A lingering autumn drizzle and the sky in gloomy clouds: this weather is hardly surprising at this time of year. We arrive in Makariv in the morning, and it seems that the day is already coming to an end. Gray, rain, piercing wind. The navigator leads us to the outskirts of the village – the silhouettes of damaged, burnt houses periodically appear outside the car window. During the occupation of the Kyiv region, Makariv suffered greatly: farmsteads destroyed by enemy "raids", mined forests and fields that are still dangerous to step on...
In March 2022, one of the shells hit Olesia and Serhii's house. It came from the kitchen. "The washing machine flew off the property, the refrigerator was destroyed. There was nothing left in the house – everything burned to the ground. And although some walls are still standing, they are all cracked and cannot be restored. .... The only thing that survived was the foundation. It turned out to be strong. But the greatest happiness is that none of us were at home at the time," says Olesia.
She and her husband meet us at their fence from the road. This fence is a new one – the previous one was destroyed by the Russian occupiers. When they retreated in late March, they destroyed everything in their path. They couldn't start Olesya's car, so they smashed it. Serhiy's car was stolen. They left behind piles of garbage and boxes of shells. These boxes still stand in the yard like an ominous artifact.
Serhii is a civil engineer by profession and worked in Kyiv before the war. Olesia was a childcare provider. She has a disability group. Six months before the full-scale invasion, the couple started their own business: custom-made holiday express greetings with "big polar bears". They loved this work very much. They invested in props and bought a car especially for the trips. Writing holiday scenarios and going to performances was a great joy, Olesia says.
Ania is ten years old, Amina is seven. They look out the window curiously. "Our daughters have different personalities," says Olesia. "Anya is a calm, creative girl. She likes to draw and sculpt. Amina is a fidget spinner: she has to run dozens of kilometers in a day. She loves gymnastics. She is a very positive, cheerful child. They both go to school. But classes are often canceled because of so-called "mining" and air raids".
Since June of this year, the family has been living in a modular house donated by benefactors from America. It was set up in the yard, not far from their former home, where the family had their last peaceful night before February 24. The morning of February 24 is hard for Serhiy to remember. He woke up around five: he had to leave for work early. He went outside to warm up the car and heard explosions everywhere: Kyiv, Borodyanka, Gostomel. "I immediately realized that the inevitable had happened. I called my colleagues, called my mom and brother back in Kyiv. I realized that I had to leave immediately. I had seen documentaries about what the Russians were doing in Chechnya... I was aware that, without weapons, I would not be able to protect my children on my own. However, I believed that they were leaving for a short time and would return soon".
They lived in evacuation until the end of March in the Ternopil region, at a friend's house. It was there that they learned (by chance, from a live video on the firefighters' website) that their house was on fire. That tragic date is etched in his memory forever...
After the liberation of Kyiv region, Serhiy was the first to return home. He was looking for his dog, which, unfortunately, could not be evacuated. To the last, he hoped that dog had escaped, just ran away. As it turned out later, the dog died... The whole family arrived in Makariv in April 2022. "On the first day, Anya didn't come into the yard, afraid to see the burning of her home. After all, her drawings, favorite toys, books remained there in the children's room... It hurts children as much as it hurts us, adults. Amina had more courage: she came in with us. She walked around the yard, looked around. Everything will be fine, she said. She always encourages us. She sees the positive in everything."
At first, it was very difficult for everyone. "You remember everything. Every thing was important. You know, each of us keeps something as a memento. We have no such memory left," Olesia sighs. "No videos, no wedding photos... No photos of our children when they were little. How they grew up – kindergarten, school... I even took my childhood photos from my mother not long before the war. I wanted to make an archive. Who knew that this would happen..."
After returning, the family lived in a neighboring village. An unfamiliar woman responded to an advertisement that they were looking for a place to live and offered her house. But in April of this year, they had to vacate it. "In general, human help, especially from strangers, is what keeps me going. Someone shared clothes, someone brought food and money. "When we applied to participate in the Polish-Ukrainian project Family to Family, we were very desperate, Olesia recalls. "And these funds supported us very significantly all the time. We were able to get our children ready for school and buy clothes. We were able to buy dishes, an electric kettle, and many other essentials thanks to the project's support. Still, we had to start from scratch. Like every practical mother, the older daughter's clothes were usually left for the younger one. And as a result... neither of them wore them out properly, and the younger one didn't get any. Everything was burned. When we left, we took almost nothing with us. But I said, "Well, now we'll have something new and better. Life has taught me not to put anything off for later and to appreciate every moment with gratitude".
Unlike his wife, Serhiy did not always have an easy time reacting to the situation. He had depression and until recently was still taking anti-anxiety medication. He didn't understand how to live his life. "How are we going to rebuild all this?" he kept saying. "I had no job and no money. The children are growing up... "It was hard. It almost came to a divorce..." the man admits. The decision to build a new house – next to the destroyed one – was a lifesaver. So did the support of his family. The funds gradually appeared, and he found a job. Yes, construction is a huge expense. But I am a builder, I can do most of the work myself, I told myself. We received some materials with the support of charitable foundations, and beautiful large windows under the "Reconstruction" program from Caritas-Spes.
And so, step by step, they are bringing their dream of a new home closer. It gives you strength", Serhiy smiles.
We are talking in a modular house. There is everything they need to live here: a few rooms, a bathroom, furniture, appliances, and dishes. Most of it was donated to the family by philanthropists. Including a stove "burzhuyka". It is an alternative source of heating: they have high hopes for it. They also bought a truckload of oak firewood. "The house is designed for electric heating, but electricity is very expensive nowadays," says the woman. - "So our biggest concern is how to survive the winter. In summer it was very hot in the house, and what can we expect in the cold?"
The icons given by Olesia's mother are in a prominent place in the house. There are also paintings by Anya. A small dog is licking at her feet. "It's my older daughter's friend," Olesia smiles, "And the other dog is temporarily outside while we have guests. He is friendly, but big, so his size often scares people. Amina missed our Alabama very much. Now we have a new one. Life goes on..."
The couple returned to their favorite business: organizing express birthday parties. "When you wish kids a happy birthday and hear their laughter, you switch to a positive note," says Olesya, "and adults too. Recently, we congratulated women on her 85th birthday. Her relatives brought her, helped her out of the car, and she could barely stand. But when she saw a bear - 2.7 meters tall - and heard the music, she tried to dance".
"We often go to the areas that were under occupation", Serhii adds, "Recently we came to wish a child a happy birthday, and it turned out that her grandmother's son, the girl's uncle, died on the front that day... And her grandmother said: don't cancel the child's holiday. Let the bears dance. The child has survived the occupation – she must have consolation. And so you think to yourself: home... You lost your home. And people have lost their loved ones... And the way they hold on, the way they try to make the holiday for their families, gives you hope. You see how they do not give up, and you stand on your feet. When you look into the shining eyes of children, it inspires you".
Ms. Olesya's brother has been defending Ukraine at the front since the first days of the war. In September, he was seriously wounded near Bakhmut and underwent several complicated surgeries. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation, which is very difficult and lengthy. "But God saved my brother's life. The enemy destroyed our home, but we are all alive. What is a saved life compared to a lost property? Life is a great gift..."
I hold in my hand a symbolic paper heart – a gift from Amina. The sisters cheerfully wave goodbye and fold their palms into hearts. The rain suddenly stopped. Although the sun is not visible from behind the clouds, we know for sure that it is there.
The Ukrainian-Polish project "Family to Family" has been running since October last year in the Kyiv-Zhytomyr Diocese, and since February this year - in the Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia Diocese. Caritas-Spes Ukraine implements it in cooperation with and thanks to the support of Caritas Poland. The project is aimed at supporting Ukrainian families in financial need and affected by the consequences of the war in Ukraine.