“I have been displaced three times” Iryna recalls. “Since 2014, we have fled fighting in the east of Ukraine twice, and then last year we had to leave Ukraine entirely due to the full-scale invasion.”
In June 2014, Iryna and her then 6-year-old daughter were forced to leave their home in Luhansk due to the upsurge in fighting as a result of the conflict in Donbas after the annexation of Crimea. Leaving her parents and wider family behind for the first time, Iryna fled with her daughter to Kharkiv – a city still in eastern Ukraine, but under the control of the Kyiv government.
In October 2014, having had almost no contact with her family for four months, Iryna decided she must return to her home in Luhansk to find out what had happened. By this time, Luhansk city and almost half of Luhansk region was what the international community was calling ‘the non-government controlled area’, but the initial fighting had calmed to the point they could cross the frontline – which was known as the ‘Line of Contact’. They crossed at Stanytsia Luhanska bridge, the only way in and out of non-government controlled Luhansk.
Upon returning home to Luhansk, Iryna was thankful to find that her family were safe and well, but she was shocked by the control the new de facto authorities had put in place. She knew instinctively that she wanted to leave again, recognising that “the situation was tense with fighting along the Line of Contact” a matter of 10km from Luhansk city. However, she explained “it was almost three years before it was safe enough” for them to flee once again.
In mid-2017, Iryna and her daughter – now 9 years old – saw that the fighting was quiet enough during the daytime to cross at Stanytsia Luhanska bridge in order to return to government-controlled territory. In June 2017, despite her family refusing to leave their property in Luhansk, Iryna and her daughter decided they must go once again to escape the fighting.
After travelling across the country, they arrived in Kyiv. “Life in Kyiv was normal”, she explained, saying it “seemed a million miles” from Luhansk and eastern Ukraine. In Kyiv, Iryna found an apartment to rent, enrolled her daughter in school, and began to work for the Government of Ukraine. Kyiv became their new home for nearly five years – that was until 2022, with the start of full-scale war in Ukraine.
In April 2022, with fighting at their door once more, they once again packed-up what they could carry and fled. This time the destination was outside of Ukraine, and having heard of friends travelling to Romania, they made their way to Suceava in the north of Romania.
Once over the border to Romania, they met volunteers who provided them with food and support. “I remember so clearly, the volunteers at Suceava train station gave us delicious green tomatoes, chicken, and oats – it was simple, but it was the most delicious taste I have ever had” Iryna said.
“Romania has given us a second – or even third – chance at life.”
From Suceava, they took the train to Bucharest. Once in Bucharest, Iryna went to the RomExpo multiservice centre that is run by UNHCR, IOM, and other UN Agencies together with the Government of Romania. At RomExpo she says she found out about IOM, and through IOM was able to secure short-term accommodation for her first month here.
“IOM Romania provided us with a lovely place to live for a month, through the Airbnb shelter programme” Iryna explained. “This gave me a chance to get on my feet here” she added.
Having established herself, and with her daughter attending Romanian school, Iryna said she wanted to “give something back” and to help others coming from Ukraine. Since August 2022, she began to work for IOM Romania at the Ukraine Information Centre, and then in 2023 moved to become a call handler for the Ukraine Call Centre run by the Government of Romania with IOM and the other UN Agencies in Romania.
With great sadness, Iryna reflected on the life she left behind. She explained that her mother had just passed away in Luhansk a few weeks ago, and that she had not seen her since leaving Luhansk the second time in 2017. “I love Ukraine, it is my country. But for now, Romania is our new home, where we have found safety” Iryna explains. “Romania has given us a second – or even third – chance at life.”
Now in Bucharest, where her daughter just turned 15 years old, and Iryna explained, “The people in Romania have been so welcoming, it was a real surprise to me. Even in Kyiv we did not experience such hospitality and warmth as we have in Bucharest.”
IOM Romania’s inclusion work in 2023 is supported by the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB) through the Migrant and Refugee Fund (MRF), the German Federal Foreign Office, the Government of Japan, the Government of the Republic of Korea, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).
For more information on how to contact IOM Romania and access the inclusion programming please visit: https://romania.iom.int/contact-us
Written by James Michael Wilson, photography by Galina Tutunaru and from Iryna’s personal archive