In April of 2022, around 50,000 Ukrainians were crossing the border each day into Poland. Many landed in Przemyśl, at a transit center set up in a former big-box store. One of them, Sveta, was an 18-year-old university student from Mariupol, who had just arrived with her mother and elderly grandmother. The following are excerpts from interviews carried out with her over the past 10 months. —Marcia DeSanctis
There had been a lot of covid cases at school [in Kyiv], so I came back to my family’s apartment in Mariupol and was home when the invasion and the occupation started. We had no mobile connection, no Internet, no electricity, no water. Mom had been salting meat for us to eat, and we cooked it in a fire in the courtyard. As we heard planes flying overhead, we waited and hoped they would not bomb us. But we knew we were surrounded.
March 15 was the day the war came to our door. It was horrific. I was drawing at the kitchen table when I heard my mother talking to our neighbor in the small corridor between our two apartments. I left the kitchen to join them, and my mother grabbed me. There were explosions—they had bombed our courtyard. All the windows were blown in the kitchen, which was strewn with broken glass and shards of metal. One of them pierced the fridge; I had missed it by a matter of seconds. My dad also missed it, as he was running toward us and managed to hide. There was a nurse who lived in our building, and everyone was crying out for her. I was sobbing hysterically.
My mom said, “That’s it, we are packing our things. There is no point staying here anymore.” We were all afraid to leave because we heard that cars were getting bombed on the way out of town. My grandmother had never been out of Mariupol, but we just put her in our car and drove away. She worked on a factory floor, so her joints are bad and she has trouble walking. We had no idea where we were going, what we were doing, what was going to happen.
But I know I am lucky. I did not see any dead bodies. The day after we left, the theater in Mariupol was bombed. Our apartment building was bombed twice, and the fires eventually ate it up.
When we got out of the city and our mobile connections started working, I received many messages from the government and friends. There was a network that explained which roads were safe, which small towns were O.K. On the road, there was a long line of cars, and the Russians were looking in all of them, and saying it would be safer to stay in Mariupol. We had relatives in Zaporizhzhya, who were expecting us. The next day, as we drove, there were at least 20 Russian checkpoints. It was lucky for us that they saw a grandmother, so they didn’t check us very carefully. Also, I was holding my rescue cat, Lancelot, and my chinchilla, Alice, as in Wonderland.
We stayed for a while in Zaporizhzhya. The Russians were getting closer. My mother’s sister was in Denmark, so we decided to leave for the border, leaving my pets behind with relatives. It was a long road to the unknown. It took about 30 hours to get there on trains and buses. There were thousands of us. It was very hard to leave my father.
We carried whatever we could—a sweater, the clothes on our back. Most important was my backpack with my computer so I could continue taking my classes online. When we got to Poland, the people were so nice, and we were very grateful when someone appeared with a wheelchair for Grandma. We took a train to Warsaw, then another bus, and then a ferry to Denmark. It took five days; the trip was so difficult for Grandma.
When we got to Denmark, we signed a contract stating that we would integrate into society as well as we could. I had already learned Ukrainian, Russian, German, and English—why not Danish?
Now we share an apartment in the city with another Ukrainian family. It was loaned to us until we could find a more permanent solution. People are so kind, and everybody here is helping—there are volunteers, and we are given clothes to wear. We have the possibility to live our lives without fear. We like it here, and are trying to do our best.
My mom got work right away at food trucks and then restaurants. I don’t get financial help [from the Danish government] because I am studying full-time. I started working part-time assisting at a small programming company. I am lucky that I went to the language school in Mariupol, because for programmers every program is based in English.
I had already learned Ukrainian, Russian, German, and English—why not Danish?
I am doing my third year of my Ukrainian university online, studying biomedical engineering and biophysics. I send in my homework—sometimes they check it, sometimes we have lessons, and sometimes we don’t. My professors are mostly still in Ukraine. If there are air alarms, every student and professor has the right to leave the lesson and go somewhere safe. It happens all the time—people just disappear from the screen for a while. Somehow we are managing. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m here.
We lived all our life in Mariupol. Now 95 percent of my city is burned down, and we can’t imagine how many people have died. Thousands? Even in the best scenario, when our forces come and the Russians leave, everything will need to be rebuilt. Now it’s like a cemetery—people were buried in their yards, under the walls of their houses. When I call my grandparents, they are crying, but they don’t want to leave. They say they are very old and will not survive a long road.
We went back to Zaporizhzhya in September. It felt really like home, but it felt very scary as well. I heard bombing all night, and I was crying all the time. I am still very worried for my father. We want to visit him in the spring, but the experts say that will be a very tough period in the war.
I want to enroll in a Danish university, but I envision myself eventually back in Ukraine. Will we even have a home to return to? Before the invasion, I thought that home was a place. I no longer think about it that way. Home is the people, where family is all together—it doesn’t matter if it is in Mariupol or Zaporizhzhya or abroad. Our apartment in Ukraine held the soul of my family, but now I’m thinking I don’t really need it. All I need is to know that my family is safe. We will sort out everything else.
Sveta V. is a Ukrainian university student now living in Denmark