Stories from Ukraine #1 : Natalya

This article has been developed by Joana Purves, Thomas Leroux, and Emma Santanach.

As part of the European project “Ukraine Now”, which brings attention to the situation of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, we sat down to talk with Natalya from Odessa to hear about her journey and experiences. 

Originally born in the Donetsk province, one of the regions hardest hit by the war, Natalya is 41 years old and teaches history of art. She fled Ukraine with her daughter following the escalation of the war to the whole of Ukraine in February 2022.

Now living in Barcelona, Natalya kindly came to meet us for a chat at the OCC Spain office. This is her story. 

When did you leave Ukraine?

I came to Barcelona with my daughter on the 4th of March, but I left Ukraine the day after the war started, on the 27th of February. From Odessa, we first went to Chisinau in Moldova by car. Crossing the border normally takes two-hours, but that day, it took us 18 hours because of the traffic of fleeing people. From there, we went by train to Yasi in Romania to get a plane to Barcelona with a layover in Vienna. 

But we had a problem with our dog because there were already a lot of animals belonging to other passengers. A volunteer that was there supporting the people crossing the border offered to take care of my dog while we were travelling to another place. So we left the dog with her and got onto the plane to Vienna. 

Eventually, our flight to Barcelona was delayed, so we could change our tickets to two days later in order to have time to solve the issue with our dog. The person who changed our tickets was so nice that he asked the pilot of the plane in Romania to take the dog with them so that we could all be together again. 

How did you feel during those days? 

Everything was very intense, strange, and stressful. Nobody knew what to do. The road from Odessa to Chisinau was taken by the army, which was very shocking and scary to see. 

Some of the people that left Ukraine with us stopped to stay in Chisinau for a few months, after which they returned to Odessa. But I didn’t feel safe in Chisinau and I understood that we couldn’t stay there… That’s when we decided to go to Barcelona. I only felt a bit relieved when we arrived in Vienna, but I only felt fully relieved after three months of living in Barcelona. 

How were the first three months?

I was still feeling scared when hearing certain noises in the street, like helicopters flying, or heavy vehicles like bin lorries. These noises reminded me of the moments crossing the border. But after three months in Barcelona, I slowly started to feel more relaxed. 

In May, I had the opportunity to visit France with my daughter, where half of my family is living now. The train stopped in a village for one hour, so we could go outside and take a walk. I remember that I was playing with my child in a playground when I heard a siren… I looked around and everyone was normal, but I got scared and even thought that the war had come to France. It was very shocking and astonishing. 

And how do you view your life here in Spain, in Barcelona, now?

Six months is a significant part of one’s life. But I can’t say that Barcelona, or Spain, will be my home forever, and I don’t want to say that I will never return to Ukraine. It is hard to express how I feel. Right now, the most important thing is the well-being of my daughter. She has been in school for a year and has made friends. She feels good here and insists on staying because of her friends. So, my daughter’s well-being is my priority. As for myself, I can’t answer that right now.

I suppose it’s challenging to think about the future.

Yes, since February 24th, 2022, it has become challenging to plan or think about the future. I never know where I will end up, it’s almost like floating aimlessly. The Russian occupation of our homeland disrupted everything. The only anchor I have for the future is my five-year flat rental contract. So, I believe I will probably stay here for five years.

Do you feel a sense of community here?

I have found a good community here, and it is close to my heart. About 70% of the people I interact with are also temporarily displaced Ukrainians living in Barcelona. So, I mostly communicate with fellow Ukrainians who arrived here at different times. This community is important to me as I have an opportunity to pursue my passion for art. I’m connected with the art community, and I’ve been able to conduct art lectures on a voluntary basis. 

As for returning to Ukraine, I definitely want to visit my friends there in the future, but I will have to wait until it’s safe due to the lingering danger of mines and other war-related dangers.

How has art played a role in your life since you left Ukraine? Was it challenging for you to cultivate your passion for art or work on it here in Barcelona ?

Art has played a significant part in my life. I’m an art history teacher and have over 15 years of experience in the arts industry, as well as three different degrees in various arts and design fields. 

In Barcelona, I collaborated with a gallery director to start lectures specifically about Ukrainian art and culture. I believe it is essential to rediscover and appreciate Ukrainian art and national self-identity, which has become even more crucial since the war started. 

Ukrainian artists were often educated in Europe, so they share connections with European artists. Some famous Ukrainian artists like Kazimir Malevich and Kandinsky, are sometimes mistakenly called Russian, yet they are Ukrainian!

So this interest in Ukrainian art grew following the start of the war?

Yes, after the war started, I felt the need to focus more on Ukrainian art and artists. After February 24, 2022, there was a strong urge to self-identify as Ukrainian and to appreciate our own culture and history. I believe that it is essential to be true to our roots and embrace our Ukrainian identity. 

Ukraine Now aims to raise awareness across Europe about refugee movements after media coverage decrease, in order to develop new approaches to communication on migration and facilitate the inclusion of displaced people into local communities. It brings together four organisations at the European level: Mareena (Slovakia), ARCA (Romania), OCC (Greece), and OCC (Spain).

This project is co-funded by the European Union through Erasmus+.