Stories from Ukraine #2: Irina & Viktor

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

As part of the European project “Ukraine Now”, which shines a light on the situation of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, we met up with Irina & Viktor from Donetsk to talk about their journey to Barcelona and their current situation in Catalonia.  

Coming from the Donetsk region, the couple had been living in occupied territories since 2014, but were forced to flee, via Russia, in 2022 when the conflict intensified. 

We met up with them both at the offices of OCC Spain, in Barcelona, as they now both live in the city. This is Irina & Viktor’s story.

Well, the first question is very basic. If you could give us your name, age, and where you are from in Ukraine. 

Irina: My name is Irina, I’m 62 years old, and we were living in the Eastern part of Ukraine, the Donetsk region (“Makiyivka”).

Viktor: My name is Viktor, 67 years old, and obviously we live together in the same region.

When did you leave Ukraine and where did you go? 

Irina: So our daughter has been living here in Spain, in Barcelona, since 2020 and when the open conflict started in 2022, she was volunteering for the Red Cross and she was also translating and helping people who were coming as refugees. She insisted we move out from Ukraine… Even though that was very difficult, especially since 2014 with the open invasion. 

How did you get out of Ukraine? Was there a specific route?

Irina: It was a very complicated way actually, also because the territory was already occupied, so we were not able to enter Ukraine. Therefore, we had to cross the Russian border, go from the occupied territory to Russia, then cross the whole of Russia, go to Latvia, then go to Poland, and then finally to Spain. So all in all, it was more than 5000 km. 

By plane or other means of transport?

Irina: Everything by car. We were both driving. 

How were you feeling during those days?

Viktor: It was very hard physically but also mentally because it was very stressful. We had to spend 30 hours at the Russian border and then complete the whole journey. It took a week. 

The conditions were really, really tough. It was very cold and these were not conditions to stay in the car, there was no infrastructure. 

Irina: Yes, for example, there were no toilets, there were people standing in queues with children because there were no benches to sit down, etc. People were simply on the outside. The conditions were very tough. 

Is there anything, like any memory, any anecdote, anything specific details from your journey that you would like to share? 

Viktor: We were very focused on reaching our goal of finally arriving at our destination. It was very tiring, so we didn’t pay too much attention to whatever was happening outside. It was more a focus on basic needs, not to fall asleep while driving and to keep on going. 

How did you feel when you arrived?

Irina: We felt very lost during the journey and when we arrived we also felt very lost. It’s not that we arrived and everything was fine all of a sudden. There was this feeling of being lost.

Viktor: It’s more like a metaphor: I still have this feeling, when I first arrived in Barcelona and up until this day, that I’m on a train and there are people around and people are nice and helpful, but I’m always on the train and I don’t know when I will arrive at our final destination, I don’t know when I will get off this train, and therefore because there’s always this feeling that you’re on the way somewhere, you don’t feel like you want to invest in certain things, or to invest in people, etc. You are constantly in a transition. That’s the feeling I’ve been having.

Do you feel uncertain about the future?

Viktor: I do feel uncertainty, also because of my age, I do not really see my future here, even though I am trying to learn Spanish. Also in financial terms, since I do not have much of a financial income here, I’m still thinking of maybe finding the possibility to go back, to not become a burden to the family and to the system.

Is there a big Ukrainian community here in Barcelona? A safe space where you can still feel connected to Ukraine? 

Irina: Indeed, having the Ukrainian community is very good for us. I am part of a Ukrainian choir, which involves working with fellow choir singers. Being part of the choir contributes to feeling part of a community, creating friendships, and it provides a lot of support to me and to us.  

Is this initiative a new one that was created after the war, or was it created before?

Irina: It was created following the war; it is a relatively new project.

Looking back, what would you highlight as the hardest part of adapting to a new country, what presented as the most significant challenge? And were there any pleasant surprises?

Irina: The toughest part was actually making the decision to leave our country, knowing that there might be no turning back or that options for a return would be limited for a long time. This decision meant quitting our jobs, having no financial support, and facing the fact that returning would be complicated, given the fact that we are from an occupied territory. Making this conscious decision was the hardest part of the process.

On the positive side, transitioning to Barcelona was made easier by the fact that our daughter already lives here. We had visited Barcelona in the past and knew the environment and the city. The atmosphere in Barcelona is something we enjoy: the joy in the streets, the open atmosphere, the constant celebrations, are all positive elements.

Do you wish to share any additional insights or thoughts that we haven’t covered in our conversation?

Irina: We would like to thank Abuab for the invaluable support offered! The free excursions and concerts were particularly enjoyable and made us feel cared for and supported.

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that there is an organisation called  “Russians against the war” in Barcelona. The organisation is run by Russians who oppose the war, and support Ukrainian people. They organise language courses and other forms of assistance. Being supported by this organisation also created a sense of being supported and of belonging. 

Ukraine Now aims to raise awareness across Europe about refugee movements after media coverage decreases, 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+.