Stories from Ukraine: Masha

The following is being shared by GoAbroad’s Founder, Troy Peden, as he actively volunteers in Poland and Ukraine to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. To read Troy’s statement about the conflict.

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April 21, 2022

The GoAbroad Foundation has always been focused on doing as much as possible for a small population of people who need a hand. It wasn’t designed that way and no one ever held a board meeting and determined that was our mission. Instead I think it mirrors my own style and motives. I know I don’t have any great uber ideas on building typhoon proof homes, there are architects and engineers focused on that. But I know if we come in contact with a few families who have lost their home in a typhoon and we help them build a new home with more solid materials and we check back with them in a year or two and they are thriving we have done something we can see and measure and be proud of.

Here in Poland/Ukraine we are part of and partnered with a very small fleet of vans who are able to go into Ukraine and bring out a handful of families each time and leave aid goods behind. The most individuals who have come out in one of our groups is 42 women and children. The truth is, if we had a dozen GreyHound busses running 24 hours day, and the Ukraine border was open, and we could access all parts of the country we would fill those busses each time. Instead we are small and doing something small in the scheme of things.

Occasionally, however, we spend more time with some families, they ask for additional assistance, they don’t have a place to go or we take them somewhere and they realize they cannot be there. Some of these refugees are knocking on the doors of ex-husbands or childhood friends or they are moving into very small flats that are already at capacity. When they ask for additional support we try our very best to provide it.

Here is the story of one family…their struggles did not end at the border, in many ways they confronted new and unknown heartaches that began the day they decided to leave.

Masha is a 39 year old manicurist. She likes her job and it provides a decent income and she gets to be with her friends and work with women that she has known her whole life. She knows her neighbors and her neighbors’ neighbors and her parents and their parents knew each other. Her husband is a stone cutter. She had been in a couple relationships that didn’t work before and this husband of eight years is a good man. He has been the father of his step children and works hard for them, gives them time and they consider him to be their father. She has three daughters. Khrystyna “Tina” is a fourth year Graphic Design student at the university. She is independent, strong willed, stubborn and funny. She is also an incredible artist. Her father died some years ago but she considers her stepfather to be her dad and hopes he will walk her down the aisle when she gets married to her boyfriend. Lera is 14; she is tall and quiet and loves to dance. Then there is Sasha, who the mother calls “Sonya” when she is mad. Masha told me that Sasha was electrocuted on a lamp when she was a toddler and as a result she can’t stop moving around, singing or dancing now. Sasha is funny and silly and craves her mom’s approval constantly, but she also likes to dance on the very edge of a ledge or see how close she can get to getting in trouble.

This time of year Masha would be planting a garden. This month Tina was to plan for her university graduation and start looking for an internship, Lera should be hanging out with her friends and dancing and Sasha should begin kindergarten. They lived in a neighborhood in the city of Chernihiv. Chernihiv was first mentioned in a treaty in the year 907. The Church of the Transfiguration is from the eleventh century and the mall on the north side of town is called The Hollywood Mall. While the city had a population of over 200,000 people, it still maintained a small town feel. Small houses lined streets and people planted flowers and had gardens. The city is on the Desna River north of Kiev near the Russian and Belarus borders. The road leading from Belarus and from Russia to Kiev via the southwest corner of Belarus passes through the city. The river and the roads have led to Chernihiv’s history of invasion beginning with the Mongols led by Batu Khan.

Today it is the highway and location on the map that determined its destruction. The Russian invasion forces began an attack on Chernihiv on February 24, and by March 10 the Mayor had declared that the city was completely surrounded. The shelling continued until April.

Many stories you may have seen in the news originated in this city. The first surrender by a Russian Corporal in the 11th Air Assault Brigade happened here. Ukrainian fighters overcame a Russian Convoy in the city. The entire city center was destroyed by missiles. A school was hit and at least 40 people were killed. Saboteurs entered the city in armored vehicles and were overcome by locals and killed. The city was surrounded and under constant bombardment for over a month. The Russian losses here may have led to an even more aggressive revengeful assault. Ultimately though, Russian troops chose a detour around the city and left in April. Mines were left around the city and within the city.

When the first bombs hit, Tina had left for Lviv. Masha took Sasha and Lera and went into their basement. Ukrainian currency collapsed and grocery stores were quickly emptied. The house was hit by a bomb and the basement was no longer a useable shelter. Masha took the girls and went to a neighbor’s house with eleven others, including six children. They lived in that dark, damp and cold basement eating old bread and ‘sand’ water. Masha wanted to leave but the bridges were taken out and the daily bombings made it unsafe to come up. The sound of constant bombing can make you crazy, especially when you are with your children, as it is impossible to reassure them that you are safe. They began to get their information and news from the internet via their phones. Tina waited for her family in Lviv and prayed they would make it out.

The movement of the Russian troops and the slow down in bombing was the window they needed to get out. Masha had seen an Instagram post from Igor Luguvoy offering seats on vans leaving Chernihiv. On April 18, they packed three suitcases and went to the secret meeting place to begin their journey. Igor and his men are armed and wearing flack jackets and they treat these trips through Kiev to the edge of Russia and Belarus as military operations. By the afternoon of April 18, Igor’s convoy had arrived in Lviv and the passengers exited and were reloaded into our vans for passage to the border. It was here where Tina saw her family for the first time since the early days of the invasion.

The next part of the journey involved more bathroom breaks and often puking from children. By the time we arrived at the border it was dusk. Family after family having family members rejected at the Ukraine Passport Control office. It is here that Masha’s husband was rejected and told he needed to go back to Chernihiv to get a new military exemption document. I had whispered to Tina earlier that he may be rejected at the border as almost all adult men are. She said he knew that and was prepared for it. The two other vans dropped their passengers to walk across the border; we had the additional commitment of authorizing the van to cross the border and it took an exceptionally long time. Over five hours was spent in 100 meters between Ukraine and Poland. During that time, we got to know each other and I offered to drive the family on to Opole the next day. Finally we were through and arrived at the Refugee Center at Przemysl around midnight. The second mother in the van was very sick at this point and had trouble walking into the center. I hesitate to critique the refugee centers because they are such an incredible gift and commitment from Poland, but its not a place you want to be with your children for very long.

After one night, Sasha was very sick. Tina and Lera soon became sick as well. When I collected them at the refugee center the next morning they had changed destinations. The place in Opole was no longer an option. Often refugees are selecting places based on a friend of a friend and very often they don’t materialize or they themselves are overwhelmed and reconsider their capacity. Instead, Tina said they wanted to to go to the north of Poland to meet Lera’s father who lives in Lithuania and would drive to meet us. About five hours into the trip, and after several emotionally charged phone calls, it was learned that he was not going to meet us after all. We then decided to go across the border into Lithuania. Still we didn’t have a transportation connection so we drove the final hours to Vilnius itself. The dad met us near the bus stop and seemed happy to see his daughter. He brought some gifts and donuts with sprinkles. I talked to him, unloaded and said goodbye.

Two hours back down the road to Poland I received a couple emergency texts and then a phone call. The place had problems. “There are drug attics shooting drugs. There are no beds and everyone is laying side by side on the floor. There is black mold running up the wall and Sasha’s asthma will surely react at night and kill her.” I turned my car around and got the family. They were ashamed but happy to see me.

I phoned a couple people in the north of Poland to see if there was an option for them. It made no sense to drive them back ten hours to be in a refugee center next to Ukraine. The farther you get from the border the more welcoming locals are, generally speaking. I learned that one region was no longer accepting Ukrainian refugees as they were overwhelmed. It was decided we would go to Warsaw where the largest refugee camps are and I would leave them there. I needed to get back to the border as this was already a 48 hour venture. I spoke to them at length regarding the country options for Ukrainian refugees. Spain, Germany and Italy seem to be at capacity. The Baltic States, Poland and Slovakia are overwhelmed and there aren’t many opportunities for refugees. Many of the people we have set up in Poland eventually leave because they need to work and Poland, as generous as they are, have three million refugees looking for work and housing. The United Kingdom is a great option but you have to stay in Poland for nearly a month waiting for a visa offer. Ireland though—they have brought down all the immigration barriers and are welcoming. They decided they would go to Ireland.

I took them to the Refugee center, which wasn’t at the football stadium as we thought, it wasn’t at the second address we had been given, and by the time we found it we were exhausted. The center had hundreds of people waiting in line to be processed and let in. It was obvious they were scared. They had two experiences with centers, the first one made everyone sick and the second was dangerous. I took them to the airport instead. There were no direct flights to Ireland on Ryan Air with any available seats until May. I had been speaking with friends in Ireland and unofficially there is a quiet limit to the numbers they will accept and it was felt if we waited until May that number might be maxed. There was a flight tomorrow with a connection in Switzerland. First we had to verify with Switzerland that they would accept a child passenger without a passport. They assured us they would.

They are on their way to Ireland. Ireland will welcome them emotionally and in kind. The government will help them with housing, they will be allowed to work and receive education and health care. Additionally, they will receive government assistance until they do find work. It won’t be easy, they do not speak English, they will be far away, the food and climate are different. They will have a chance however to breath deep and eat every day and send money home and wait until the day they can go home and there is a home to go to.

If you want to specifically help this family and this trip:

Tina needs a laptop. A decent laptop will allow her to do graphic design work remotely and help support the family. If you are interested in donating a laptop or the cost equivalent or if you have any design projects you need done please PM me.

Igor is our Chernihiv Cowboy—he goes into Ukraine once a week with his band of vigilantes and extracts as many people as he can. His trips cost over US$500 each run (Diesel for 3-4 vans). Repairs, tires etc. If you are interested in sponsoring a trip let me know.

Lera could use emotional support via friends. She is shy and quiet and speaks English only through a translation app. If you have a teenage daughter that would like to be her friend, message me and I will connect them.

Thanks again to the Ken Jones family and the incredible Maximo Nivel Spanish study abroad programs for sponsoring this family!

Below, with their permission, I am sharing some of their photos and videos. The videos are filmed by the family and some are filmed by local media and gathered by the family via social media shares. You can also see where they lived during the bombing and how they are doing now.

Thanks again for your continued support. If you have read this far, you are interested, and being interested is the first step in being an advocate for the voiceless. Thank you!

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