“There were no expectations, we just wanted to run far away from Russia.”
What we have all become too familiar with since last February 2022 is what most of us refer to as the war in Ukraine.
Sadly, the full-scale invasion the Russian armed forces began on February 24 last year is only the most recent chapter of a war that started 9 years ago.
Russia proceeded to annex Crimea to its territories in 2014 and what followed were a series of pro-Russian protests and fights with the Ukrainian army in the regions – or oblasts – of Donetsk and Luhansk (known collectively as the Donbas).
Igor witnessed it all. And today, he shares his experience with us at SPEAK and how the project supported his integration in Portugal.
A time when Ukraine was a safe home
Igor was born in Bakhmut when what we call Ukraine today was part of the Soviet block, the URSS. The city, called until 2016 Artemivsk, is located in the Eastern part of the country, in the Donbas region.
His studies and career as a doctor brought him years later to Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine where he ran his own private clinic.
That is where he lived when the Crimean annexation happened. During that time, though, the city was considered safe and its citizens did not have to evacuate and relocate.
If this was a movie, imagine on your screen a clean cut and a flash-forward to March 1st, 2022.
Igor is still the main character, he is still a doctor but Kharkiv does not feel as safe anymore.
Normal life is not what goes on in front of our eyes. Igor and his family are now trying to make the best of their new accommodation.
Their apartment was entirely damaged early in the morning and they had no choice but to leave it behind and run to a bomb shelter.
Even down the shelter, walls were shaking and cracking. Still, going back to their own home was not an option.
To make things even direr, the military advised the family to leave the city altogether since heavy battles were approaching and Kharkiv could not be the home to many anymore.
The move to Kyiv and the decision to leave Ukraine
In the capital, Igor was lucky enough to be hosted by his son-in-law, daughter and grandson.
The family reunited in Kyiv and lived together for a few weeks. However, the situation did not improve. Once again fights and attacks were getting closer to the city, threatening the safety of its inhabitants.
Igor, his family as well as many in the city had to endure several hours a day without running water or electricity.
And once again, the military forced Igor to leave the capital and they moved towards the safest, at that point, part of Ukraine: Lviv, not far from the Polish border in the west.
Rationality in a surreal context
Since the events of March 1st, Igor says that he mainly followed the instructions received by the military. Had he and his family prepared for such events?
All they had aside and ready to take along was just the results of being cautious: they were not expecting such escalation, so they did not pack for a definite leave.
The whole family had prepared the bare minimum just in case the situation got worse. And even with that in mind, what they collected was not much. They did not realise something of that scale would happen to their city.
Until they had to evacuate Kyiv, Igor shares that his family did not really make any decisions for themselves. Up until then all the instructions on where to go and how to act came from authorities such as the government and the army.
Only once they were in the capital, they realised there was nothing left for them but to sit down and decide altogether where it would be safer for all of them to go.
And that decision, for the family, entailed moving west to Lviv, their last home in the country as they knew it until a few weeks before.
The move to Portugal and the first steps in the new country
Portugal was not the destination they had planned. Originally, they decided to just cross the border of neighbouring Poland on foot and make their way from there.
However, the fear of more attacks, of the possibility of nuclear war and of fights reaching Poland pushed the family to decide to go further west.
The memory of the bomb shelter walls cracking and of feeling petrified stayed with them, until March 11th, when Igor and his family finally reached Portugal.
The group was hosted initially by some friends, who welcomed them and let them stay for a few weeks in order for them to adapt to the new place.
“There were no expectations, just the desire to go as far away as possible,” recalls Igor.
Portugal from the very start proved itself to be “super nice, smiley and welcoming” but the language barrier weighed integration down. Also, contrary to the well-defined instructions received back in Ukraine, Igor now had no clear path to follow nor was it marked for his family to know what the next steps were.
Loads of confusing information would find their way to Igor through different associations and support organs, but none of it would be consistent nor applicable long-term.
Joining SPEAK for Ukraine and finding peace of mind
Amidst all the novelties and the challenges a relocation always carries, Igor found a way to immerse himself in a safe space to start building fresh connections.
He is currently attending his 5th language group with SPEAK. He tells us: “It was a journey: Portuguese Basic I to Basic III offline at Câmara Municipal de Lisboa, then it was also English Basic I online and now I am attending English Basic II at Casa do Impacto.”
His experience with SPEAK began around the end of May last year when the summer rays stretched warmer and the weather became kinder. Igor was looking forward to attending an offline group, but he had to wait for a few months before the sessions actually kicked off.
“The groups were not for me to learn languages that much, it was mainly to communicate, to find new people. When we [Ukrainian refugees] arrived we had no one to talk with, so we joined SPEAK to have fun, communicate and forget about the situation”
At SPEAK a project had seen the light: SPEAK for Ukraine was created as a humanitarian response to the crescent stream of refugees reaching Portugal.
The goal was to build a space for Ukrainian refugees to get in touch with locals and take the first steps into the host community, soaking themselves into the new culture and sharing their own.
The major benefit Igor got from attending the language groups was not only to learn Portuguese but to connect with other fellow Ukrainians, chat about the events of the day and for a few hours forget about the war back home.
Igor’s wishes and takes away from his experience
SPEAK for Ukraine gave Igor and his family some stability during a time of shifting, readjusting and rebalancing in a new country.
Getting together with their buddy and other compatriots, being able to communicate with them, and sharing some food and baked goods created a heartwarming atmosphere he misses sometimes.
He hopes to go back home to his beloved Ukraine and that might happen sooner rather than later for him and his wife. After all “I still have my patients waiting for me back home” he tells us.
They would like to move back in spring or summer.
In part, probably due to what they had to go through, Igor feels like the biggest challenge his family faced was a lack of clear communication from the government, in regard to bureaucracy.
Another struggle he and other Ukrainian refugees faced had to do with housing and the search for a place to live. Many times it happened they would be considered scammers, due to their situation.
“In Ukraine, we all had our positions and a certain social status which did not translate over in Portugal” Igor explains.
But now, without that reputation backing them up, refugees had to start over and rebuild in their new homes. “At times I wished people were a bit more empathetic and human. Behaviour is super important.”
A concrete help from SPEAK
Compared to that of many others less lucky, Igor’s experience was smoother and partially it was thanks to the support given by SPEAK.
It made it easy to meet different people, to find those human connections at a time when they felt alienated and abducted from their own land.
It also helped in learning more about the host country and what Portuguese culture had to offer. Igor recalls meeting an Italian doctor in one of the language sessions who came all the way to Lisbon to meet him.
The two went on excursions around the city, shared some laughs at SPEAK events and hiked in the forest. And for all that, Igor could not be more grateful.
SPEAK gave him the opportunity to find humanity, a network and the support needed in probably his family’s darkest hour. “[SPEAK] provided me with a small community to exchange languages, ideas and for that, I want to say my biggest thank you to SPEAK.”
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is still on so if you want to take action and support the refugees in your community, check out SPEAK for Ukraine and learn how you can make a difference.