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How war in Ukraine changed my life

I never thought I would have to leave my beautiful country, Ukrain, for Canada, at the age of 18. Just like a lot of people whose lives are affected by war, I never thought my country would have to go through it either. But life is unfair. Sometimes.

I wanted to make movies since I was 13. So, in my teenage dreams, I was picturing myself living in California, New York or Vancouver, all cinema meccas. At university, I chose languages as my major. My dad wasn’t super happy with a fact I took French classes. Chinese would’ve been more useful nowadays. But I decided to listen to my heart. And here I am, against all odds, in Montreal. Living on my own, working in the movie industry at Grandé Studios, where I met Mitsou, speaking English fluently and (still) learning French while pursuing my Ukrainian university studies. And I’m only 20, so I’m kinda proud of myself. But on February 24, 2022, my life became a movie. A very bad movie.

Me at home, after a night spent underground, hiding in the hallway because I heard the sound of a plane.

Living in fear

The Donbas war started in 2014, when I was 10. Maybe everybody knew the full scaled war would happen, but we didn’t think of it every day. At least people my age. We were drawing pictures to solders and donating clothes to refugees from Donbas. And sometimes Russians or pro-russian people were doing some demonstrations downtown. Then Putin made a video about him recognizing two occupied Ukrainian regions as republics. He wanted to have more. We still didn’t want to believe he was gonna invade us. Boy, were we wrong!

I will always remember February 24th, 2022. I studied until 1 am. That’s when I saw the news that all Ukrainian airports stopped working. I was anxious, and I posted a story on Instagram with my cat and wrote “Good night?”. Woke up at 4 because my cat was biting me and pushing my ribs. The moment I opened my eyes, I heard an explosion.

My family and I lived in Kharkiv, Saltivkam, in the north-east of Ukrain. Putin really wanted to get us because first, it’s a big city close to Russia, and second, the majority speaks Russian there. They expected us to be happy and to welcome them. But language doesn’t define who you are. I love Ukrainian history. I love Ukrainian music. I spoke Russian but I have never felt Russian. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know it at all. And the reason I speak it is because the USSR was forcing my ancestors to do so. But it’s really useful when you see two Russian women discuss you badly in Montreal’s metro, thinking you wouldn’t understand, but you tell them “Извините, можно пройти?” (excuse me, can I pass?) just to see the look on their faces.

We didn’t welcome the Russian army. And they bombed our city. My dad decided to bring us to our summer house, thinking it would be safer. But he changed his mind the last minute and decided to drive to a metro station. He saved our lives: that destination was under occupation, where a real butchery was going on. I can’t imagine what could have happened if we got there, and I don’t want to think about it.

I was happy to have received food even though I was over 18.

My family spent weeks hiding underground at night and going home during the day. It was really cold. And I didn’t eat enough. I was scared we wouldn’t have enough food and I wanted to throw up because of the explosions. I had days when I could only eat a chocolate bar. And I was freezing, even if I was wearing all the layers of clothes I had brought with me on top of the other. Once, volunteers brought us some food, but only for kids under the age of 18. And I just turned 18 in October so they felt sorry and gave me some cheese, cookies and an apple. My dad was being a night patrol for a few hours every day, to make sure bad people wouldn’t get to the basement of a school where we were hiding. I was scared to go to the bathroom because it was on the first floor. We didn’t take shower. And once power was gone, we couldn’t get the mobile connection from time to time.

Saying goodbye to my parents

We decided to leave home after a few weeks of hiding with my parents and my cat. Without even knowing whether we’d be back or if our home would be okay. I wasn’t scared of dying. I didn’t care. I was scared me or my close ones would be hurt and disabled. I clearly remember a moment when I was running to the basement during the night, and I saw one missile flying in the sky. It exploded the second I got under the ground.

I am carrying clothes and food donated by people when I left my home and arrived in western Ukraine.

So, we spent five days driving, with my mom panicking and my cat screaming, and we came to a safer place on the west.

My cat followed us everywhere.

That’s when my godmother, who moved to Canada 10 years ago, called us and invited to come. My dad couldn’t go because men aged from 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. My mom didn’t want to leave him. They decided to save the life of their only child and make me go alone. They gave me a new beginning. I was 18.

Returning to Ukrain as a visitor

After a year and a half in Quebec, I was missing my parents so much that I took the chance to go back for a visit. Everything had changed. Not only visually. People are different. While it’s better comparing to last year, because there are no fights close to the city, people don’t really care about possible bombings. They are so used to the war that they don’t even hide anymore. And that is terrifying. Because they are normalizing it. I decided to make a little video montage so that I never forget.

It took me a few days just to get home. I flew to Austria for 8 hours, took one 24h train to Kyiv and then a 5h train to Kharkiv. And the first thing I heard when I got to the train station was the siren that warns of bombing raids. And here, it wasn’t special effects. This was real. As much the sound of sirens warning us to hide as the sight of demolished buildings. Strangely enough, I got used to it right away, because I could see in my parents’ eyes that it had all become normal.

In front of a missile, left at the foot of Freedom Square. Under my feet, a subway station that has become a shelter for the population.

What’s next for me now?

I feel like I had to grow up too quickly. I was a child, a pandemic quarantine and a war stole my youth, and now I’m an adult, who has to pay the rent, work full-time, find new friends, and do my own taxes. It sucks. I’ve never had these years where you can do dumb things because you’re young. But on the bright side, I am more mature. I’m smart. I’m healthy. I’m free. I look good. I can do whatever I want to. Like make my dreams come true. I am writing my own story these days. When I got the job that I have now at Grandé, my boss said with a wink “Maybe one day you’ll be standing on a stage with your first Oscar, and hopefully you’ll have a little thought for us”.

 Maybe I will. No, not maybe. I will. And Ukraine will win. I am confident.

War took a lot from me: my family, my friends, my life, my youth. I can’t hug my dad or kiss my mom before going to bed. I can’t talk to my grandmas, pet my cat or watch a new Marvel movie with my best friend. I have a post-traumatic syndrome and other traumas. I work on them. But in spite of all that, I’m happy to be where I am now. Because my story is just beginning.


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How war in Ukraine changed my life