and it’s a bigger city, so there’s lots to do and see. 

Honestly, it’s not super similar, but if we compare it with Kyiv, these two cities have a lot in common. The urban style is almost the same. On some streets in Berlin, I felt like I was back in Kyiv, which felt great.

As told to Sebastian Whale


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