‘A battle in our souls’: women who fled Ukraine agonise over when to return

·6-min read

Natalia Kompaniets spends her days running over a dilemma with her daughter as they sit in their temporary new home, a simply furnished room on the first floor of an unmarked building, in a nondescript suburb of Budapest.

“Every day we think, should we go back or not? There’s a battle in our souls,” said Kompaniets, a 51-year-old who left the town of Obukhiv outside Kyiv in early March, along with her daughter and young granddaughter.

Here, as well as elsewhere in Hungary, Poland and other countries neighbouring Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – mostly women, children and elderly people – are weighing up similar questions.

If they are from a relatively safe part of Ukraine, is it time to return? Should they wait for the war to end? And how long would that mean waiting?

A recent survey of Ukrainian refugees in seven countries by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees found that while most wanted to return to Ukraine eventually, only 16% planned to do so imminently.

In the coming months, life is likely to get more difficult for many Ukrainian refugees, as the initial outpouring of goodwill across Europe wears off, and more people are forced to fend for themselves when it comes to food and accommodation. But for many, those struggles are still preferable to a return to an uncertain situation at home.

“The main thing keeping a lot of people here is their children. Yes, the kids are pulled out of their normal lives here, but at least they can sleep normally and eat normally,” said Olena Nikolaenko, a 39-year-old from Kyiv who moved to Warsaw early in the war.

Nikolaenko now works for Future For Ukraine, a newly registered foundation based out of an office in a Warsaw skyscraper and entirely run by Ukrainian women. Part of its work is aimed at sending aid back into Ukraine, but another part is to provide support for refugees in Poland.

Soon, the foundation will organise a series of lectures aimed at coping with the psychological burden of living abroad during wartime for Ukrainian women in Warsaw.

“People are here with their kids, but without husbands, without parents, and often without money or work,” she said. “They are in this situation where it’s impossible to make plans.”

Kompaniets and her family decided to leave Budapest and return home in June, but then a missile hit a nearby town and they put their plans on hold. The new plan is to wait until Ukrainian independence day, on 24 August, when they fear Vladimir Putin may launch symbolic attacks on Ukraine. If that date passes peacefully, they will return, in time for the granddaughter to begin her first year in school on 1 September.

“Every day my conscience is crying out that we are sitting here, I want to get back home and help out in any way I can,” said Kompaniets.

The family is staying in a safe house run by Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a charity. It was originally meant as a shelter for victims of domestic violence, but since March one floor has been reserved for Ukrainian refugees.

Further down the corridor is the room of 30-year-old Vasilina Mikityuk, who left the city of Zhytomyr with her three-year-old son in early March. She spent a week staying with a family in Poland, before she arrived in Budapest planning to take a flight to Baku, Azerbaijan, where the father of her son lives. But she did not have a Covid vaccination and so was turned away at the gate.

Stuck at the airport, she met volunteers who helped her find the shelter, and she has now been living there for four months. She does not want to move again, explaining that the uncertainty of war has caused severe panic attacks. “I need stability,” she said.

However, it will not be easy for her to build a new life abroad. She does not speak English or Hungarian, and has only been offered long shifts doing manual labour in warehouses, or cleaning hotels, which do not seem compatible with looking after her son. She has already spent most her savings. But she said she cannot return home while there is still the possibility of Russian missile attacks.

“I don’t want my child to be traumatised, I don’t want to go back while there are still sirens and while it’s still dangerous. I know what it means to be traumatised as a child. It stays with you for ever,” she said.

The air raid sirens that sound frequently across Ukraine to warn of possible missile attacks are mentioned by many parents as traumatising for their children.

Tatiana, a 32-year-old from Zaporizhzhia who is also living at the Budapest safe house, said even after several months abroad, the sirens remain her six-year-old son’s abiding memory of the war.

“He says he only wants to go home if there are no sirens. We will have to decide in August,” she said.

She came to Budapest because a friend was working there as a builder, and allowed her and her son to stay in a house he was renovating. But when the renovations were complete they had to move out and are now staying in the shelter.

She is worried about staying in Hungary and is unsure if she can find work there. But she is also worried about returning to Zaporizhzhia, a city close to the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

“People are saying you can hear the booms in Zaporizhzhia now. I’m scared of it turning into Mariupol,” said Tatiana.

People walk past a crater left by a Russian missile strike inside a wheat grain storage facility in Zaporizhzhia last week.
People walk past a crater left by a Russian missile strike inside a wheat grain storage facility in Zaporizhzhia last week. Photograph: Reuters

In Warsaw, the Future for Ukraine foundation has grown swiftly and is raising hundreds of thousands of euros a month. The women running it say throwing themselves into the work is a way to take their minds off their personal situations, and to help Ukraine so all Ukrainians can return home soon.

“The main goal of what we are doing is to help us all to be able to go back sooner,” said Rehina Koshova, a 35-year-old public relations professional, who also works for the foundation.

Like most Ukrainians, her life has completely changed since February, when she took her son and headed for the border. “I called my husband and said ‘I’m already in Hungary’, and he said ‘I’m already in the army,’” she recalled. They have not seen each other since. The day she spoke to the Guardian, her husband had just called her to say he was heading for another trip to the frontline.

“We all have trauma, there is just different levels of it. Now, we live in two universes. We are here and it seems as if everything is fine, then you look at the news and you see everything in your country. It’s a very difficult psychological state to deal with,” she said.

Some have taken to obsessively scrolling through news from Ukraine, trying to gauge when their home towns may be more or less safe and they can go back. Others take the opposite strategy, avoiding all news from home to stay calmer. For Mikityuk in Budapest, the unpredictability of events has led her to put her faith in the guidance of a superior force.

“The war has made me more religious. I try not to plan too much and rely on God to help me find the way and tell me what to do,” she said.