When life changes forever: Three Ukrainian women describe harrowing journey to Ireland 

When life changes forever: Three Ukrainian women describe harrowing journey to Ireland 

Olga Yurkiv with her 18-month-old daughter on an excursion in Bray; they had to leave their home in Rivne in Ukraine when war broke out. 

Larisa Khokhuda lives in Kinvara's Merriman Hotel.

Anna Makarenko lives in Limerick's George Hotel.

Olga Yurkiv lives in The Oaks, Herbert Park Lane, Dublin.

Larisa Khokhuda woke up in her native Hostomel. She brushed her teeth and had just made morning coffee when she suddenly heard an incredible noise; soldiers of the country that had attacked Ukraine a few days earlier breaking into her apartment.

It was like a movie script about the apocalypse, all the more because the woman worked as a screenwriter on one of the Ukrainian TV channels. 

However, this terrible scenario was not without its comic episodes. For example, the first phrase from the soldiers was:

"Where are the negros from the Nato army hiding here? Have you seen them? Where can we find them?"

"Why exactly 'negros'?",  Larisa thought, but she is an experienced negotiator, and she conducted the conversation in such a way that the whole family, including her four-year-old son, managed to survive.

There are 40m people in Ukraine, so they say there are 40m stories about the war there now. Here are three of them. About those who managed to evacuate and come to a safe place — to Ireland.

First explosions

In Kyiv, Anna Makarenko was arguing with her husband. He did not believe that the war had begun, even though the first explosions thundered. 

"They're just frightening us," he assured. "You're taking things too emotionally. What can war be in the 21st century? What bombs?" 

For several hours he refused to wake up and make any decisions. 

When the woman persuaded her husband to take her and her 14-year-old daughter to a friend in Western Ukraine in Kolomyia, there were already six-hour traffic jams in Kyiv, and only 20 litres of fuel per car were distributed.

At this time, Olga Yurkiv's family was safe in Rivne. However, as the war is conducted mainly with missiles, Ukraine has no safe place. 

At a family council, it was decided to take Olga and her 18-month-old daughter to Ireland, because her husband's sister lived there. 

However, Olga did not want to leave because she had to leave her family behind: her father was registered with the military, and he would go to fight. Olga's husband builds checkpoints and sews mattresses for the army and refugees.

Larisa's windows overlook Antonov Airport. A few days before the Russian military invaded her apartment, she recalled how they not only heard but also saw an explosion at the beginning of the war. The soul grew cold. 

"Earlier, we proudly watched the take-off and landing of the world's largest cargo plane, 'Mriya' ['The Dream', which was destroyed by Russian missiles in a few days]. 

"Are these the last minutes of a peaceful life?"  she asked herself.

Will my family have to go through the horrors that my grandfather, who fought in the Second World War and returned from the front without a leg, flatly refused to tell?

Meanwhile, her four-year-old son realised that something terrible had happened; silently he went to change clothes. 

He came out smiling, in elegant pants and a sweater, put on a "butterfly" for performances at concerts, and asked if he was beautiful.

He was preparing for something serious and necessary, but he didn't know what it was yet. 

From the window, Larisa watched as 30 helicopters fired on the airport and surrounding houses. Looking at her son's charming smile, she said: "Why are you not doing anything? You have to save the child." 

Ukrainian sappers carry a Russian military drone backdropped by the Antonov An-225, the world's biggest cargo aircraft destroyed by Russian troops at Antonov airport in Hostomel. Picture: Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian sappers carry a Russian military drone backdropped by the Antonov An-225, the world's biggest cargo aircraft destroyed by Russian troops at Antonov airport in Hostomel. Picture: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

But the evacuation was dangerous because a car in a traffic jam is a good target for airstrikes.

The day before, a car had stopped in front of Larisa's house. Behind the wheel was a woman with a gunshot wound to the chest, sitting next to her grandson; he was already dead. 

The woman, flooded with adrenaline, miraculously survived. An ambulance was called and rescued her. They tried to evacuate but came under crossfire on the bridge over which a column of Russian troops was heading to Kyiv. 

"We realised that we're not going anywhere, although we have our car." They decided to go down to the basement during the bombing.

Anna arrived in Kolomyia. There was a terrible conveyor belt — families from different regions came. Each of them had its own story.

Not everyone could fit in the basement, so only children were sent there during the air raids. Adults sat in the dark, whispering and trying to bring up a moral spirit. 

"We weren't taught to prepare for war, so we just tried joking," Anna says.

The sirens sounded more often. There was not enough fuel, so Anna and her husband went to the nearest Romanian pedestrian border Porubne-Suceava. 

At that time, Anna did not know that she would have to walk for 10 hours and that after crossing the border, one danger would change into another.

Olga and her daughter arrived by bus in Warsaw. She made sure that Ireland accepted Ukrainians without visas or even passports, and bought tickets to Dublin.

Larisa Khokhuda's son sits in a bomb shelter in Ukraine.
Larisa Khokhuda's son sits in a bomb shelter in Ukraine.

But before boarding, the Polish border service did not release them because the child did not have a passport.

"Tears, hopelessness, fear — that were my emotions,"  Olga says. "When we were waiting for the luggage, we were told to contact the Ukrainian consulate to obtain a temporary document that would allow the child to move. 

"The queues were crazy, and I did not expect to be on time," Olga recalls, "but the Lord saved: it turned out that the child's photo is pasted in the mother's passport, stamped — and you can fly."

The soldiers lived in Larisa's apartment for two days. Neighbours' apartments were destroyed, and the whole property was damaged. 

Larisa's apartment was still relatively tidy; she had the opportunity to prepare food for the children. 

There were fights every night, and the walls shook. 

"My son was sitting under the bed," the mother recalls. "He said it was safe." 

Then the Russians left. But the fighting intensified, and Larisa's family and 60 other neighbours spent another week in the basement. 

The temperature was at 10 degrees. They drained water from pipes; the toilet was an ordinary bucket. 

"My son calmed down when I sang him the songs he played on the violin," Larisa said. 

From the age of three he had learned to play the violin according to the Suzuki method. Music saved us. 

During this time, Larisa's house survived four more attacks by Russian troops. They used the house as a food base and ammunition depot. 

It became indescribably harder every day; the cold fear was replaced by fierce hatred and an unbearable desire to leave. Then Larisa's husband's car burned out when an explosion hit it. 

"One of the neighbors said that his car was starting, but there were no windows and a broken windshield due to the blast wave," says Larisa. "We decided to ride it."

It was minus three outsides. 530 kilometres to Lviv. From there — by train to Poland; next,  Cologne, and then to Ireland.

It was nighttime. Anna and her child were walking, trying to get to the nearest train station.

"We probably caused conflicting opinions in passing cars," the woman recalls. "Finally, a car with a man and woman stopped, and we trusted them for some reason." 

They took us to the train station, and suddenly something strange started. 

Volunteers met the Ukrainian woman at the station and offered her help. However, the couple from the car aggressively offered to go with them. 

"Volunteers said that the woman was very angry with my refusal," says Anna. "So, 30 minutes of refusals and intrusive persuasions passed. 

"I said I wanted to go to a hostel offered by volunteers. The annoying couple finally left us, and I still think they wanted to do something illegal to us, and my intuition took us out of trouble." 

After spending the night, the girls moved to Bucharest. From there to Berlin and then to Ireland.

"I was pleasantly surprised that Ireland cares so much about Ukrainians," Olga said. "The Irish are such kind, responsive, selfless people.

"It's not just about material support but also about care in general. For example, during the registration of the PPS number, there was a children's room with toys, food, diapers, clothes, and hygiene products. 

"I wanted to cry because of the feeling that you are not indifferent to someone far from home." 

Olga also visited the charity shop Palyanytsia in Dublin, which is a collection point for Ukrainian refugees of goods people have donated.

Olga Yurkiv and her little girl reunited with their family in Ireland.
Olga Yurkiv and her little girl reunited with their family in Ireland.

"I am very grateful to them," she says, "I hope we will not stay long. I pray to God for an end to the murders in Ukraine. 

"Maybe one day I will also be able to be useful to the Irish people — when you come to us in Ukraine, I will take care of you."

"I wanted to visit the land of leprechauns and hobbits for a long time. I thought it would be quiet here, and I would finally be able to get away from all the horrors," Anna shares her impressions. 

"But people who stayed in Ukraine hate me for leaving the country and not being with others in the basements."

"Ireland is a country of small buildings, very tiny, almost puppet-like. It is distinguished from Ukraine by calmness and stability. 

"I still haven't seen homeless people here. How is this possible with such high prices? Lots of greenery but constant greyness. 

"Everything should be hidden so that it does not soften in the morning. Even the furniture is always a little damp. 

"I was also surprised by the slowness in everything. I worked in Kyiv almost 24/7, and our problem was to prove to the manager the balance of life and work.

"Everyone talked to psychologists about emotional burnout. It doesn't seem to be such a problem in Ireland. I've already registered, and I'm waiting for social benefits," she says.

However, unfortunately, the housing system is ill-conceived. It is solved very slowly. I haven't received an answer for a week — complete horror. 

"Ireland has been said to provide instant hotel accommodation, but this is not the case. Only a part of people in hotels. 

"I've been here for two weeks, and I was still waiting for housing. But I was sure the issue would be resolved. And now I live at a hotel in Limerick. 

"In Ukraine, I worked as a PR director. I want to improve my English, find a house, and get a job in marketing."

Larisa and Zakhar enjoying the Kinvara Mother's Day event with a local friend in Kinvara.
Larisa and Zakhar enjoying the Kinvara Mother's Day event with a local friend in Kinvara.

Larisa stopped in the cozy town of Kinvara. "Mom, why is this country so beautiful and clean?" her little boy asked. "Perhaps it is important for people to live in such a country?" 

"That's right," she replied. "We need to learn from the Irish the ability to create comfort and beauty." 

The locals were happy to meet the mother and her child, organised a tour, invited them to the fair, and found a teacher so that the boy could continue to learn to play the violin. 

"We feel it is a sincere desire to support us," says Anna.

The music teacher drove the family to show them the incredible beauty of the beach, the chocolate factory, and the enchanting scenery. And the locals organised a Mother's Day for Ukrainians. They came with sweets, toys, open hearts, and sincere smiles. 

"It is a great happiness to see your children play carefree, eat a cake and drink homemade lemonade. And the most important, it's quiet here; what I have promised my son."

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