When Olena Samsonova’s mother called to tell her that Russia had begun its invasion of Ukraine it was 3 o’clock in the morning.
Once she hung up the phone, Olena, without hesitating, decided to pack her bags and head back home to Ukraine to save her family.
On her more than 1,600 kilometre journey from Gdansk in western Poland to her hometown in the Odessa region, the 33-year-old Ukrainian mother travelled by train, car and also ended up walking some 40 kilometres.
Olena works in Poland, but she feared for her 8-year-old daughter Valeriia who was still in Ukraine with family members at the time of the invasion.
“If it wasn’t for the children, no one would run away, everyone would stay at home,” Olena said, referring to Ukrainians who decided to stay in their country to fight Russian troops.
“But as it is, we just have to transport the children,” she added.
On their long and difficult journey way back to Poland, Olena and her daughter were also joined by Olena’s sister Viktoriia Shokot, 31, and her two children as well as six other family members.
Olena and Viktoriia’s mother, who already experienced World War Two, was unable to flee with them due to illness. Their two brothers also had to stay behind, one of them battling sickness, the other one Russian troops.
Once the group of ten put down their luggage in Olena’s three-room apartment that is currently under construction, they were faced with the next challenge: How to accommodate everyone under one roof.
The children ended up sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the living room.
To not upset them even more, the two sisters initially did not tell their children about the war that is raging in their home country. But soon enough the children started to ask questions.
“Mum let’s go home, that’s enough being a guest, let’s go home,” Viktoriia’s daughter had insisted.
Another challenge was sending the children to school. Uprooted from their home and unable to understand Polish, they were reluctant to go.
Viktoriia said her son had gone to school on the first day in tears.
But as the days pass, the Ukrainian refugees are beginning to settle.
Their living situation is more relaxed now that it is just the two sisters and their children in Olena’s apartment after the other family members found accommodation elsewhere.
And after a couple of days in school the children started to make friends so going to school in the morning does not cause tears anymore.
“They communicate with each other, I don’t know how, but they communicate, at least with gestures, at least somehow,” said Olena whose daughter insists on wearing her clothes with traditional Ukrainian embroidery to school.
(Production: Hedy Beloucif, Sofia Strodt, Olga Vyshnevska)