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Viktoriia, Kharkiv

“We did not know where we were fleeing to. But here we founded the volunteer organization ‘Women’s Dream’ – the dream of returning home”.

Viktoria, 32, from Kharkiv, fled Ukraine with her 3-year-old son and her mother after experiencing two weeks of shelling.

I’m from Kharkiv, our district is called Saltivka. That’s where it all started.

Early in the morning, I heard explosions. My husband is from the town of Popasna in the Luhansk region. That’s why he knows everything about the types of missiles and air bombs: he’s experienced these kinds of explosions for eight years. He asked me to pack up and wait for the next instructions. I didn’t prepare anything in advance. I teach choreography and on February 26th, my group of children was going to a dance competition, and we had a rehearsal on the eve of the war.

I decided to take my son and go to my mother’s because her house at least has a basement. It was impossible to call a taxi; the whole city was at a standstill; the subway did not work. I managed to find a car and the traffic was terrible. Everyone was trying to leave Saltivka. We stayed in the basement for a few days. Then, I received a message from my work. There was a truck with humanitarian aid, and they asked me to help distribute the products. My work was very close, we arrived there by running between the houses. We were brought products intended for 41 educational institutions because people were mainly hiding in schools, kindergartens and gyms. We believed that was the safest place since there were no shelters in our area. We didn’t know what to do with so much humanitarian aid – we made lists, kept records, and found the number of children and elderly people and what they needed.

One day, frozen products arrived – pancakes, chicken, dumplings. And they had to be distributed immediately. We didn’t have refrigerators, people didn’t have a place to store them, and they had nothing to cook on. We handed out boxes for those who were willing to take them.

I realized that I must take my volunteering to the next level. I applied to the Ukraine Foundation, received 20,000 hryvnias, and went to buy food with my colleagues. Restrictions on the purchase of products had already begun ­ I could not buy a box of flour or a bottle of sunflower oil. While I was standing in line on the street, a rocket flew into a 9-story building next to us. I did not know where to run. Heavy shelling began and all the people were let into a supermarket so that they could hide. We still managed to buy things and my friends helped to bring them to the distribution point. As long as you’re doing something, thinking about people and how to help them, the explosions around are not so scary. The most difficult thing was to get medicine. It was also very dark in some areas.

Once when we were sleeping in the corridor, fighter planes flew over us. My son woke up in the middle of the night in hysterics from this noise, he asked me to go to the bomb shelter. I started thinking about sending my kid abroad with my mother. But my mom is 76 years old. She can’t take care of herself. We did not know where to go from Kharkiv. There was no plan. When we went to the station, we accidentally got on the train to Lviv. The worst started near Kyiv. Something terrible was happening there, the train had to stop because of the missile attacks. Because of this, the train changed routes and we went to Ternopil. Then we got into a cramped minibus and drove for four hours. Then we bought tickets to Kraków. It took us another 20 hours to get there.

We were in line at the Kraków railway station and volunteers approached us offering accommodation in various remote villages. But I understood that I would not find a job there and I would not be able to support my mother, my son and myself. It was already 8 pm, and my son started crying after an exhausting trip. I also was in tears. At that moment, a man approached to us – it was Mr. Wojciech. The volunteer translated our conversation. Mr. Wojciech and his companion offered us housing. It was not quite ready for living, but we did not care. It actually was an office that they converted into a living space. They brought us everything we needed, and later I learned that Mr. Wojciech paid for my son’s kindergarten for a few months in advance. I found a part-time job for my mother – she started cleaning apartments – and I found a dance hall for rent and opened my dance studio. I pay a lot of money to rent this place, but it is very important for me to work.

Our children’s education center in Kharkiv was called “The Dream”, and that was where we developed our volunteer activities. When I arrived in Kraków, we called our organization “Women’s Dream” – the dream of returning home. We have 4 girls in our team of volunteers – they drive to Ukraine, they coordinate with other people, they unload the trucks, they do everything. We cooperate with a dozen other initiatives, like “Wings of Freedom” and the “Auto Regiment”. I received so much help from different people that I didn’t have to pay a penny for anything during my first months in Kraków. I still can’t believe it.

Text by Vira Baldyniuk

An exhibition by the Galicia Jewish Museum,

Krakow, Poland

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