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“You have to accept it.” The Shpigunov family lost their home in Crimea and Irpin, but now they are helping refugees.

By Elena Yurchenko

A displaced family from Crimea, Tatyana and Andrey Shpigunov with children. Photo from the family archive.

“War goes beyond shooting,” says Tatyana Shpigunova. She breaks down in tears, speaking about her daily pain as she helps evacuate refugees from regions shelled by the Russian army. Crimeans Andrei and Tatyana Shpigunov, from the first day of the full-scale invasion, provide shelter to the victims of the war in the Lviv region, experience grief and loss with them, and create a haven for those who have been deprived of their homes by Russia’s war against Ukraine. The history of the Shpigunov family – Tatyana, Andrey, and their three children – is a story of pain, self-sacrifice, and hope.

When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Tatyana and Andrey Shpigunov were in Irpin. This city had become their new home since 2015 when the family fled the occupied Crimea.

Before the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Shpigunovs lived in Kerch. They led the ServeNow-Ukraine Charitable Foundation, a ServeNow International Charitable Foundation branch. In the city, many knew Andrei and Tatyana as people who were always ready to help. Every summer, a charitable camp, “Nadezhda,” worked in Kerch, which hosted orphans from different regions of Ukraine for free.

The Shpigunovs provided aid to Kerch hospitals, a children’s TB dispensary, a boarding school, and families in crisis. They did not refuse to help anyone. Andrei and Tatyana had difficult childhoods, so they know that when it comes to helping kids, support and understanding goes a long way.

Tatyana and Andrey Shpigunov in Kerch, Crimea. Photo from the family archive.

After the annexation of Crimea, the work of the international foundation in Kerch became impossible from a legal point of view and unthinkable from a moral point of view. The Shpigunovs began to receive demands from Russian-controlled local authorities to “militarize” their charity camp. At the same time, the persecution of believers who did not belong to the Russian church of the Moscow Patriarchate began in Crimea. Andrei and Tatyana, who went to the local Protestant church, knew that now they and their children were in danger.

In 2015, the Shpigunovs left Crimea. It was tough to part with Kerch, the city of their childhood. But for their children’s sake and secure future, Tatyana and Andrey mustered the courage to leave. Tatyana says that God led them, and he never forsook them, no matter how terrified they were.

Irpin: a New Home, a New Life

In Irpin, Tatyana and Andrey Shpigunov bought a house that became not only their refuge but also the office of the ServeNow-Ukraine charity foundation and a warehouse for storing props needed for summer camps. Now the camps were held in the Carpathians. Children from families at risk and boarding schools, children of the Ukrainian military, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) came here for free.

IDP children in the ServeNow-Ukraine charity camp in the Carpathians, July 2, 2015.

It seemed that life was getting better: in addition to summer camps, the Shpigunovs and a team of like-minded people held a media school for the Ukrainian public and charitable organizations in Irpin and entrepreneurship courses for immigrants.

Irpin became the second home for this family. The children went to school there and made new friends. The couple started repairs on the house, and in the fall of 2021, Tatiana shared with her friends that she had finally finished equipping her dream kitchen.

We Couldn’t Even Imagine How Bad it Was Going to be” 

In December 2021, while reading the news about the accumulation of Russian troops near the borders with Ukraine, Tatyana and Andrey Shpigunov had no illusions about a likely Russian attack. In January, they began to prepare for a possible evacuation of people from Irpin and bought first aid kits and food supplies.

A team of volunteers and I devised a possible evacuation plan. However, we still were not ready to accept the reality of February 24.

Tatyana Shpigunova

“We thought that something was going to happen. But, to be honest, we couldn’t even imagine how bad it would be. It wasn’t easy to think about a possible evacuation. In January, she made the first cautious calls to the owners of bases in western Ukraine: “Purely theoretically… could we accommodate seventy people with you? Maybe for a week or two.” I didn’t want to panic. But in mid-February, my rhetoric changed, and we already had an agreement with four locations ready to receive our groups. A team of volunteers and I devised a possible evacuation plan. However, we still were not ready to accept the reality of February 24,” says Tatyana.

Tatyana Shpigunova in a charity children’s camp. Photo from the family archive.

On the morning of February 24, the Shpigunovs coordinated families for evacuation, and drivers and bases were ready to receive the first refugees. According to Tatyana, people in Irpin reacted differently to what was happening.

People planned to leave home for just a few days, but in the end, some of them spent months in locations we had prepared.

Tatyana Shpigunova

“Some people were scared; others could not make up their minds about leaving. I called and said: “You have 30 minutes to pack; our driver will pick you up.” People planned to leave home for just a few days, but in the end, some of them spent months in locations we had prepared. There were other cases as well. One young mother found my phone number on an evacuation train from Kyiv to Lviv. The maternity ward put her on the train right after she gave birth: “Help, please, I don’t know where to stay with the baby.” Our volunteers went to the station, met her, helped her settle, and took her and the baby to a pediatrician for an examination. Our volunteers are incredible people. They became internally displaced persons themselves but found the strength to help others. Every day I see how much work and sincere support these people show,” says Tatyana.

Andrey Shpigunov says that the family had decided that Tatyana and her two children would go to a safe place while he and his eldest son would stay in Irpin to evacuate people.

I distinctly heard shots that evening – Russians were shelling the Hostomel airport.

Andrey Shpigunov

“My wife was responsible for arrangements with the bases for the reception of refugees. On the evening of February 24, they drove in a column of seven cars to the Lviv region. My son and I stayed. I distinctly heard shots that evening – Russians were shelling the Hostomel airport. I realized that my son also needed to be sent away. On February 25, we woke up from a strong explosion, it was a bridge in Romanivka. Our friends took my soon away from Irpin. My neighbors and I went to the military enlistment office to enroll in a territorial defense unit. The queue was long: everyone wanted to defend Ukraine. An enlistment officer came to us and said they were out of weapons and that we should go to other military registration and enlistment offices. We went to Makariv and Borodianka, but there were no weapons. We even tried approaching the police, but they refused to arm us. A few days later, I also left Irpin,” he said.

A destroyed housing estate in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region during a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, April 24, 2022.

War Goes Beyond Shooting

At first, Andrei and Tatyana Shpigunov focused on evacuating people. They looked for funds and paid for the accommodation and meals of the refugees. People arrived from different regions of Ukraine. Some, despite the shelling, did not want to leave their homes, and their relatives had to insist on evacuation. This happened to a family from Makiivka, who left home in 2014. In February 2022 they were forced to flee again from Russian shelling.

We hoped that everything would be over soon, and we would return home. But now Putin has found us in Druzhkivka.

Marina Marinovskaya

“We lived in Makiivka, Donetsk region. When Putin’s aggression began, we moved to the controlled territory, to Druzhkivka. We hoped that everything would be over soon and we would return home. But now Putin has found us in Druzhkivka. The bombing started,” says Marina Marinovskaya.

She says that it took her a long time to persuade her father to evacuate. She succeeded,  and the Marinovskys stayed in a refugee center run by the Shpigunovs. Now Marina’s father Vasily recalls with humor how he did not want to leave Makiivka and then Druzhkivka. He says he “came to a resort”: “I have never experienced such good care, food, and housing as here.”

Refugees from different regions of Ukraine have found a haven in the Lviv region. Photo from the archive of the Shpigunov family.

Talking about the fate of the people she met after the start of the full-scale invasion of Russia, Tatyana Shpigunova repeats: “War goes beyond shooting.” She recalls the distorted fates of people who learned that they lost their homes and loved ones already in the evacuation; stories about losses that seemed impossible to live through.

War is constant pain. And it goes on and on.

Tatyana Shpigunova

“Most war films are all about shooting. But war is constant pain. People who will never come home again. Families who have lost their loved ones. Children who cannot sleep at night. That’s what war is, and it continues,” says Tatyana. 

The Shpigunovs did not only help evacuate and settle internally displaced persons. A little later, they were able to start sending groups of women and children to European countries. Then they delivered humanitarian cargo to the Kyiv region. Andrey Shpigunov recalls that for people at that moment, humanitarian aid was important, but the very fact of the arrival of volunteers was even more significant.

Andrey Shpigunov distributes food among the residents of Irpin. Photo from the Shpigunov family archive.

“People thanked me with tears in their eyes, especially for the attention, for the fact that someone remembers them. Many were cut off from their families, so such care was precious. I am powerless to change something globally in the lives of other people. But it seemed to me that it was vital to be close to these people and listen to them as much and as long as necessary,” he recalls.

You Are Responsible for Your Own Life

The house of the Shpigunovs, which they bought in Irpin after they left Crimea, is now destroyed. One of the Russian shells hit the children’s room on the second floor. After the Armed Forces of Ukraine drove the Russian military out of Irpin, Andrei Shpigunov could return and see what the Russian army had turned their house into. “What did I feel? I was devastated,” recalls Andrei.

Russian shelling destroyed the house of the Shpigunov family in Irpin.

What did I feel? I was devastated.

Andrei Shpigunov

Despite what happened, Andrey and Tatyana Shpigunov found the strength to help Ukrainian refugees. More than 600 people have already passed through a recreation centre which the couple has turned into a shelter. Some were able to catch a break there and move on. Some left Ukraine. Some returned to their native city after the Ukrainian military liberated it. “We hope the next step will be to help people return home and restore their houses,” says Tatyana.

The three children of Andrei and Tatiana are looking forward to returning to Irpin. The elder ones know that their home was severely damaged due to the war, but they are sure the family will overcome this too.

The house of the Shpigunov family in Irpin, destroyed as a result of Russian shelling.

“I am grateful that our family experience has taught me a valuable lesson. There is nothing more important than the people around you. With them, we will have the strength and inspiration to rebuild our house, which was hit by a Russian shell. We will clean our street from shell debris and put our flourishing city in order!” the eldest son Alexei Shpigunov told Krym.Realii.

The Shpigunov family. Photo from the family archive.

There are things you have no power over. You have to accept it.

Tatyana Shpigunova

While the family is still away from home, the ServeNow-Ukraine charitable foundation, headed by the Shpigunovs, organized a summer camp for refugee children in the Carpathians.

When asked where they find the energy to go on, Tatyana replies: “We have three children. We were displaced twice. There are things you have no power over. You have to accept it. But only you are responsible for your own life and your actions in any circumstances.”