A Christmas far from home: Ukrainian families’ hopes and fears amid their new lives in Europe | Refugees

In the weeks after the Russian invasion, the Guardian spoke to Ukrainians who had fled to find refuge across Europe. As these families prepare to spend their first Christmas in their new homes, they describe the range of emotions that come with beginning a new year without the loved ones who stayed, as well as what the reality of a new life feels like.

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Spain

For reasons as obvious as they are ineluctable, this Christmas will be different for Faig Budagov, his wife, Olga, daughter, Alisa, and his mother-in-law, Katerina. The Russian invasion forced the family to swap Ukraine for Spain, one way of life for another, and an Orthodox Christmas for a Roman Catholic one.

Budagov and his family are planning to spend the festive period in the two rooms they have in a hostel in the Spanish city of Segovia, and to socialise with the 20 or so other Ukrainian families they have befriended in the area.

“Usually this holiday is celebrated at a fancy table with many dishes, snacks and desserts, accompanied by copious amounts of strong alcoholic beverages and wine, either when visiting or at home with guests,” says Budagov. “We will celebrate this Christmas without much fanfare, since here we simply do not have the opportunities and conditions for celebrating the way we do in Ukraine.”

There will be no kutia – a porridge-like dish of boiled wheat, chopped nuts, crushed poppy seeds and honey – but there will be Skype calls and WhatsApp messages to friends and family in Ukraine, and chats with the Spanish friends they have made.

Despite being forced to flee Kyiv, Budagov and his family know how fortunate they are.

“We will gladly join this celebration,” says Budagov. “But we’ll also be thinking about the war that’s still going on in Ukraine, the destruction it has brought, the deaths of women, children and old men, and the deaths of the soldiers at the front. People in most regions of Ukraine will be celebrating this Christmas without heat, electricity and water.”

From left to right: Faig Budagov, Olga and Fiag’s daughter Alisa, Olga Kuzminykh and Katerina Kuzminykh at their temporary home in San Rafael de los Angeles, El Espinar, Spain in March 2022.
From left to right: Faig Budagov, daughter Alisa, Olga Kuzminykh and Katerina Kuzminykh at their temporary home in El Espinar, Spain in March 2022. They now live in Segovia. Photograph: Denis Doyle/The Guardian

Celebrating Christmas Day on 25 December rather than 7 January, the day Orthodox Christians honour the birth of Christ, is one of the lesser adjustments the family has made since arriving in Spain on 12 March. For the first five months they lived in a house in a small town an hour’s drive north-west of Madrid. The house belonged to a Spanish man called Eduardo who had been moved to take in the family because his mother and her siblings had lived as refugees in Morocco for two years after fleeing Madrid during the Spanish civil war.

While they will always be grateful to Eduardo and his family, the Ukrainians moved to Segovia in late August as they missed the bustle and amenities of a big city. They had fallen in love with Segovia after visiting the city for the first time in April.

Alisa, who turns four next spring, goes to school near the hostel and Faig and Olga are taking Spanish lessons. “The Spanish language turned out to be difficult – and it is still difficult for us,” says Budagov, who speaks Russian, Ukrainian and Azerbaijani, as well as some French and Turkish. “But we have an interest in Spanish and a desire to learn it out of respect for Spain – which has sheltered us – and our new Spanish friends.”

For the foreseeable future, Spain – which has hosted more than 155,000 Ukrainians so far – is home for the family; a home for which they are profoundly grateful.

“The hospitality, tolerance and kindness people have shown us here has touched the depths of our souls,” says Budagov. “We’re glad we are here, and we can only be proud of the fact that we spend some part of our lives in Spain.”

Ten months after Russia invaded, he is still struggling to come to terms with what has happened to his country and family.

“Christians are killing christians; Orthodox people are killing Orthodox people, and brothers are killing brothers,” he says. “And all this is happening in the geographical centre of Europe.”

Portugal

Alina Levchenko arrived in Lisbon with her mother, Valentina, sister, Kateryna, and nephew, Seva, in early March. They spent several months sharing a room offered by a host family, as they tried to adjust to life in Portugal.

Levchenko has finally found a job – working as a content reviewer – and moved into a new flat with her mother, while her sister and nephew have moved into a separate home nearby.

Seven-year-old Seva is enrolled in Portuguese school – quickly becoming the most fluent member in the family. At his new school, was asked to write a letter about his dreams, Kateryna describes how he wrote about his wish to return to Ukraine.

For the family, things are finally settling into place, but still, Levchenko says, they worry about family back home. “We have so many mixed feelings, we are fine but our relatives and friends are suffering … we still read the news every morning and every evening, we know some days they don’t have electricity or heating.”

After months of waiting, Kateryna’s husband, Yehor, has finally made it to Lisbon – an injury precluded him from military service and allowed him to leave Ukraine. In the days before his arrival, Kateryna wanted to keep it a surprise from Seva, fearing he would get his hopes up and Yehor wouldn’t be able to board the flight. Once she broke the news, they waited at the arrivals gate, and Seva kept asking, “When is Dad coming?” When Yehor walked through, Seva was so “happy and excited” to be with his father again.

From left to right: Kateryna Skrebtsov, Seva Skrebtsov and Alina Levchenko in the stairwell of their temporary home in Lisbon, Portugal, March 2022. They have remained in Lisbon, but have moved into different apartments.
From left to right: Kateryna Skrebtsov, Seva Skrebtsov and Alina Levchenko in the stairwell of their temporary home in Lisbon, Portugal, March 2022. They have remained in Lisbon, but have moved into different apartments. Photograph: Gonçalo Fonseca

Levchenko’s partner is still in Kyiv, as is Kateryna and Alina’s father.

For their mother, Valentina, the past few months have been particularly hard. She recently joined Portuguese language classes, which has helped her create a network of Ukrainian friends. “During the summer, it was hard to get her out of the flat. She felt stressed, she said there was no point in getting out … I am happy she wants to see new things now, it’s a good sign,” says Levchenko.

Their favourite walks are in the small hilly town of Sintra, north-west of Lisbon, where they enjoy eating local pastries and wandering around the historic castles and chapels.

In the comings weeks, Levchenko and her mother will travel to Rome, where a few family members who have settled across Europe are meeting together for a weekend, for the first time in almost a year.

“We are happy we get this chance – it will be our early Christmas and we don’t know when we will all get to see each other again,” she says.

France

Liudmyla Abdo sits in the window of a cafe in the 14th arrondissement wearing a matching purple beret and scarf and looking every bit the parisienne. In recent months, she has also embraced the classic role of the flâneuse, walking for hours through the streets of the French capital.

“Sometimes, I’m at work and she calls me and says, ‘I’m at the Eiffel Tower!’, and I’m like ‘Woah, what are you doing there?’” says her son, Nidal, who has lived in Paris since 2016.

“I choose a spot and I walk, discovering the streets and the people,” Abdo says.

Abdo recently moved out of the small one-bedroom apartment she was sharing with her other son, Marsel, and into one in the south of Paris where she is being hosted by a local family. There she has more space and a piano to play – she used to be a teacher.

This accommodation, like her last, is temporary, and Nidal is hunting for an apartment where he and his mother can live together. But as anyone who has ever tried to rent in Paris knows, it can be difficult to find a place without a permanent employment contract and a local guarantor.

These are the questions that are front of mind for the family, more so than the approaching Christmas holiday. Nine months after a frantic scramble to get Abdo out of a war zone, Nidal says the family is still living day by day: “For us, there are priorities, and the priority is what’s happening tomorrow, not celebrating.”

Abdo’s son is trying to find an apartment in Paris they can rent together.
Abdo’s son is trying to find an apartment in Paris they can rent together. Photograph: Sara Farid/The Guardian

Still, Abdo has been invited to a Christmas dinner where people who have migrated to Paris can meet to enjoy the holiday together. It won’t be the same as Christmas in Kyiv: for a start, it will be two weeks earlier, as Ukraine traditionally follows the Orthodox calendar. However, she is hoping to recreate some of the same “Christmas vibes”, as Nidal puts it, that she enjoyed back home.

Christmas is about “cooking, gathering the family together, dancing and singing songs”, she says. And if it is an unusually frigid December in Paris this year, it’s much colder in Kyiv, where energy is restricted. Abdo can measure out the power cuts by the frequency with which her regular phone calls with friends are cut short.

In a world in which Russia had not invaded Ukraine last winter, she would be with them this festive season. Instead, she passes her days wondering when she’ll be able to go home.

“With the entirety of my heart, I feel sad for Ukraine,” she says.


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