Ukraine Crisis: Valentina’s Story

Fleeing Ukraine for Hungary

On March 2, 2022, soon after the war broke out in Ukraine, Valentina and her two teenage sons left their hometown for Hungary where her husband was working. They crossed the Ukrainian-Hungarian border after a two-day journey and they currently live in solidarity accommodation in Hungary’s capital, Budapest.

“It was the most frightening train ride of my life. I had never seen such a crowd. The day the war began was my son’s birthday. It was so surreal to tell him that we needed to leave the country instead of wishing him a happy birthday. In the first two days we did not even believe that there was a war going on in the country. But on the third day it had suddenly become so real. It was impossible to buy anything; the shops and the streets were empty.” – Valentina

At the beginning of March 2022, a great number of people had left Ukraine. Since there were not enough seats on the departing trains, many people had to stand for long hours. Due to the bombings, the trains often were late, and people waited for hours at the stations.

Refugees hold hands from Ukraine in Hungary
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It was the longest journey for Valentina’s family but the support and kindness they experienced along the way helped to ease their pain and anxiety. Whenever the train stopped at one of the stations, there would be groups of volunteers who offered water and food to the people who decided to leave the country. Local volunteers provided everything the family needed. Valentina was amazed by the goodness and compassion they showed. The volunteers even ran after moving trains to hand the family as much food and essential items as possible.

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Her family reached the town of Zahony in Hungary at the border at night, where they received the same support. They were given warm food, and an interpreter checked in on them every few hours to see if they needed anything.

“It was very comforting to experience this level of caring! It was unbelievable how people were eager to help.”

The new accommodation that Valentina and her boys are living in. Hungary from Ukraine.
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The new accommodation that Valentina and her boys are living in.

 

Packing the most important things

Since Valentina’s husband started working in Hungary, he used to visit his family only twice a year. On Feb. 24, when the war began, he urged his family to leave Ukraine. However, at that time it seemed impossible to get train tickets. They managed to purchase tickets for March 3. Until then they did not really believe that they needed to leave their home. Valentina still went to work on the day of departure, and they only left after she finished her hours. When they did eventually leave Ukraine they imagined they would only be in Hungary for one or two weeks.

“Most people travelled without luggage. We also packed only what was the most important although we brought this cat patterned towel with us. It was our favorite at home. When you find yourself in an emergency, most of your belongings become unimportant. You take your kids, your phone, your passports, and some clothes. That is enough.”

Valentina stands by the stove with a tea towel in her new accommodation in Hungary - Ukraine refugee.
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Valentina stands by the stove with a tea towel in her new accommodation.

The family have expressed that they only regret one thing about leaving when they did ― leaving their cats behind. Valentina expressed how much they miss them, but said that they had too many belongings to bring with them. It seemed, at the time, much easier to leave the cats with her parents where they would be safe. The family considered the journey as a vacation and could never have believed it would be so long to be reunited with them.

Dealing with uncertainty

At first, Valentina and her sons stayed in a workers’ hostel in Miskolc city, northeastern Hungary. Her husband’s employer had arrange the hostel. However, this was not a long-term solution as children were not allowed in such accommodation.  Valentina’s husband decided to contact Habitat for Humanity Hungary and their partners, From Streets to Homes Association and The City is for All, after the family learned about the joint solidarity accommodation program from their friends.

With the support of these organizations, the family moved into a temporary apartment in Budapest on April 3. They have the option of staying until the end of June with further help via the solidarity accommodation program if needed.

Vladik and Vitalik currently attend online classes while Valentina is a shiftworker. She and her husband decided they needed dual incomes if they were to rent a place on their own. Valentina works 12-hour shifts, three days a week followed by three off days. She and her husband try to work different shifts so one of them can always be with the children.

“Since they are big boys, we do not worry about them too much. But I feel it is important that one of us is always by their side. To us, Budapest is an unusually big city; it is difficult to get used to it. As I see it, the boys enjoy learning online because they are under less control compared to when they were back home.”

Valentina worries about her sons and ensuring they are attending their online classes. Virtual learning means that she cannot check every time that they are attending class or not. She also fears that they are unhappy because they miss their cats, friends and normality very much.

 

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Speaking with Friends

Friends used to be central to the boys’ lives. They went skateboarding, took overnight walks, partied, and had a lot of fun. Given the current situation, both teenagers have mixed feelings. Vladik, 16, was happy about the journey form Ukraine. He considered it a great opporunity to visit his dad and knew it would be good to see him again. Despite this, he knew that his options in Budapest would be limited. When asked about how his friends and he speak about their situation, Vladik said,

“We do not really talk about the war. I know that my closest friends are safe, and this is enough.” – Vladik

Vladik - refugee from Ukraine in Hungary
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Vladik studies at the desk in his new accommodation in Hungary.

 

His brother Vitalik, 14, has similar thoughts. Thanks to distance education he is able to stay in touch with friends. He feels good in Budapest, but would much rather be at home in Ukraine.

“Before the teacher joins the online class, we (he and his friends) always talk and have fun. It is almost the same as in person. When the school bell rang and the teacher was late, we had fun and were very loud until she arrived!” – Vitalik

Vitalik - refugee from Ukraine in Hungary
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Vitalik sits at the computer to study.

While her sons struggle with leaving their friends behind, Valentina really misses home. She feels limited in Budapest. For example, if they go to the cinema, they do not understand the movie because they do not yet speak the language – even if there are English subtitles. For Valentina, she feels that the online classes her sons attend provide the only opportunity for them to have fun, since they spend most of their time in the apartment. She is also aware that this means they spend a lot of their time with her which makes being independent hard for the boys.

Refugees from Ukraine study in Hungary at their new online school. note books
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Vladik’s study materials for his virtual English classes

“I felt like a flower that was cut and put in a vase. We bloom but who knows for how long. Will we be able to grow roots here?” – Valentina

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