The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainian refugees vow to return home — even if it’s never the same

Olga Gdulia and other Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee across the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
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Under an Irpin bridge moments before she fled, Olga Gdulia stood in silence.

Gdulia and others were waiting for Ukrainian soldiers to signal that it was safe to head toward buses that would take them away from her besieged hometown. Failure to heed the commands could mean death at the hands of Russian forces.

She had hugged her mother and stepfather tightly and forced herself to memorize their faces in case it would be the last time her eyes would take them in. The childhood images of her late father stayed in the photo albums left at her home. She knew the place that nurtured her for most of her 37 years of life might never look the same.

She could focus only on getting from one place to the next.

“You are not a person. You are a function,” she told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “ … You turn off your feelings. … You just need to move. The most important task is to get safe and get to Point B on your journey.”

Gdulia is among the more than 10 million Ukrainians who have fled their homes because of Russia’s invasion, leaving behind their communities and crossing hundreds of miles — some on foot — to find refuge with few vestiges of the lives they left. Many yearn to return home, even if it’s not the same.

One month into the Ukraine war, a defiant nation is forever changed but adapting

Managing now, longing to return

Those Ukrainians are adapting to their new surroundings — whether in their country or elsewhere — while keeping an anxious eye on home.

Linguist Oleksandra Osypova-Safronova, 37, hadn’t spoken German for 15 years, but the stress of the trek she made with her 6-year-old son, her close friend and her friend’s two children brought back the words in two days.

She was relieved to reach Germany, where she had been an au pair in another phase of her life. Bombs and rockets wouldn’t be drumming above her head, she said, but the security didn’t erase the fondness she has for the life she left behind.

“I missed my home as soon as I left,” she said Sunday from her new western Germany residence that she hopes is temporary.

She misses the familiarity of her home in Kyiv — its bedsheets, her pillow next to her husband’s, the coffee they drank together in the morning and the songs she sang there — but her new life comes with different idiosyncrasies.

“We manage,” she said. “Today, there were no bombs in our [Ukrainian] cities. Comparatively, it’s a good day.”

These women fled besieged Ukrainian cities. Here’s what they brought.

She’s unsure about when she’ll be able to return home, see her husband who stayed behind, resume the repairs they did over the summer. But she says that day will come.

Every morning begins with a question: Are her husband and parents still alive? Once she finds the answer, she looks after her son and helps her friend with her children, ages 4 and 9. All five share the flat in Saarland.

“We used to have our work in Kyiv, so you are not all the time as a nanny,” she said. “I’m back to nanny as a job again. I’m not really happy with it, but these are our children, so we have to do it.”

If her son ends up needing to attend German schools, Osypova-Safronova will acquiesce, but she would prefer for him to continue his online education that’s available to Ukrainian children no matter their location.

When Osypova-Safronova returns to Ukraine, she says, she will enroll him in a Ukrainian school, repair the balcony of the flat she purchased with her husband two years ago, and await the chance to sing with her choral group again.

A last resort, a lasting trauma

Resettling in a new country and building a new life are usually the last options most refugees want to consider, according to Wooksoo Kim, an associate professor of social work at the University at Buffalo who studies immigration and refugee resettlement.

The connections to their home, their nation and their communities often remain strong, even if the possibility of returning dwindles. They will carry the distress of their journey to safety even after wounds have healed and bellies have been filled, she said.

“Being a refugee is not a temporary [trauma],” she said. “There is no end to this journey.”

For Ukrainians who have reached safety, remaining abreast of the news — watching video after video of shelling and breathlessly checking in with people who stayed behind — may be harmful, she said.

“The more news they seek out to reassure themselves about the state of their country, the more intensified the stressors they may endure become,” she said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t uncheck, but monitoring [the news] is really causing them more trauma and more suffering.”

Mariia Ulman, 34, is about 60 miles from home. She keeps a close eye on Russia’s apparent de-escalation of shelling.

“I think that stupid-brave or maybe stupid people were staying in Kyiv the two first weeks,” said Ulman, a family therapist and executive editor of reality TV shows.

She, her husband, and their dog and cat fled the capital to stay with her uncle in late February.

“Every day I wake up, I think, ‘Today, I go home,’ ” she said Sunday. “I thought today I was going home.”

She was incessantly smoking cigarettes and watching the news from the first week she left her home until the reality of her new normal became clear.

Instead of balancing work with her therapy clients and giving advice on reality shows, she reads international news about the war, walks her dog and takes on small projects to help her country, such as finding homes for abandoned pets or delivering money to Ukrainian forces so they can buy food.

“I can’t compare what will be my new normal life in Kyiv,” she said. She hopes to return to Kyiv later this week as Russian forces move away and focus on eastern Ukraine.

Maps of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

When she is able to return home safely, she intends to tidy her flat — a motivation she said is probably her subconscious yearning to clean up her country.

Ulman said her heritage as a Ukrainian Jew keeps her from plunging into despondency. Resiliency is embedded in her, as is humor.

“On the first day of the war, I collected Kalashnikov assault rifle,” she said. “On the first day of victory, I will collect a new set of lingerie.”

Levity can be an important tool amid such upheaval, the effects of which can be deeply unhealthy.

Amir Afkhami, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, said that experiencing war firsthand and resettling in an unfamiliar home can trigger acute psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

“Your identity, your family and your place in society — all of that has been restructured,” said Afkhami, who studies the mental health consequences of conflict.

What these refugees often need, he said, is help with integrating into their new society and education systems, and access to employment, medical services and language programs.

Those stressors weigh down Gdulia when she reflects on what she has lost back in Irpin.

“This war took my life from me, my good, nice life from me: my ability to work in my country, my ability to hug my mom,” she said from her new residence in Berlin. “I have to rebuild my life. I have to move on. I have to start a new page in another country that I didn’t choose. I didn’t choose this. But I had to.”

Gdulia has been on autopilot, moving from one country, one train, one home to the next, eating “the elephant piece by piece,” she said.

“In this situation, your body and your strength, it works on a maximum,” she said. “You can’t give up or say, ‘No, it’s too hard for me.’ You just take yourself and go. Days after, you realize how stressful it was and how tired you are.”

Gdulia wants to find a job as soon as possible so she can rent her own apartment, do something nice for the friend who is hosting her, and be productive for her “new society” as well as the one back home.

She wants to put her stress-limited energy into helping Ukraine rebuild, with unwavering faith that her nation will emerge from the invasion victorious.

“We don’t have any options except win,” she said. “We have no alternative. We have to win. If Russia gives up, there will be no war. If Ukraine gives up, there will be no Ukraine.”

In her friend’s home, with her two cats, she still has trouble sleeping and finds it difficult to focus on the day’s tasks. She checks on friends who stayed behind or joined the military, and she scrolls through news feeds. At night, when Berlin is no longer bustling, she can still hear phantom noises above her head. The rumbling of commercial planes reminds her of the sound of warfare before she pulls herself back into reality to recall a time when she, too — before everything — took leisurely trips.

“Ukrainians can go anywhere, except Russia, of course. Every country welcomes us,” she said. “We can go to any city we want, and every door is open. But we want to open our own doors. We just want to go home.”