Can you close your eyes and imagine for one moment what it would be like if you had to flee your home right now? No notice period, no warning, no time to think…just…grab what you can carry…and leave.
I met Adele (not her real name) over the Easter weekend. She arrived in Ireland from Ukraine about a month ago with her two children, a 14 year old girl and a 12 year old boy. She speaks some English but neither of her children do.
“When we got word that the Russian soldiers were coming,” she says, “it did not seem to be real. I knew, of course, that the war began a few days before, but it did not feel like it will happen here, in my home.”
Adele and her family lived in a small village between Kherson and Mykolaiv. On 2 March, Russian forces captured the city of Kherson, and Adele’s husband bundled her and the children into the family car and told her to get as far away as she could. She hasn’t seen him since.
She doesn’t cry as she speaks to me, her face is deadpan. It’s an expression I have seen countless times over the years, speaking with women who have experienced untold horrors. Her daughter sits next to her, always touching her mother, holding on to her hand or her arm, but sitting upright, her eyes mirror her mother’s, wide, and glassy. Her little boy looks much younger than his 12 years and clings to her, sheltering under her arm and turning his head in toward her body as if trying to burrow his way to her heart. She holds him close.
“He is only 12,” she says. “I’m happy. If he is 16, he will have to stay and fight.” She turns to kiss his head as she says this.
I want to tell her how sorry I am that she is going through something so awful, I want to ask her questions, but her eyes are fixed and I know that she will share what she needs to share in her own time. I sit with her and we drink coffee as she talks.
She had not planned to leave Ukraine, only to temporarily go North until the fighting stopped and she could return home.
“I do not remember everything, only the car, buying food, listening to the news on the radio. We slept in the car. We slept in a church basement. It was confusion.”
Now she is in Ireland with her children, a foreigner, a refugee. It’s something she could never have imagined in her worst nightmares. She has lost her home, she has lost her possessions. One day life was normal, her children went to school, they did their chores, they sat down at the dinner table, the four of them. The next day life changed forever.
She has not been in contact with her husband for weeks and fears that he may have been killed. He does not know that they have come to Ireland. She tells me that the Red Cross is trying to trace him.
It’s sobering to speak to her. She’s a woman very much like me, very much like so many other women around the world. Yet, she is not. She is now a refugee, her foundation rocked, her future uncertain. A woman who has to navigate life in a strange country, with no friends and no family. A woman who is unable to plan for her future, who lives day by day in freefall.
- Almost 4.9 million refugees have since left Ukraine since the Russian forces invaded on 24 February 2022 (as of 16 April 2022),
- An estimated 7.1 million people have been displaced within the Ukraine(as of 1 April 2022).
- More than ten million people – approximately one-quarter of the country’s total population– had left their homes in Ukraine by 20 March.
- 90% of Ukrainian refugees are women and children.
- According to UNICEF, by 24 March 2022, more than half of all children in Ukraine (7.5 million) had been forced to leave their homes, approximately 1.8 million of these children had left Ukraine.
- 22,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Ireland in the three months since the February invasion.
- We are in the midst of one of the largest refugee crises in the world in the 21st century, with the highest refugee flight rate in the world.
So, I have a new name – refugee.
Strange that a name should take away from me
my past, personality and hope.
Strange refugee this.
So many seem to share this name – refugee
yet we share so many differences
I find no comfort in my new name.
I long to share my past, restore my pride,
to show, I too, in time will offer more
than I have borrowed.
For now the comfort that I seek
Resides in the old yet new name.
I would choose – friend.
~ Rubimbo Bungwe from Zimbabwe (14 yrs)