By Nayara Batschke
Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil, May 24 (EFE).- “If we had still been living in that house, my son would have been studying in his room when a missile hit it.” That is how Irina Vospitanyuk describes the situation in Ukraine after leaving the country two months ago to rebuild her life in Brazil, where she is trying to leave the horrors of war behind.
Like millions of other Ukrainians, this 37-year-old saleswoman gave up her career, routine and home. In addition, she saw her family fragment overnight, given that the Ukrainian government has prohibited men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country and thus her husband could not flee with her.
“A piece of me remained there with him. I miss my husband a lot and there’s nothing that can lessen this pain,” she said in an interview with EFE.
Coming from the city of Pokrovsk, in the eastern Donetsk region, Irina landed in Brazil in late March with 33 other Ukrainians – women, children, teens and one old man – thanks to an international network of Protestant churches who are offering free apartments, donations and help with legal procedures to be able to remain in the country.
Since then, she has shared an apartment in the city of Sao Jose dos Campos, in the interior of Sao Paulo state, with her 15-year-old son, her mother, sister and an aunt, where they are trying to overcome the trauma caused by the armed conflict and adjust to a new life in a foreign land.
“One night, there was a bombardment with several missiles. My house began to shake, the walls were falling in, the windows were breaking, there was nowhere to hide. That was when we realized that there was no other option except to leave our country,” Irina said.
Amid the constant concern for their loved ones who are still in the middle of the war, Irina is working hard to learn the local customs and integrate herself into society in her new home.
Every afternoon, she and the other recently arrived refugees go the first floor of a downtown building to take Portuguese classes taught by a professor with the help of a translator.
They are learning basic phrases, how to count, the names of food items and other useful information, but they also discuss – amid laughter – the similarities and differences between Brazil and Ukraine.
“The most difficult thing in the beginning was the weather, because we came from an intense cold into tropical heat, but now we’re already getting accustomed to it,” Olga Ponomarenko, 41, joked, adding that another difference is the Brazilians’ “early” schedule.
“They have their kids get up at 6 am to go to school, but they love school so much that they are never late,” she said.
Up to now, Olga had never traveled outside Ukraine, but she agreed to move to Brazil when “three missiles exploded very close” to her house.
“It was three missiles that blew up very close to my house one morning. They fired many bombs into my neighborhood and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to stand the next one. The next day, we simply abandoned the house,” she said.
She managed to leave the country with two of her sons – ages 7 and 14 – but the third, who had just turned 18, was obliged to remain with his father in Ukraine, potentially to be incorporated into a military unit to fight the invading Russians.
To lessen the distance between them, each day Olga talks by video with her husband and her oldest son, and that is something that all eight families who have found refuge in this industrial Brazilian city do.
Despite the 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) and the endless uncertainties that separate them from their native land, little by little the refugees are beginning to rebuild their lives and overcome the open wounds left by the war, which has forced some 10 million Ukrainians to leave their homeland, according to the United Nations.
“I already feel safer, more confident. I’ve already managed to go out alone and buy things at the market. I can go out, walk around and there’s no bombing, missiles, nothing like that,” nurse Irina Shevchenko told EFE, adding that she left Ukraine with her two teenage children after the homes in her neighborhood “were destroyed” and the city “was left in ruins.”
But despite the “warm welcome” they have received, the three women shared their wish to return to their country “as soon as possible,” although they know that returning will not be easy.
“We’re praying for the war to end soon, but in reality we’re hoping to have a place to return to, because we don’t know if it will be like that,” Olga said.