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Refugees

Cherkasy to Berlin: Escaping the war in Ukraine

Irina Shylova fled Ukraine with her youngest son, Viktor, leaving her husband and elder son behind.

Iryna Shylova in Berlin. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

“It’s not my first time here,” says Irina. “I’ve come to Berlin many times before, always with great pleasure… .” She breaks off. “I never thought I’d be made to come here because of a war.”

Irina Shylova is a tall, poised 45-year-old woman who looks half her age. A mother of two, she used to run an online language school in her home town of Cherkasy. Until very recently, she had a busy life and plans aplenty – including the launch of her school’s new business branch. Now she is in a Spandau ice cream shop talking to a reporter about war in Ukraine. She’s drinking her green tea distractedly – you can tell that, if it were coffee instead, it would be all the same to her. She has a lot on her mind, like finding a doctor for her younger son, who needs rehab from knee surgery. Like finding a school. A way to support herself. Above all, she needs to collect her senses and let the situation sink in. It is clear she’s having trouble coming to terms with what has happened. “We didn’t believe that people who speak the same language, who share so much with us, could turn against us. Invade us. Bombard us.” As with most Ukrainians you meet at the help centre in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, the dominant emotion is disbelief. This was never supposed to happen.

Irina Shylova is one of the dozens of thousands of women who’ve come with their children – and sometimes pets, too – fleeing the war in Ukraine. She’s among the lucky ones: her mother has been living in Berlin for 20 years, and she has a younger sister here. So, when war reached her city of Cherkasy, Berlin was the obvious destination. The decision to flee, however, was not an obvious choice. Leaving behind a beloved home, a husband and a 22-year-old son doesn’t happen on a whim – especially for a combative patriot like Irina.

It all began in Maidan

Irina has been a Ukrainian patriot since the early days of the Maidan Uprising in 2013. As a student in Kyiv, she decided to join the pro-European struggle on Maidan Square after witnessing acts of bloody repression one night on her way home from class. “I just got on board,” she recalls. “It was on December 1. After that I came every day, helping make sandwiches, coffee, loading and unloading trucks, anything.”

A rally to mark the anniversary of the Maidan revolution. Photo: Imago/ZUMA Wire

The techniques she learned came in handy back in Cherkasy, between September 2014 and the spring of 2016. There Irina – by then a married woman with two sons – organised grassroots citizens workshops to supply Ukrainian troops fighting in the Donbas with everything from warm socks to nourishing borscht and hand-made tank nets. Once, to solve a shortage of yarn for sock-knitting, she organised Cherkasy’s handicapped volunteers to unravel sweaters.

Resourceful, energetic and multitalented, Irina was able to transform a small city into a military worksop, with benevolent fellow citizens on the assembly line. The whole time we spoke, she was answering calls from volunteers in Cherkasy, eager to mine her considerable experience. One woman asks her for tips on making military fishnets. If it weren’t for her son Viktor, Irina says, she would have stayed. “Twice since I’ve been here, I was on the verge of jumping on a train to Poland and traveling all the way back. I even reached out to some friends who have been driving people out of Ukraine and asked them if they could help me return. But they were like, ‘What? Are you crazy?’”

Taking flight

“I had no plan to leave,” says Irina. But on February 26, two days after the Russians started invading Ukraine, she and husband Ruslan decided otherwise. “On the second day, the sirens went off and Russian rockets started to fly over our heads. We don’t have a cellar so we lay down for two hours in the kitchen, which is the safest place in our house, because it has no windows. That’s when my husband and I realised that Viktor was not safe here.” Viktor, their 14-year-old son, had just undergone knee surgery. Still wearing a cast, he could neither run nor lie down without assistance. Two days later, they borrowed a neighbour’s car and drove to the Polish border with a 45-year-old novice taxi driver, Ruslan, at the wheel.

“The funny thing is that my husband didn’t have a driving license until 10 days before the beginning of the war,” Irina explains. “We didn’t have a car so he barely had any practice – but here we are, there’s a war and there’s a car – he’s got to drive us all the way to the Polish border. It was learning by doing.” She laughs softly. “My son says his dad will become a taxi driver!”

Ruslan is Russian-Armenian, himself a victim of a sad historical déjà vu. He fled his war-torn Heimat with his mum, more or less at the same age as his son during the Armenian/Azerbaijan conflict in the 1990s. “History is repeating itself.”

On the day she heard the news of the invasion, Irina decided to switch the language of her popular Facebook page to Ukrainian. “It just happened. I could not get myself to write in Russian any longer.”

After a night’s rest at a friend’s in Wroclaw, Irina and Viktor were picked up by her brother-in-law who drove them to their family home in Berlin-Staaken, on the city’s western edge.

As we speak, calendar reminders pop up on Irina’s smartphone: teaching schedules, business meetings, rehab sessions for Viktor, or his volleyball and Capoeira lessons. They seem like teasing reminders of her “peaceful” life before. “I’ve lost sense of time,” she apologises. The chronology of days since the invasion has become her new calendar: Day 1 is February 24, Day 2 is February 25, and so on. Irina arrived in Berlin on Day 5. Today, March 20, is Day 25 – three and a half weeks since Russia began its attack.

Cutting ties

Irina is a fine example of a the modern, cosmopolitan, Russian-speaking Ukrainian who aspires to a “normal European life” in an independent country. Her bilingualism is typical of the city she comes from. Cherkasy is located on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, between the more Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking eastern parts where Moscow-backed war has been waged since 2014. Irina explains that Cherkasy has a particular language called Surzhky, a special blend of Russian and Ukrainian, which perfectly reflects the complexity and – until recently – the relatively peaceful linguistic and cultural mix to be found in Ukraine.

View of Dnieper river. Photo: Imago/agefotostock

Irina describes herself as primarily a speaker of Russian, but she supports the decision to make Ukrainian the country’s official state language. Viktor speaks Ukrainian at school and Russian at home. What about his friends? “Some speak primarily Ukrainian, others Russian. It’s never been a problem,” Irina adds, “until now.” Since Russia’s invasion, things have been changing quickly. Irina herself recently decided to switch the language of her popular Facebook page to Ukrainian. “It just happened. I could not get myself to write in Russian any longer.”

Meanwhile, she has cut ties with certain Russian friends: “I can’t believe they could let their children go and fight against us!” Irina describes a friend whose son is now in the Russian army in Ukraine: “She said to me, ‘Oh, well, what could I possibly do about it?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re the mother, go and lie in front of the train – do something, you’ve got nothing to lose, you only have one son.’” When Irina speaks, it is not with anger but with a steely determination. “These used to be my friends,” she says. “I blocked them.”

Connections to home

“I’m very grateful to Germans,” Irina says. “People here are so involved and eager to help.” Her mother’s neighbours visited right away with bags of sweets and random gifts. “On our second day here, we wanted to sit down for a coffee but my son isn’t fully vaccinated – we’d been told he should wait, due to his surgery. But when the woman heard we were Ukrainian, she immediately let us in – her eyes lit up, and it was like, woah, we’re so welcome,” Irina pauses. “I want to explain what’s going on – to tell the world what I know, what’s happening to my country.”

Each morning, she liaises with her many friends who’ve remained in Ukraine. Suddenly grabbing her phone, she shows photos of bombed out buildings around Kyiv and in the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Kherson. She shows photos of families stuck in underground shelters: “They stayed for full five days, in there, with all the kids,” she explains about friends who live in a Kyiv suburb. “We text or talk everyday. Every morning we check on them. If they’re all online, it means they’re alive.” She is worrying about

some friends who haven’t been in touch for days. As for her husband, he’s now constantly on the road, driving fleeing families to the Polish border. “Recently, he told me they came under air attack – they had to run to safety. Anything can happen. Anytime. I know that.”

Iryna Shylova. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

A new daily life

Irina decided not to apply for asylum, although she was given the opportunity at the Polish border: “I don’t want to become a refugee.” For many Ukrainians here, ‘asylum’ sounds far too definitive, like the acknowledgment of a reality that hasn’t quite sunk in. “When I wake up from the little sleep I get, I have to pinch myself to realise this is real, not a bad nightmare,” Irina says. “All I want to go back home as soon as possible.” In the meantime she and her son are going through the lengthy administrative process to receive a “humanitarian residence permit”, temporarily granted to all Ukrainians fleeing the war.

I reached out to some friends who have been driving people out of Ukraine and asked them if they could help me return. But they were like, ‘What? Are you crazy?

Until then, Irina is determined to make herself useful. “I can do massage, I can do nails, I can do facial treatments – I also know how to knit and make soap from scratch. I can do a lot of things!” Irina is also an excellent cook, and promises to send along her famed “best borscht” recipe. “We Ukrainians are known to be hard workers. I know that many women here are Putzfrauen. My mum says her German friends always ask if she knows someone to clean their home – people like everything to be so clean here, and Ukrainian women are in high demand.”

For now, Irina keeps busy volunteering at various refugee collection centres, and she has likely found a job teaching English to Ukrainians here. Meanwhile, she helps Viktor and some other local Ukrainian kids with lessons and homework. Viktor’s school in Cherkasy has resumed classes online – just like during Corona, except that now there are interruptions due to air raid alarms. “When sirens go off, the teacher needs to stop class, shut all devices, and run to a shelter. Then class resumes after one or two hours. It happens every day, once or twice, so we’re used to it,” Irina explains matter-of-factly. Air raid sirens, she reflects, have become part of their lives – even in Berlin.

Is that something one can ever just get used to? “I’ve noticed that Viktor jumps whenever he hears a plane, any alarm, or sudden noises,” Irina says. “The other day at Hauptbahnhof, there was this loud screeching noise coming from a train’s brakes, and it made us both jump up, ready to run for a shelter. I don’t know when we’ll get past that.”

Her biggest worry is the fate of her eldest son, Rostislav, who remains back in Cherkasy. “In 2014, when I was so involved in volunteering for our troops in Donbas – loading and unloading trucks, organising support and supplies, working nights as a translator – a journalist asked me where I get all my energy from. Well, I said, my son is 14, and if we don’t stop this war now, he’ll be in the army. I’ll do everything I can to prevent that.” Now that Rostislav is 22, he expects to be drafted any day. It’s a mother’s nightmare come true. “He says he’s ready,” she says softly. “He wants to defend his land, and I can’t blame him. One part of me says it’s right. I love my country and so does my son. What can I tell him?” Irina will not break down. “But of course I worry. Terribly.”