How my mum escaped Ukraine and made it to Darwin

My mum, Olena, has spent her whole life in Ukraine. She had her own home, a great job and good friends. But when our country descended into chaos, she had to give it all up to find safety.

My name is Yuliia. Red Cross asked me if I would like to share our story. Because it’s also a story of friendship, of a community helping each other build new lives in Australia. And it shows how every day Red Cross supporters can help families like mine, who never expected to need it.

When news broke in February that Ukraine was under attack, I immediately rang my mum. “Pack a bag; we’re getting you out.” I searched for buses, trains, and planes. I booked half a dozen flights before the airspace over our country was shut down.

Mum says she feared for her life as the situation got worse each day. She says the sound of shelling and sirens never stopped. Eleven-and-a-half thousand kilometres away, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I didn’t know how to help her. I could feel the fear in my fingers. That was the hardest week of my life.

An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team outside a damaged, empty hospital in Ukraine. Photo: ICRC/Alyona Synenko.

I watched the news, searched the internet for information, and downloaded apps to monitor missile attacks. Work colleagues and friends pitched in; so many people offered their help and words of support. To me, that says a lot about Australia and Darwin, where I live. People care.

Then we got lucky. We found a flight leaving Poland in a week. But to get there, mum would have to cross Ukraine in the middle of an armed conflict – as cities were bombed and soldiers took to the streets. And she would have to do it alone.

Official train schedules weren’t made public. So, I wrote to friends I hadn’t spoken to in a decade, asking for help. That’s how I heard there might be an evacuation train to Lviv, near the Polish border, the next day.

Many people have made the risky trip through Ukraine in the middle of the conflict. This photo was taken at the Lviv train station. Photo: SOPA Images for Getty Images.

Grabbing a small bag with documents and a change of clothes, mum went to the station. She found carriages packed with women and children. They sat in the aisles and even in overhead luggage racks. I cried when I heard she’d made it on the train. I didn’t know what came next would be much harder.

For 25 hours, as my mum travelled almost 850km across Ukraine, she had no way to contact me. We both knew trains had been shot at, and mum had heard stories of passengers jumping off and hiding in the fields. Hour after hour, I waited, worried we had made the wrong decision.

When I learnt she’d made it safely to Lviv, I could finally breathe. She’s told me how locals met the train, offering whatever they had – food, clothes, even their beds. They helped mum find a bus to Poland.

The toughest part was over, and a week later, in wintery Warsaw, she boarded her flight. And when she stepped off that plane in Darwin – 16 days after the first missiles fell on Ukraine – I couldn’t believe she was safe in my arms.

Mum is a strong, independent woman. And she had a good life in Zaporizhzhia, where she lived in the east of Ukraine. But when she left behind her life and everything she knew, mum lost her identity, self-confidence, and independence. She lost the rhythm of her life.

In Australia, everything was different. We were the only people she knew. And because she couldn’t speak English, we were the only people she could communicate with. She didn’t have a job to support herself and needed to figure out a new culture and find her place in it.

As she shared a room with my eight-year-old daughter, I watched her grieve for the life she had left behind, and I searched for ways to help. It was like a wall was in front of her, and we had to work out how she could go around it.

That’s how we found Red Cross. They’ve given mum friendship, support and understanding. They’ve helped her find herself again as she starts over.

Mum, on the right, with Connected Women members Grace from Nigeria (left to right), Kalpana from Nepal, and Rumaiza from Sri Lanka. Photo: /Amelia Wong/Australian Red Cross.

Sabeeha Nihad runs the Red Cross Connected Women program – the one my mum joined. She says many women they help, although fluent in multiple languages, can’t speak English and know no one here.

They can end up isolated and afraid to leave home. Some struggle to survive, too, with limited support to find a job and qualifications that aren’t recognised in Australia. And for those forced to leave, like mum, there’s also pain and trauma.

Mum’s first Red Cross Connected Women class was a big step. It was her first solo outing across the city in a bus, with no one to translate. But she says when she walked into the room, people turned to her, “I saw kind eyes. I was welcomed. It relaxed me; everything fell into the background.”

That night, we saw the difference straightaway – she was smiling, talkative and trying to express herself in English. I saw the sparkle in her eyes again; she was like her old self.

Sabeeha says the Red Cross group in our city supports hundreds of migrant women from 45 countries. There are sister groups in Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Alice Springs, as well as New South Wales, Western Australia, and Tasmania. With funding, they hope to expand further and support more women who are isolated and alone.

Red Cross offers women a place to learn new skills and practice English. They help them find friends and build networks. Sabeeha says many go on to get jobs, enrol in further education and even open their own businesses. Those they support include refugees, people seeking asylum, international students, and people on temporary visas, like mum.

Mum says Red Cross helped her get where she is today. “I have more self-confidence, a social circle, we have a chat group … I take the bus to pick up my granddaughter from school. I’m not afraid of it anymore. I can talk to people.”

Through Red Cross, mum’s made new friends from all over the world. She told me when you meet someone who’s been through the same thing; you don’t need words – you look at each other, and you already understand. She says, “Human interaction heals the soul.”

Each year, Connected Women holds two big community festivals. They celebrate multiculturalism – through food, fashion, dance and storytelling – and raise funds to keep the program going, says Sabeeha.

I cried watching mum on stage, my daughter, Nataliia, at her side, representing Ukraine at the Joy of Many Colours fashion and cultural show. I was proud of her, of Australia and the supportive, inclusive community that’s been my home for five years.

Mum, in the long green pants, with my daughter on stage at the Joy of Many Colours. Photo: Australian Red Cross.

My mum still speaks to her friends in Ukraine all the time. Many can’t leave because their elderly parents can’t travel. I know she worries about them a lot.

Every day we watch the news. And people back home tell us how Red Cross is helping there too. Sabeeha says in Ukraine and nearby countries, they’re providing food, shelter, cash and emotional support. Red Cross teams are also helping in the other crises where people need support, from Syria to Ethiopia to Tonga.

Red Cross teams at a train station in Hungary offer free soup, hot drinks, sandwiches and fruit to people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Photo: Hungarian Red Cross.

I’m so happy and relieved my mum is safe and with me. She has a humanitarian visa to stay in Australia for three years. My wish is that by this time next year, she will be comfortable and happy here. And she can do whatever she wants, not just what she is able to do.

It is not easy to build a new life, but Australia gave me that chance as a young parent from another country. I want my mum and every brave person starting over far from home to have that chance, too.

I’m forever grateful to everyone who kept my mum safe on her journey. And I’m so thankful to Red Cross and the people who have welcomed and supported her as she starts her life over in Australia.

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