Our Lives as Refugees

War doesn’t just affect soldiers. It can force millions of people to flee their homes in search of safety. Here are the stories of two teen refugees from the war in Ukraine.

Imagine having just a few minutes to pack your most important possessions and leave your home—knowing you might never return. Over the past year, that harrowing scenario has been a reality for millions of Ukrainians. That’s because in late February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. (See the “Why Did Russia Invade Ukraine?” sidebar) The Russian government launched attacks on military bases, hospitals, and apartment buildings. Ukrainian citizens sheltered from bombs in basements and subway stations. Homes, schools, parks, and entire cities have been destroyed. As Choices went to press, as many as 12 million Ukrainians have been forced out of their homes by the war, and at least 5 million have fled the country as refugees, crossing the border into neighboring countries such as Poland and Moldova. 

The decision to leave your country can be agonizing. Many refugees can take only what they can fit into a suitcase or backpack. They often leave behind friends, family, and pets for an uncertain future in a foreign country where they may not know anyone or speak the language. Their journeys across the border are dangerous. But as thousands of civilians and soldiers continue to die in the fighting in Ukraine, more and more Ukrainians are making the difficult choice to leave. Read on to learn what this heartbreaking experience has been like for two teen refugees. 

Rostyslav in a field in his hometown of Kostiantynivka, Ukraine, before the war.

Rostyslav Sheichenko, age 18

From: Kostiantynivka, Ukraine

Living In: Warsaw, Poland

Before the war, some of my favorite things to do were going to parks and reading. I love Ukrainian literature, and I had a big book collection. I also love coffee, so I liked going to cafes. I hung out with my friends, and I was in several clubs at school, like the debate club. 

Even before the war started, I had a feeling it was coming. My family and I had been prepared for a war for several months. I had a backpack packed in case we needed to leave suddenly. 

When the war started, it was like living in a fog. I knew I could die in my sleep if the Russians bombed us. It even began to feel normal, living with the sense you could die at any moment.

Then, in early March, my father said my mother and I should evacuate to Warsaw, Poland, where my sister lives. He would stay behind with our dog. The evacuation train was arriving in an hour, so we had barely any time to get ready. I wasn’t even afraid because it was all happening so fast. 

In the railroad station, there was a lot of chaos. Some people were hitting the train with their hands and rocks because they hadn’t been able to get on. They were crying and screaming and running back and forth. 

The train was very full, with people sitting on the floor and wherever there was space. It took us three days to get to Warsaw.

I’ve now been living in Warsaw for several months. I still talk to my friends who stayed in Ukraine almost every day. They are experiencing a lot of hate and depression because of the war.

When you are in a war, it is easy to hate the enemy and even want to kill them. But hate has a very destructive effect. It makes you start to feel dead inside. 

I try to keep my friends’ spirits up and help them to stay optimistic. I tell them, “You have to fight to defend the kindness inside of you.”

In terms of the future, my immediate hope is for an end to this horrible war. I want to go back home. I want to see my friends again. But I think I’ll stay in Warsaw for at least a few years to continue my studies. 

Eventually, I’d like to become a psychologist and go back to Ukraine to help the people who lived through the war. Despite what’s happening, I am optimistic that the war will end and that Ukraine will rebuild the cities that were destroyed. 

Rostyslav and his mom stay strong for each other. His father remains in Ukraine.

Olena Gorduz, age 17 

From: Mariupol, Ukraine

Living In: Warsaw, Poland

When I was in Ukraine, I lived the life of a normal teenager: Go to school, study for exams, watch some movies. My hobbies were singing, making beaded jewelry, painting. I was always very active. My home city, Mariupol, is by the sea. I liked to go to the port with my friends. 

To be honest, I didn’t think there would be a war. I would always tell my friends I didn’t think it was going to happen. But then in late February 2022, I woke up one morning and the sky was red. A few seconds later, I heard a loud “Boom!” I grabbed my phone and saw that the war had started. I was very scared, and I started to cry. 

After that, I didn’t want to sleep in my room. I wanted to sleep in the hall, because I thought it would be safer in case an explosion hit our apartment building. Soon my mother, father, brother, and I were all sleeping in the hall. It was crowded and uncomfortable, but when you are living under the conditions of a war, you do everything you can to survive.  

In the beginning of March, a friend of mine left his house and was hit by bomb shrapnel. He died in the hospital the next day. I still can’t believe it happened. It was sort of like a wake-up call for all of us that this really is a big, horrible war. Soon after my friend died, my town lost access to water and power. We only had some gas to cook our meals with.

My family moved down to the basement of our apartment building, because the Russians had started dropping bombs from planes. We were constantly hearing blasts and explosions. It was a terrible time. I didn’t ever go up to the street, because I was too afraid.

The situation was getting worse each day. We knew we could die at any minute, but it was also risky to leave, because there weren’t any green corridors (areas that are safe for people fleeing to travel through). 

Finally, in the middle of March, we decided to leave. We just packed a few pieces of clothing and left in our car. We were all crying. We saw burned houses, burned military equipment, dead bodies in the road. It was horrible. 

My mother had a connection with an aid organization in Poland, and they helped us once we crossed the border. Now we’re renting a big house with several other families. Each family has one room for the whole family. 

I’m also going to school. It’s the first Ukrainian school in Warsaw. I have new classmates, and I’m starting to make new friends. I’m very grateful to the Polish people, and I’m thankful we’re here, but of course I miss my friends back home. I miss my city. I don’t feel like I’m at home here. When you’re a refugee, everyone knows that you can’t go back to your home because it might not exist anymore. That’s the hardest thing. 

Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’m back at home, near the Sea of Azov, with my friends and family. I try to stay optimistic and believe happy times like these will happen again.

In the future, I’d like to be a politician or a diplomat so I can work to protect my country and make sure a war like this will never happen again. 

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