“At 5:00 am [my husband] woke me up and said that it's time to leave the country,” Yulia Rybinska shares, recalling the moment her family fled Ukraine on February 24, 2022. “We just took our kids and went from the city. Took documents, kids, nothing else,” she continues.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered the biggest and fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
It’s now one year later, and Yulia’s family is safely living in Arlington, Virginia, but there remains pain and anger in her vivid retelling of the early moments of fleeing the war.
On the morning of the 24th, the family quickly piled into their car and headed west toward the Polish border. A trip that would usually take hours, took days.
“We had to spend six or seven days at the border,” Yulia shares. “We ran out of food, we ran out of water and I had panic attacks for the first time in my life.”
Fortunately, the family met other Ukrainians on the road who were helping those fleeing.
“[They] were feeding us during the day. They gave us only bread, but for kids, they cooked dumplings and other food so we could actually survive.”
Although grateful for the generosity of strangers, the family was stranded waiting to cross the border day after day. Adding to the tension was not knowing if Illya, Yulia’s husband, would be allowed to cross. Yulia was desperate not to split the family apart.
“If he wasn’t allowed to cross the border, we would stay in western Ukraine.”
After a week of waiting and agonizing about what would come next, the family, including Illya who was permitted to leave, crossed into Poland. They were met with open arms and for a moment, there was relief.
“Lines of buses from the Polish border took refugees,” Yulia recalls. “Polish people spent nights at the railway station and they gave their personal apartments to families. It was like, you can have tears in your eyes.”
During the first weeks of the Russian invasion, more than 10 million people were forced to flee their homes. Millions crossed into neighboring countries like Poland, Moldova and Romania, while millions more tried to find safety within Ukraine under the constant fear of shelling. One year into the war, one-third of the entire Ukrainian population has been uprooted.
Over the next few months, Yulia and her family would be uprooted twice more. The family stayed in Poland for the first few weeks of the war, hopeful for a swift resolution and return to peace.
As the days dragged on and the fighting intensified, Yulia decided to reach out to professional contacts (she is a professor of foreign languages at a university in Ukraine) in Germany. The family was offered temporary housing in Berlin but when an opportunity to move to the United States presented itself, Yulia and Illya decided it would allow them to provide a more stable environment for their children.
Amid the uncertainty of finding a place to live in a new country, schools for the children and work for herself and her husband, Yulia’s family met a local volunteer, Nataliya Zalevska. Nataliya is Ukrainian but has been living in the Washington D.C. region for more than a decade. For the past year, she has been deeply involved in fundraising and volunteering to support Ukrainian families through her church, Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral.
“All my family is in Ukraine. My mom, my brother, all extended family,” Nataliya shares. “And when the war started, of course, it affected me personally. And I couldn't just stand aside and watch it happen without being involved.”
She met Yulia’s family shortly after they arrived in the Washington, D.C. region in August 2022. At the time, the family was living in temporary housing and needed to find a more permanent home with the school year about to begin for the children.
Throughout the family's journey, the children’s education has been the most important thing for Yulia and Illya to maintain. “The kids immediately started attending school. I know that it's very important and [we] try to provide the surroundings so they don't think about war,” explains Yulia. “So, we tried to make them as busy as bees.”
In addition to the regular curriculum at school, the older children continue to take supplemental online Ukrainian classes.
With a more stable housing situation and the children back in school, Yulia and Illya have been able to focus on finding employment. Yulia is tutoring and recently started teaching Ukrainian lessons and Illya is seeking work in the IT and business analyst fields.
Working with families like Yulia and Illya has provided Nataliya a chance to make a positive impact in the lives of Ukrainians but she knows for so many, the road forward is long and unknown.
“My hope is that the war will be over hopefully this year… and that these families will have a choice to do what will be best for them, return to Ukraine when it'll be safe or build a life here for them and their children.”
For Yulia and Illya, although their family is now safe, they know the future is filled with uncertainty but they are determined to persevere.
“At this particular point, we are trying to fight for our identity but we don't know what will be tomorrow,” Yulia shares. “We worked and we lived all our lives building careers and a future for our kids. Tomorrow? We don't know.”
How can you help?
The crisis in Ukraine continues, and many are still in need of dire lifesaving aid and protection.
Your ongoing support can make a big difference in the lives of those who have been forced to flee their homes to escape violence and find safety. By becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor, you can help provide emergency supplies, lifesaving care and protection to families in and around Ukraine.