I'm A Ukrainian Refugee. Here's What No One Is Telling You About The War.

"The weight of the war is on us, along with worry about our children’s future ... All of that will slowly kill your spirit, as surely as a bomb will kill your body."
The author with her younger son and their dog on the first day in the Italian town they're calling home, which they reached after four days of travel.
The author with her younger son and their dog on the first day in the Italian town they're calling home, which they reached after four days of travel.
Courtesy of Maria Zavialova

People ask me how I’m doing in exile.

Well, let’s see ― my city is being bombed, my country’s future is under threat from a superpower, the father of my children is at war, and I’m a thousand miles from home in a country where I don’t speak the language, have no job, and can only watch my savings dwindle to zero while I try to provide for my two boys, my mother and our dog.

Then there’s the guilt for abandoning the fight, when a big part of me would like to be in Donbas killing every Russian soldier I can find.

Until late February, I was an independent, self-supporting woman ― a journalist and the main breadwinner for my family. When the bombs started to fall near our apartment in Kyiv, I had a terrible decision to make: stay and fight, or take my family away from the bombs. With no one else to ensure their safety, I chose the latter.

First we went to Lviv ― spending long hours in a packed van to get there ― to stay with an online gaming acquaintance from “Clash of Clans” who I’d never met in person. When the bombs started falling there, too, we spent hours in the basement, and then joined the refugee flow heading west, which meant several more days of traveling with all of us and the dog.

As a journalist, I’ve covered refugee camps. Now, along the way, I found myself living in one. In my former life, I gave to charities (I still do, whenever I can). On the road, I was accepting the charity of strangers: food, transport, a night in a hotel when we were on the verge of collapse.

Our destination was a small town in central Italy, where I knew exactly one person ― another member of our Clan.

I’m not one to shrink from a challenge. Once we finally arrived, I got the kids into school, settled my mother in our borrowed house, and found some part-time jobs: kitchen work at a pizzeria, then at a steakhouse, later as a maid in a hotel packed with Ukrainian refugees. (That will be a whole chapter in my book someday!)

The author at her job in a pizzeria.
The author at her job in a pizzeria.
Courtesy of Maria Zavialova

On top of all that, I discovered that millions of Ukrainian refugee women like me are the target of online ridicule from some of our fellow citizens who think we left the country because we’re “lazy” and “cowardly,” and that we did it for the aid money.

The money? One recent morning, I traveled 300 kilometers (186 miles) to arrive at the Ukrainian Consulate at 8:00 a.m. Even though it wouldn’t open for another two hours, there were 25 women in front of me, most with kids, hoping to qualify for 300 Euros ($316) per month for each adult and half that for each child ― and only for a maximum of three months. I was so thankful for that money, but it didn’t last long. A woman in line said to me, “Every day is Friday the 13th here.”

One person tried to guilt me on social media by writing, “I know someone who brought her four kids to a friend in Western Ukraine and came back to Kyiv to work for victory.”

Please tell me, where do I find such friends? And if I did, could I stand to leave my boys with them for the long term? Exile is particularly hard on the children ― anger, tears, acting out. If at all possible, they need at least one parent with them.

There’s nothing I’d rather do than go home, if only I could do so and still take care of my family. I salute those who are able to stay, and I work to help them in any way I can. But my reasons for leaving, like those of any refugee, are enough. We don’t have to justify our decisions to anyone, particularly people who put in earbuds to tune out politics and listened to Russian rap for the past eight years while some of us worked to raise the alarm about the simmering conflict.

We know who really cares about us. They’re the people who write, as five of my friends did one recent day when bombs fell on Kyiv: “It’s too dangerous. Stay where you are.”

Still, many of the refugees I meet are mired in despair, sadness and depression, which seem to be the only socially acceptable emotions for them to feel or express. God forbid anyone should post a photo of themselves on the beach or at a football match. Such a person would have to be a heartless traitor!

But succumbing to that view is a crime in two ways: It doesn’t make our lives easier, and it won’t help win the war.

The author on assignment in Ilovaisk, Ukraine, in 2014.
The author on assignment in Ilovaisk, Ukraine, in 2014.
Courtesy of Maria Zavialova

Instead, I don’t let my emotions stop me from doing everything I can to contribute to the war effort, and I encourage others to do the same. It’s hard to be productive or creative when you’re depressed, so I fight it. I share, tweet and retweet constantly. I speak to my foreign friends about Ukraine, about our courage and all the best of our nation. I use social media to spread the truth about Ukraine, because Russia never stops spouting its lies. When I can, I use my contacts to facilitate the shipment of ammo, flak jackets and medicine to our brave fighters.

And I try not to feel guilty about those moments when I can enjoy life ― when I can laugh with my kids, sample the local food, and yes, even go to the beach.

When I was a journalist traveling in Donbas and Crimea from 2014 through 2021, my colleagues and I had a motto: “Enjoy life whenever you can.” We would go out for dinners and vodka, and laugh while the bombs fell, because we knew the next one could fall on us.

Here in exile, we are safe from the bombs. But the weight of the war is on us, along with worry about our children’s future and fear for our friends and family left behind. And the guilt is here, too, in spite of my efforts to shed it. All of that will slowly kill your spirit, as surely as a bomb will kill your body.

We Ukrainians have had enough sadness and despair to last the rest of our lives, and there’s likely more to come. In the meantime, we must all do our part, and respect and love each other for it.

And, to our foreign friends: We are no longer in the headlines every day, but please do not forget us. We need all of you ― not just your governments ― to do everything you can to help us secure our democracy and protect the West from Russia’s aggression. (Two organizations that are doing excellent work and could use more support are the Women Veterans Foundation and Come Back Alive.)

So, how am I doing?

On the bright side, I learned to make pizza.

Maria Zavialova is a Ukrainian journalist living temporarily in exile. You can find more from her on Twitter.

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