I Fled Ukraine To Save My 3-Year-Old Daughter. We Want To Go Home.

Photo: Yanosh Nemesh / Shutterstock
ukranians fleeing

My three-year-old-daughter, Martha, and I crossing the border. Photo: Courtesy of the Author

“Wake up. The war has begun.”

Like many Ukrainians, I was shocked to wake up to a call from a friend and hear those words. Before February 24, everybody was talking about the possible threat of war, but nobody actually believed it could happen.

My husband and I burst out of bed, shocked and in a panic. We had neither prepared a suitcase nor an emergency plan. We were stuck. All we could do was watch the news — all day.

At first, we decided not to leave Kyiv, but when we heard the sound of explosions in our district, we started to doubt.

We live on the 16th floor of a blockhouse, so it is dangerous to stay in our apartment. The nearest basement is in the next block, but it’s not a bomb shelter. And if the city was bombed, it might be too late for us to get out of the apartment and run to the basement. How could we put our child at such risk?

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So, we decided to flee Kyiv. The startup where I work, Headway, announced help with housing in the west of Ukraine, so on the second night of the full-fledged war, we packed up. In the final few minutes before we left, a rocket flew over our house. At that moment, I realized that it was the right decision to go. Leaving home was difficult and painful, but providing safety for our child was paramount.

We took two small bags and set off with our three-year-old child, Martha. Due to heavy traffic, the trip took us two days instead of the usual eight to 10 hours. We waited for five hours to refuel the car. Many gas stations on our way had run out of fuel, and it became the most valuable currency.

Fortunately, we reached our destination without incident on the evening of our second day of travel. We met up with my team members who also had to leave their homes.

It was very nice to see how my colleagues gathered and fought for Ukraine on different fronts. Marketers launched advertisements to collect donations for Ukrainians. Our content team created summaries and explainers about the Russian invasion of Ukraine for our app, so the global audience was aware of true facts. We keep on working to support Ukraine’s economy.

I also volunteered, but it was quite difficult to combine childcare, work, and volunteering. I felt so guilty. Even in the west of Ukraine, where it is relatively safe, our sleep was interrupted by air alarms every day.

A few days later, my company offered help with temporary relocation to Romania for women and children. I knew it would be better for my daughter — her safety and health were my priority, and I had to go to protect her. It was very difficult for me to go without my husband. He made this decision for me, so I packed our bags again, took Martha, and went to Romania.

When we were safe in Romania, we could finally sleep all night without waking up to the air alarms. But instead of the expected relief, the move brought new challenges. We settled in a hostel in the city of Cluj-Napoca. Martha got sick. I was worried a lot because she had contracted pneumonia 2 weeks before. We hadn’t even made it to see a doctor again in Kyiv because of war.

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Though we had plenty of struggles, the hospitality of the Romanians and their willingness to help us, move me every day. The world is full of incredible people. When we showed up at the hospital, the medical staff found an interpreter for us, examined Martha, prescribed her medication, gave it to us for free, and presented us with a whole package of food.

Later, we moved to another place in the village, where several of my colleagues stayed. Martha’s birthday was during our stay there. I asked the owners where I could buy a cake, but they baked it for her and bought lots of presents. I came there with one bag and went away with two.

I have never lived alone. Coping with everything on my own was completely new and challenging. It was incredibly difficult to combine work, childcare, volunteering for my country, constant moving, and household needs. Add the lack of sleep and psychological stress on top of that, and I was on the verge of a breakdown.

My nerves began to give way and I felt that I could not cope anymore. In addition, I had to look for accommodation in a new country and come to terms with the fact that I won’t see my husband for months, or longer. I was unbearably sad and anxious to think that I would have to be away from my home for so long and live alone with my child.

Fortunately, Martha doesn’t understand the seriousness of the war. I feel overwhelmed with fear when thinking about hundreds of children killed by Russian troops — the thousands of kids and their moms struggling in Mariupol or the suburbs of Kyiv.

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Martha called each of the places we’ve stayed in the last month, “home.” But she kept asking when Dad would come back from work.

I decided to go back to the west of Ukraine. Back to my family. We decided that we are ready to take the risk of staying in Ukraine. Yes, air alarms still wake us up every day, but it’s much easier to deal with when you are not coping with this challenge alone. 

Now my husband and I can take turns caring for Martha and psychologically supporting each other. We still live in uncertainty. And we long for our lives before these attacks. But we’re together. I hope that our next destination is Kyiv, our home.

Maria Basarab is the product manager at Headway Ed Tech startup.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.