Svitlana taught English to chemical engineering students at a university in Kyiv. She has a young son, who was 7 when the war began.

She vividly describes the experience of fleeing her home at the start of the war.

When the war started, it was in the morning. I had had a very rough night, had stayed up late because I was preparing something for my work and went to bed quite late. People started phoning and saying that the war had started.

I looked through the window, I live near the highway which goes around the city. That first morning, at 7.30 there was a terrible traffic jam, cars could hardly get out of the city, the jam was just getting bigger and bigger. There was no way to leave the city. At the same time people were going in a direction which was very dangerous, many people were shot on that day.

I was just looking from the window, it was raining, and I was just looking and thinking – what can I do in this situation? We don’t have a car so we can’t leave very quickly, we do not have relatives abroad, and if I go somewhere – who will meet us? What will I do?

Svitlana and her son lived on the top floor of a nine-storey building, close to the entrance of the city.

She had been mentally preparing herself and her son for the war coming, and had some food stored. But it was too dangerous to stay in the flat.

Alongside their neighbour, who’s mother was disabled and unable to flee, they sought refuge in an underground crossing for several hours. Then, for the first week of the war, they lived on the third-floor landing of their apartment block.

We slept on the stairs, and we could hardly go upstairs to the toilet or to cook something. There was a signal that the bombardment was over, you’d try go to the toilet, then you’d hear the alarm again, turn everything off and go downstairs. You couldn’t take a shower, I remember taking one shower and the alarm going off so I just put on my boots, a nightgown, a winter coat and towel on my head and went back to the landing.

Her friends tried to convince her to flee to the countryside, presuming it safer than the city.

But she chose not to. As she later found out, the countryside was no safer.

Kyiv was quite well protected, but no-one knew how good this protection was. You never knew which place would be hit. Not like in other cities like Kharkiv or Mariupol where everything was destroyed, but in Kyiv only some apartments or buidings were destroyed, and you never knew where this would happen.

People who tried to go to the countryside, some were shot in their cars when they tried to get to these places. And later, my friends who told me to go to the country house, they were lucky not to be occupied but they also had to leave their house because rockets were flying over their house 24/7. In the village not far from them, the whole village was destroyed by bombs. Why they wanted to destroy a village, no-one knows. Another village not far from them, Russian troops came and shot all the men with no explanations.

They tried to find better shelter in Kyiv, but had no luck, and it was becoming increasingly dangerous.

The mayor was telling people to find shelter and prepare for difficult nights ahead. On 2nd March, Svitlana was convinced to flee the country, by a mother of one of her son’s classmates.

The mother came to my house, she was hysterical, saying that she’s lived enough but her child hasn’t, that we have to do something.

So we packed in 20 minutes. We couldn’t take suitcases because they wouldn’t be allowed onto the train. We just had to take small rucksacks with necessary things. I had already prepared these but there was some space in them, so I looked around and I didn’t know what else to take. Either you take everything or absolutely nothing!

Svitlana left their pet rats with their neighbour, and headed for a checkpoint, where she planned to ask a car to help her flee.

This mission was hampered by several more sirens, but they made it eventually. They were able to get into a car with a young journalist from Spain, who was also getting out of the country.

He dropped them at a train station, which was difficult because so many people had abandoned their cars near the station. As they arrived, another siren went off, and they had to hide in an underground passage under the station.

Svitlana did not have a ticket, and was trying to find an evacuation train, but they were given a ticket by someone else at the station. A young man with his mother, who were walking along the platform, stopped her and asked if she had a ticket. When she said “No”, they sent their spare ticket to Svitlana for free. They helped her and her son to get on the train to Lviv which was less cramped than the evacuation trains. At the very least, they had a seat.

When Svitlana and her son arrived at Lviv railway station, it was completely crowded.

The departure lounge for mothers and children was full: children were sleeping on the floor, volunteers were giving out sandwiches and drinks, and there was hardly any air to breathe. The underground passage leading to the trains to Poland, which is long and wide, was blocked by people waiting for the next train.

Eventually, they were able to board a train to Poland. Only women with children were allowed on the train. Ordinarily a one-hour journey, this train took 18 hours.

People could hardly sit, there wasn’t enough places, it was so emotional. They couldn’t take their grandmothers, their husbands, whoever.

This train stopped everywhere. It was standing somewhere and there was another train standing opposite it, and that train was full of men. Later we realised this was Ukrainian men who were going from abroad to Ukraine to fight. With absolutely blank faces. This was such an emotional moment.

You do not allow yourself to be emotional. You just do what you need to do – you need to feed your child, you need to wash your and your child’s hands, you need to find a place to charge a phone at the station.

Half an hour after we left, a rocket hit Kyiv, and some parts of this rocket fell onto the railway station. We were lucky because we had already left. But there were people who were standing on the platform and some part of the railway station was damaged. I don’t know if people were injured, I don’t really remember, but it happened on the same day.

Eventually, they arrived in Poland, and were met with volunteers at the railway station.

At this particular moment I realised that we are refugees. I didn’t think about it before that, but in this moment I realised how terrible the situation was.

We didn’t care who takes us where – looking back, it was a rather dangerous situation, anyone could come and take people anywhere. At that moment we really didn’t care, were exhausted. As a lot of Ukrainians had already arrived in Poland, there wasn’t many places to stay near the station, but I wanted to sleep so badly!

Svitlana and her son boarded a bus to another part of Poland, where they stayed with a family who were hosting many Ukrainians. Once she’d slept enough, she booked the cheapest flights to Spain she could find, and they flew to Alicante.

In Alicante, the Red Cross put them up in a hotel. But her child couldn’t attend school and she couldn’t get work because of the long process there to get documents.

Svitlana started searching for English-speaking countries to move to, where she might understand the rules better, and where her child could get back into school.

She looked initially at Ireland, then she came across the Homes for Ukraine scheme in Scotland. They arrived in Scotland on 2nd May 2022, and are now living in Stevenston, North Ayrshire.

Chris Afuakwah
Author: Chris Afuakwah