Inside the lives of Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw: Oleana and Yana’s story

Inside the lives of Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw: Oleana and Yana’s story


Written by Tanya Cornish

Oleana is 36 years old. She lives with her husband Serhii and her four year old son, Maksim. Before becoming a mother, she worked as a bookkeeper for a grain export company. She also works as a makeup artist to make a little extra money to help pay for renovations on the apartment she and her husband have bought. She lives close to her parents as well as her sister and her family, and they visit each other often. She loves spending time in the wilderness, away from the city, a joy introduced to her by her mother when she was a child. Oleana leads a beautifully simple life surrounded by friends, family and nature, on the outskirts of Kyiv. 

Oleana’s sister, Yana, leads a similar life. Together with her husband and five year old daughter, Nastia, she lives in a small apartment gifted to them by her husband’s family three years ago. While her husband works as a security guard at Pechersk School International (PSI), Yana concentrates on providing a loving, nurturing environment for her daughter, learning to cook nutritious meals and keeping her family healthy and happy. Their lives were turned upside down in February.

“We knew war was coming,” says Oleana. “There has always been tension between Ukraine and Russia, and always threats of invasion. More and more, there were conversations about war. We heard US officials talk on the television, saying that Ukraine would be invaded on the 15th of February, so we got prepared, buying food, packing bags and things like that.” Oleana set up a bed in the hallway for her son, believing that the center of the house would be the safest place if they were attacked. Similarly, Yana set up a bed for her daughter in the bathtub. “We got anxious as we waited for war,” Oleana continues. “But nothing happened, so we went on with our lives. Then we heard that the invasion would happen on the 22nd of February, so we repeated the process of getting prepared. And again, nothing happened. Now we started to believe that nothing was going to happen: it was all just talk.”

On the morning of the 24th of February, Oleana’s husband woke her to the sound of explosions and sirens. After all the threats of war starting and nothing happening, she thought it was somebody’s idea of a tasteless joke. How could this happen in the 21st century? Then her phone starting ringing and she realised the horrible truth. 

Sounds of explosions in the distance woke Yana. “I thought perhaps the Russians were doing some military exercises at close to the Ukrainian border. This is what the Ukrainian press had said initially. How could Russia attack a country where so many Russian people lived? How could they attack their own citizens?” Yana thought the noise would eventually stop, but it only got louder. She woke her husband who couldn’t comprehend what was going on either. The television news wasn’t up to date and they waited 15 minutes before a news report said that Ukraine was at war with Russia.



Yana’s first thought was to get to her parents. They live on the other side of the Dnieper River and there was a real possibility that the bridges might be destroyed. But she didn’t have a car and transport was scarce. She finally found a taxi that would take her across the river for an exorbitant sum of money, but she paid it because she had to make sure her parents were ok. Her father is not in good health and didn’t want to leave, but he insisted that Yana take her mother, her sister,  their children and her mother’s brother’ family with her back to her apartment on the other side of the river. They stayed there several more days, with the sounds of explosions only getting louder. When they saw a Russian military vehicle come down their street, knocking over everything in its path, they knew it was time to flee to safety. So, with minimal belongings, they fled to an evacuation center at PSI where they remained relatively safe for the next ten days. 

Yana continued to worry about Oleana, who was still in her apartment. Oleana’s husband wanted her to go to PSI, telling her it would be easier for him to make rational decisions for himself and the family if he knew they were safe. Oleana felt she was better off at home, thinking that at PSI she would be taking up the food and resources of someone else who needed those things more than she did. So she continued to stay in her apartment, but the sounds of the explosions didn’t abate. In fact, they got louder and came from many different directions. The colour of the sky changed to red and black from explosions, fire and toxic smoke. Oleana was running out of time to decide what to do. When her husband insisted it was time to leave with their son, she fled to PSI.

Oleana reunited with her sister, their mother and uncle, her mother-in-law, Valentyna, and her aunt and her son. Together, the group spent the night at PSI in a crowded gymnasium that had been converted into a refugee camp for hundreds of people. Oleana and Yana had managed to shield their children from the worst of the atrocities and their young ages meant that they weren’t asking too many questions about what was going on. While the adults were keeping up with the events on television and phones, the children remained mostly oblivious.

The next day staff from PSI explained to everyone that they were arranging for buses to evacuate everyone. They didn’t have much time to decide whether to travel to Warsaw or remain in Kyiv. With their mother and uncle deciding to remain in Kyiv with the girls’ father,  the decision was not an easy one for Oleana and Yana. Their husbands were not allowed to leave the country so they would be breaking up their families, and they had no idea how long it would be before they were reunited. The journey would not be an easy or a safe one, but for the safety of their children, and to keep the families together as much as they could, they decided to flee to Poland.

The family boarded the bus with the clothes they wore and a small bag of essentials. The bus was crowded with people crammed into seats and sitting in the aisle, and there was no room for any extra luggage. The main roads were occupied by Russian troops so to avoid becoming a target they stuck to the back roads, being continually fed information from US intelligence about the safest roads to travel on. Country roads in Ukraine are often poorly maintained so travel on these roads was slow. Curfews meant that they could only travel during the day and had to stop before dark. Twice they had to evacuate from the bus to a bomb shelter. They reached Lviv where they ate and spent the night before continuing the journey the next day. Finally, after three long days they reached the border where they disembarked and the buses made a slow return journey back to Kyiv. The family walked across the border into Poland, becoming refugees but at the same time, finally finding safety. Oleana sensed the difference as soon as they arrived in Poland. “It felt like a different world, a safer world.” 


On the other side of the border, buses arranged by the American School of Warsaw (ASW) were waiting to help the travellers continue their journey to Warsaw. A call had gone out to ASW families, seeking assistance in housing 29 of the people who had nowhere to go. Oleana and her family, a total of seven people, were grateful to be able to stay together with an ASW family that hosted them for three months. 

But they continue to have a sense of impermanence, and the feelings of safety can be fleeting. The family knew they could not stay with their host family indefinitely, yet they have managed to find other accommodation where they can continue to stay together. Yana still feels unsettled and unsafe at times. Routine is important for her, as is keeping busy. Since February, both Oleana and Yana wake up each morning grateful that they have survived the night, but the trauma is still there, just under the surface. Initially they thought things would get better once they were in Poland, that they certainly couldn’t get worse. Then news broke of the atrocities committed in Bucha and Irpin, so close to their parents home, and the girls realised that the nightmare just continues. The children, while initially relatively oblivious to the war and upheaval, are now asking pointed questions. “Why are we here? When can we go home? Why isn’t Daddy here? Is anyone going to kill him?” They have been told what has happened in ways that small children can understand without being traumatised. Trying to shield the children from the worst of the information hasn’t been entirely succesful though. Nastia is terrified of loud noises because they remind her of the early days of the war when she would sleep in the bathtub.

Oleana sums it up by saying, “Really, there is no peace. Even here in Warsaw. Sirens go off at random times and the sound fills us with fear. Now we understand it is often a celebration instead of a warning. And so many other things trigger frightening memories. Things like the smell of gas and of burning rubber. And the sound that heavy trucks make, because they remind us of the tanks that would roll down the road outside our homes. We just don’t feel safe. Especially when we hear of Russia making threats to all of Europe. When will it end? Nowhere is safe.” 

The family cannot stay in Warsaw, they need to return. Ukraine is where their family is, as well as their lives and their hearts. While they stay in Poland they are living off some funds gifted to them by their host family when they lived with them and a small monthly allowance provided by the Polish government. This is not enough though, and they are now dipping into their dwindling savings. “We are living in a beautiful suburb of Warsaw, surrounded by people who do their best to help us. We are so grateful for all the support and help we have received since the war began. People have opened their homes, their wallets, and their hearts to us. It is very humbling.”

The family have found a way to give back to the community that has offered them so much. They volunteer at the ASW Refugee Center in Lipowa every day. They oversee the provision of food and donated clothing to other refugees in similar circumstances to themselves. It gives them a sense of purpose in this uncertain period, and the routine helps the whole family mentally. But their biggest wish now is for Ukraine to be safe enough for them to return home.

There are hundreds of families like Yana’s and Oleana’s. If we close the center, all of them will lose a place where they come to collect food for their families. There are 711 families at the American School of Warsaw and Pechersk School International. If each of our families dedicate $25 per week until December 31st, Yana and her daughter, Oleana and her son, together with other refugees coming to the center will be supported until the end of this year by receiving what they need the most - food. Please help us keep our #ASWforUkraine Center doors open!

Sponsor a refugee family each week for $25.

Sponsor a refugee family for the rest of the year for $400.

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