Elena* is from Odesa. Before the Russian invasion, she lived there with her husband and two children, and had a good job at a logistics company. They were happy. But on 24th February 2022 they woke up to the sound of explosions, and everything changed in an instant. She fled to Chisinau, Moldova with her mother and two young children, and is being supported there by World Jewish Relief’s partner International Centre of Training and Professional Development (ICTPD). She spoke to Annie Levy, World Jewish Relief’s Campaigns and Communications Manager, about her experience.
Firstly, what is your situation now?
I am in Chisinau with my mother and two daughters, aged 9 and 4. My mum is helping to look after my children in our rental flat, and is continuing to work remotely as a teacher.
How are you doing?
For the moment, we are doing okay. I am just trying to get on with things. My children are still getting used to their life as it is now, and we are all looking forward to the moment when we can go back home.
Tell us about your life in Ukraine.
I am from Odesa, where I was working for a logistics company before the invasion. My husband runs a small business. Our eldest daughter is in 4th Grade. She is an excellent student. She loves dancing and enjoys learning English. Our younger daughter isn’t at school yet, as she is still little.
My husband is still in Ukraine, as men are not allowed to leave the country. He is in the Territorial Defence, working to try and keep the peace and prevent looting and robberies.
I am managing to speak to him every day. Thankfully, the situation in Odesa at the moment isn’t as critical as in other places. I very much hope this will remain the case.
In the leadup to the Russian invasion, what were you thinking and feeling?
Before 24th February, we all discussed what seemed to be happening. We knew that something was building. But no one wanted to leave the country and we were really hoping that it wouldn’t get to that stage. On 24th we woke up to the sound of explosions, coming from the airport nearby. At that point, we packed everything up straight away and went to stay with my mother who lives in a small village in the countryside. We spent two weeks with her, and on 8th March decided we had no choice but to flee the country.
How did you feel, making the decision to leave Ukraine?
The overriding feeling was fear. I was fearful that this was happening. Scared, not knowing whether things would go back to normal. It’s really hard to accept what’s happened; I’m not sure I’ve accepted that we’ve left the country. My job is still there. I have a home there.
I hope that it won’t get worse, and that we can rebuild the economy and rebuild the country.
I am lucky that my children didn’t have to live their days under the sounds of explosions, fighting, and sirens. I see the other children, who are arriving now to Moldova from regions of Ukraine which were worse affected. The experiences they have had and conditions they have lived under, are terrible.
It must be a very difficult conversation to have with your children, explaining that there is a war, and you are leaving your home?
It has been hard explaining to my daughters what is happening, but I needed to be honest. I told them that our country has been invaded, that a war has started, and that we needed to leave. They are used to the familiarity of our lives in Odesa and leaving that all behind is really difficult. But they are managing. My eldest is still managing to go to school online. And she’s also doing lots of activities with the Jewish community centre and with World Jewish Relief’s partner ICTPD. She’s going to dance classes, pottery classes, playmaking and drawing.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey out of Ukraine?
I had acquaintances and friends who drove us from where we were staying to the border. We had to cross the last few kilometers over the border on foot, as the queue for cars was so long. It would have taken many, many hours.
We took a couple of suitcases and some rucksacks, and some picture books for the children.
Crossing the border took about two and a half hours. On the other side we were met by volunteers, and given tea, coffee, and snacks. A volunteer run bus took us to Chisinau, where one of my friends put us in contact with Ludmilla, who works for World Jewish Relief’s partner ICTPD. Ludmilla let us stay in her home for the first few days and told us we were welcome to stay for longer. But we decided it was time to look for somewhere to live. We are now renting a flat nearby.
When you crossed the border, how were you feeling and what were you thinking?
Mostly, I was thinking that we would be back in Ukraine in a week or two. We only brought winter clothes. That’s how much we thought we’d be returning home soon. I mostly felt fear, disappointment and sadness, and a desire to go home. I am still hoping we will soon be able to go home and live in Odesa.
How has World Jewish Relief’s partner ICTPD supported you since you arrived?
From the day we arrived we lived with Ludmilla, who contacted her colleague Galina to let her know that she was hosting us, and we needed support from the centre. They are doing so much to assist refugees like us. (I don’t like the words refugee or displaced people. It’s a horrible term but it is, in essence, what we are.)
The very next day we were given some food parcels and nappies. A few days later they contacted us to ask whether my oldest daughter wanted to go to school, whether I needed help finding employment and to offer us clothes and other essential items.
My oldest daughter attended their Purim celebration, where she met other children and was given Purim gifts. It was a great experience for her. She has also started plasticine clay making classes.
They have brought a group of mothers together to understand what sort of support we need.
My youngest daughter has food allergies, and they have helped us to find food items which she can eat, as in a completely foreign city we would have really struggled otherwise.
And they have offered to help me find work. At the moment my focus is on looking after my daughters, and my mother is still working remotely, but I am thinking about this possibility.
Galina is in contact with me every day. The support that I have been given is absolutely constant and colossal.
I want to say a huge thank you, from myself and on behalf of everyone else who has received this support when they are in the hardest times of their lives. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I have been surprised and amazed to see this level of support from Galina, ICTPD and World Jewish Relief!
You can read more and donate to our Ukraine Crisis Appeal today at www.worldjewishrelief.org/ukrainecrisis.
* Not her real name. To protect her family's safety we have changed her name and not shared a photograph of her.