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“It was scary to leave, but it was even scarier to stay”. Olena Byrlova from Volnovakha on her life in Poland.

Due to the Russian aggression, thousands of Volnovakha residents were forced to leave their homes. Olena Byrlova took her family, memories of her previously happy life with her, and, even more importantly, she hasn’t lost her ability to dream on her escape route to Poland. Volnovakha.City journalists continue to collect stories of Volnovakha residents worldwide: about their life before and during the Russian-Ukrainian war.

“I felt that I finally found my purpose” – Olena, about life before the war.

A year and a half before the war, Olena decided to return to work in her field and started tutoring children in English. She overcame every obstacle in her way and was not afraid of difficulties.

“I found a wonderful nanny for my younger daughter and devoted six days a week to my vocation,” Olena recalls.

It all started with private lessons at home, but soon the woman rented an office in the centre of Volnovakha.

“Over time, I wanted not only to teach a foreign language to children but also to help them discover their creative abilities.”

Thus, with local artist Sofia Voichuk, Olena opened the OpenUp studio in December 2021.

“I had a dream – to create a space where everyone will be welcome – both young city residents and their parents. A place where you can spend a few hours on the weekend with the whole family, setting your everyday troubles aside. Where the goal of the lesson will not be a perfectly painted picture, but joy and warmth from communication and creativity”.

Olena devoted her weekdays to teaching a foreign language. And every Sunday, she held relaxing art classes: they used modelling clay and painted with gouache, watercolours, and acrylic paint using their fingers, brushes, or palette knives.

“Everyone who came to us, regardless of age and skills, became friends of our studio,” Olena recalls.

She says that so many people were willing to attend the classes in February that there was hardly enough space for everyone. Therefore, they planned to expand the studio: hire more teachers, expand the room, and explore more ideas.

“It was scary to leave, but it was even scarier to stay” – Olena, about her life under shelling and evacuation. 

Olena held her last English lessons on February 23. She had a bad premonition but tried to distract herself and the children. She calls her rented office in the centre of Volnovakha “the best and sunniest”.

“On February 24, I woke up from all the terrible sounds we all know. But I believed we had to wait, that the war could not enter our city. Every hour, it was getting worse”.

During the shelling of Volnovakha. Photo by Olena Byrlova.

In the afternoon, it already became unbearable for her to stay home with her children. Olena collected the documents and the most necessary things in a couple of bags and went to her parents, who also lived in Volnovakha.

“I left a few dirty plates on the table and an open laptop on the couch. We were sure that the situation would improve in a few days, and we would return home,” Olena recalls.

On the other side of the city, she tried to humour her kids by reading books and drawing. Everyone tried to talk more often to drown out the sounds of shelling. The second night after the war started, everyone was sleeping on the floor in the corridor. Then cell service disappeared in the city, and the Russians cut off the gas supply.

No one knew what was happening in the city. We could see the flames and hear the explosions several hundred meters away. My children, the cat and I were hiding in the basement, and my parents were cooking on the fire in the yard”.

On February 27, the PMK city district, where the family stayed, was heavily shelled. The shelling went on almost incessantly. One of the shells hit a four-story house 50 meters from Olena’s parents’ house.

“And in the evening, when it became dark, we drove to the neighbouring area, to the sounds of shots. Breathing was scary; I clutched my children and prayed that we would not be harmed in all this shelling. I don’t know if it saved us or if we were just lucky like that, but the next day we found a bullet hole in our faithful old car, where my eldest son and father were sitting.

During the evacuation to Poland.

“We don’t have any long-term plans for our future yet. We plan for a week, a month at most!” – Olena, about her life in Poland.

In Volnovakha, they left behind a house with the roof and windows destroyed by the blast wave. The family managed to get to Poland. Now they are in Kraków. Upon arrival, they had PESEL codes issued to them (a type of identification code) and applied for a one-time allowance. A little more than a month passed – and the money came to the bank card they had to open at a local bank in advance. 

The four of them received 1200 zlotys (almost 8000 UAH). They also applied for 500 zlotys (3300 UAH) per month for each child. On March 12, they received these payments for three months at once. Poland has opened access to family capital for Ukrainians who arrived after February 24. If a family has more than two children and some are under three years old, they can receive 500 zlotys per month per child. You can arrange all payments for children online without visiting the Social Insurance Office.

“I continue teaching children English online, and sometimes I attend art events. I am looking to take Polish language courses. After all, a certificate of Polish proficiency is required for official work in many institutions here,” explains Olena.

Danylo, Olena’s eldest son, finished the school year online at a Ukrainian school in Poland. Starting next week, he will attend a school summer camp. Olena hopes her son finds friends among the teenagers who were forced to leave home just like him. And in September, Danylo plans to go to a Polish school.

Olena’s youngest daughter, Masha, is 2.5 years old. Masha and her mother take long walks, exploring the area where they live and the nearby attractions. From September, Masha will start attending a local private kindergarten where Ukrainians teach.

“We don’t have any long-term plans for our future yet. We plan for a week, a month at most. We plan to buy bicycles to explore Kraków better and learn to appreciate it. I plan to engage in creative work more and find an art school to attend. Who knows, maybe I will become a student again and find a new dream?” says Olena.