It’s a small dark cellar, and the only light source is a tiny torch that projects a green shine. Yulia, 32, is bent over a small table, pushing puzzle pieces toward her six-year-old daughter, Uljana. The child, who watches the game intently, is wrapped in a pink blanket against the cold. It is minus three outside and very damp. The temperature in the room does not exceed 15 degrees Celsius. There is no electricity in the young family's new home in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine. Yulia is from Skadovsk, a small town in the country’s south. For over five months, Yulia, her 13-year-old son Myhajlo, and Uljana lived in a territory not controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. As she didn’t want to leave her elderly parents behind, she stayed while millions of others fled westwards, including to neighboring countries.
During those months, they hardly left the house. They ate the food from their garden, too scared to interact with anyone. Staying behind without work, the ability to withdraw cash, and access to the news was very difficult.
We got used to living in a war zone. Our children were playing outside on the street with rockets flying overhead. There was no air raid warning system. It’s only the sound of explosions or the whistle of missiles that made us aware of the danger.
A difficult choice
In August, Yulia faced a difficult choice. “I had three options. I could stay home and send my children to a school where all classes were taught in Russian – something I absolutely didn’t want to do. But refusing to send them to school meant that I would have lost my parental rights, and my children would have been sent to a boarding school in Crimea. So, I chose the third option: take a risk and flee west”. Scheduled evacuations needed to be booked three months in advance.
With the money she had left, Yulia hired a driver and decided to play what is locally called "Vasylivka roulette.” The town of Vasylivka is a checkpoint in the Zaporizhzhia region. People gave it this nickname because no one can ever be sure that they will be able to pass it. Depending on the day, 200 cars may be let through - or only four.
Yulia and her children travelled light, taking only some food and a few essential items. To get to Vasylivka, they had to cross another 50 checkpoints. At each of them, Yulia was terrified. “We were scrutinized at each stop. I cleared my phone of any content because I was scared that even a picture with us smiling could be considered a provocation and reduce our chances of success”. Once they reached the Vasylivka checkpoint, they had to wait four days. “We feared we could be shot at any time. Or that a bomb would go off. But we were lucky and could pass."
I do not make plans for the future. I just do what gives joy to my children at this moment.
A safe home again
The family now lives in a semi-basement shelter in Lviv. CARE partners furnished the place and made it liveable. “Now I finally feel safe,” says the young mother. To the outside visitor, it is dark and cramped, with a minimum of furniture and basic necessities, but what matters to Yulia is that she and her children have now found safety. Like thousands of Ukrainian women, safe housing has allowed Yulia and her children to return to normal life again.
Research by CARE’s partner organization Center for Women’s Perspectives shows that over 50% of internally displaced women in Ukraine need individual permanent or temporary housing, with almost 74% indicating that they require financial support.
Because of the war, Yulia lost her job as a court civil servant. She’s spent all her savings and has learned to live one day at a time. “I do not make plans for the future. I just do what gives joy to my children at this moment”, she says. “If the children want to see the mountains, I take them to the mountains. If they want to go to the zoo or eat cotton candy, I give them that.” Yulia’s youngest daughter struggled when she first arrived in Lviv and had to receive psychological support. “Now she smiles again,” says Yulia as she watches her daughter continue to build a fairy-tale country with happy, friendly animals from her puzzle.