Ukrainian mothers abroad stuck between guilt and uncertainty
The UN says nearly five million Ukrainians, mostly women and chidren, have been registered as refugees across Europe since the Russian invasion - Oleksandra Osadcha/AFP

For more than three months Oleksandra Osadcha, who fled Ukraine with her two children at dawn on February 24, drove from one country to another trying to find a place that "feels like home".

Russia invaded Ukraine that day, and the 26-year-old social media and marketing manager immediately made a decision to leave, threw things into her car and set off for the Polish border.

But, after two weeks in Poland and a month and a half in Portugal, the young woman finally resigned herself to the idea that she would feel like a stranger everywhere.

Now, she has to start building a new life for the sake of her seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son.

"The most difficult thing psychologically is to settle down and stop running around looking for a place that feels like home, to start arranging a new life, to accept that you will not go back home any time soon and accept that now you're nobody here," Osadcha told AFP from Bologna, Italy.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR says nearly five million Ukrainians have been registered as refugees across Europe since the Russian invasion, in what it has dubbed "one of the largest human displacement crises in the world".

And the refugees are mostly women with young children, as Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are unable to leave the country due to military conscription.

These women have to "adapt in stressful conditions", psychologist Anna Prosvetova said.

"The absence of the usual social circle plus the lack of familiar support, plus a feeling of loneliness and isolation from home, plus the understanding that there's no one to rely on in this situation -- it's all mentally difficult," she explained.

Full responsibility

"The woman takes full responsibility. She has to earn money, she has to organize her life, she has to organize her kids' leisure time by herself," said Anna Kaliukh, 34-year-old French teacher, who fled to Poland with her two children.

She also managed to persuade her parents to leave her native Severodonetsk, a city in the east of Ukraine which is now the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.

Kaliukh's mother had first refused to leave her house, fearful to start a new life abroad at the age of 61 without knowing the language.

"The biggest challenge is finding a job," Kaliukh said, adding that her mother finally succeeded in Krakow, as she has extensive experience as a hairdresser.

Osadcha said her two children are still constantly with her, which makes it even more difficult to look for a job.

"I was lucky, because I had some savings and was able to do at least part of my work remotely, but in general, of course, it's difficult," she added.

Guilt and uncertainty

Psychologist Daria Bondar says there's another problem for Ukrainian women abroad and it lies in the contrast between the peaceful life they see around them and the horrors of the war they know from the news from home.

These women are "downplaying their feelings and experiences in comparison with the grief of the whole country/other people" and they feel a certain sense of guilt because they are safe in the distance, Bondar said.

"Ukraine is our home, our native land, and we never thought about leaving it," Kaliukh said, adding that she watches the news every day and is filled with pride in the Ukrainian army and hatred for Russia.

Osadcha said she is stuck between feeling "I need to start a new life here" and "I'm going home right now", but tries to separate her emotions from the objective risks.

"I completely lost my sense of security at home. I know for sure that now in Ukraine I will not be able to send children to kindergarten or school, because if they attack again I would not be close to them", the young woman said.

"I do not want them to get used to sirens and explosions," she added.

"So when talking about the circumstances for returning home, I would probably like to be at least 90 percent sure that this will never happen again and that I can sleep peacefully with my children at our home".

© 2022 AFP