When the terror began, they fled – Finn Church Aid followed the first weeks of Ukraine’s war and how ordinary people became refugees

In spring 2022, first thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of Ukrainians crossed the border to neighbouring countries in search of safety. Even more Ukrainians are living as internally displaced people. We documented the refugee crisis and aid deliveries on the spot for three weeks.

2 March 2022. In east Ukraine, the main street of the small village of Barabás is calm, despite Europe going through its worst crisis since World War II. The border is just a few minutes’ drive away, and on the other side, in Ukraine, Russia’s brutal war of aggression is raging.

The local village house in Barabás has been turned into a refugee shelter, where Ukrainians who’ve left their homes and crossed the border can find safety. From there, they continue towards the Hungarian capital Budapest.

The refugee crisis that has resulted from the war looks somehow different to what we’re used to seeing in news images. The camps that we’ve seen in traditional refugee imagery are missing from the sides of the roads, and some people are driving to safety in their modern cars. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and their clothes are unscathed; yet still these people are running for their lives.

Inside the village house, there are tired families, to whom volunteers are serving food and drinks. The journey has been long, but the kids still have some energy left. They’re colouring at the tables, and you can hear someone giggle.

Luokkahuone, joka on täynnä tavarakasoja.

Tired families gathered inside the village house in Barabás.

Katunäkymä. Tien reunassa on pysäköitynä auto, jonka vieressä seisoo ihmisiä.

Barabás, a small city with a population of 700, is located in the border area between Ukraine and Hungary. It became the first point of humanitarian aid Finn Church Aid and its sister organisation HIA – Hungary shared when the Ukraine’s war began in February.

Chop railway station

Kristina is standing outside, and her eyes seem sore from crying. The young woman has fled Russian aggression twice already. In 2014, she left her home in Lugansk in east Ukraine, and she thought she’d be able to return home after three days.

The days turned into eight years, and Kristina settled in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. In February 2022, she had to flee again, and catching an evacuation train wasn’t easy.

“People started to panic and run and push each other. There were men to whom we tried to tell that children must be protected first, then women and lastly men. Everyone was trying to save themselves,” Kristina says. She fled together with her mother and cat.

Kristina escaped with her cat. She’s been living as a refugee since 2014 when she first had to leave her home in East Ukraine’s Lugansk.

At the railway station of Chop on the Ukrainian side of the border, an elderly lady sat in a half-empty departure lounge introduces herself as Nadiya Petrovna Chiripovskaya. She says she had started her journey from the badly bombed Kharkiv.

Mrs Nadiya describes the first strikes as loud and scary. The calendar says it’s 5 March, but it’s difficult for her to remember when the journey began: “My children just took me with them.”

Mrs Nadiya left her home city of Kharkiv after the first attacks reached the city.

Many people leave the border crossing with a broken heart. Men are wiping their eyes and hugging low-spirited women and children, who are going to cross the border to Hungary and head to safety. Men of fighting age turn their cars around to cross the Carpathian Mountains, heading back to their homes and bases. No one knows when they can see their loved ones again – or whether this was a goodbye.

Utuisen maiseman horisontissa kohoaa vuoria.

A scene from Berehove.

Border town school turned into refugee shelter

Although millions of Ukrainians have left their home country, an even larger number of people is living as internally displaced people within the borders of Ukraine. In the border town of Berehove, a school hosts almost 80 internally displaced Ukrainians. There are five bunks beds placed a small room, and there’s a family of five sitting on them: father Kirill, mother Ljubov, siblings Alica and Masha, and their relative Daria.

The family used to work at a theatre in Kharkiv and fled west as soon as the bombings and shelling began. Many loved ones stayed behind.

“They are hiding in basements, staying at metro stations for various days and trying to find food in inconceivable ways,” says father Kirill.

Kaksi naista ja kaksi tyttöä katsoo suoraan kameraan.

 Ljubov (back in the left), Daria, Alica (front) and Masha are from Kharkiv.

The family already misses having things to do. The following day, Kirill is going to go to a job interview, and the women are planning to weave protective nets for the Ukrainian army.

The other family staying in the room has a small cat, and the animal is jumping from one bed to another. Larissa, wearing a scarf around hear head, says that it took four days for the family to reach Berehove from Kharkiv.

“We’re happy to have a warm place to sleep, we get food three times a day, we can wash ourselves and do laundry.”

Larissa has cancer. In Kharkiv, she was given treatment, but the hospital has been destroyed by bombs. Now she wonders if it would be possible to be admitted to a Hungarian hospital, but she’s hesitant. The family members would end up apart, because her partner has to stay in Ukraine.

öinen katunäkymä. Taustalla näkyy kadun yli levittäytyvä jouluvalo.
öinen katunäkymä. Taustalla näkyy kadun yli levittäytyvä jouluvalo.

Angel-shaped Christmas lights are watching over the streets of Lviv in Western Ukraine.

Kaksi ihmistä kellarin käytävällä. Etualalla alas vievät rappuset.
Kaksi ihmistä kellarin käytävällä. Etualalla alas vievät rappuset.

A basement in Lviv, turned into a bomb shelter during air raids.

Air raid in Lviv

On 11 March, an air raid makes children and grownups jump out of their beds in Lviv, approximately 60 kilometres from the border with Poland. The time is 5.25, when the smartphone app starts to make a wailing sound. Quilted trousers on, coat on, two flights of stairs down, and to the basement door.

Two families with children come to the bomb shelter. One of the children is sneezing and coughing; another one finds a piece of chalk and draws a heart on the foundation of the shelter. Previously someone has played noughts and crosses on the staircase.

Anna and her cat Gorgik.

The girl continues her work tirelessly, and soon every stair in the bomb shelter is decorated with a lilac heart.

At 7.34, the app says that the danger is over.

Later on the same day, in the buzz of the Lviv railway station, we meet Anna, shivering in the station tunnel with her mother Natalia and cat Gorkik. The ginger animal leans firmly against Anna’s chest and trembles.

One day at a time

In the outskirts of Lviv, 6-year-old boy Kyryl is leaning against a door frame with a grin on his face. He’s full of energy, and he’s jumping up and down in a room with mattresses on the floor. After fleeing Kyiv, the little rascal has spent four days in a refugee shelter at a church.

Kyryl, 6, is happy to find a place to play after leaving his home in Kiev.

Next to him, his sister says that Kyryl probably doesn’t understand he’s escaping. Many parents tell a similar story: children see the situation as a peculiar holiday, and they continue playing whenever an opportunity arises.

Igor, his mom Natalia and baby Nastia.

Natalia Karpienko and her 9-year-old son Igor are staying in the room next door. On the bed lies the youngest guest of the shelter, Nastia. The two-month-old smells of sweet breastmilk, and she’s making happy sounds. Her small feet are kicking inside the playsuit, and there’s a white beanie on her head.

Natalia says they’ve come from the Kyiv region, near Boryspil. “When the bombings started at night, I didn’t know where to go. I was scared that our house would be destroyed. In this shelter I feel safe.”

400 meals a day

After mid-March, people have been fleeing the war for the fourth consecutive week. It’s striking to see that the border crossing between Hungary and Ukraine is now controlled by women in military outfits. Maybe all capable men are already fighting?

The border town of Berehove is full of internally displaced Ukrainians. Finn Church Aid and its sister organisation Hungarian Interchurch Aid are supporting refugees with food and material deliveries. The hardest work is done by local volunteers, who have been working around the clock for weeks to help refugees.

The kitchen at a refugee shelter set up in a school is managed by Ivonna Kobypyavska. She’s worked in the same kitchen for 27 years already, but now she’s feeding refugees instead of school children. Ivonna’s son went to fight in Kyiv, so she wanted to do something useful; hence, she continued to work in the kitchen without pay.

Neljä naista kuvattuna seinässä olevan ikkunan läpi. Naiset työskentelevät keittiössä.

A school kitchen in Berehove is feeding now 400 refugees a day.

Now Ivonna and her team prepare 400 meals a day to fill the stomachs of refugees. Just a month ago, she was feeding 40 school kids. She starts her days in the kitchen at 6am and goes home at 11pm.

“But it’s not a big deal,” Ivonna notes and smiles, looking baffled. Routine, routine, the translator says Ivonna has just told us.

On the top floor of the school, there’s still the theatre family from Kharkiv we met weeks ago. Mother Ljubov is worried, because for a few days the family hasn’t been able to contact friends in Mariupol. Larissa, the cancer patient staying in the same room, has been admitted to a hospital in a nearby town. Her partner and daughter have stayed at the shelter, as has their cat Bella. Bella is walking on the bed frame and playfully pokes her paws towards the guests.

Ljubov says that her husband Kirill hasn’t managed to find work yet. The future seems hazy, but three weeks at the shelter has made the family consider what to do next. Ljubov has been toying with ideas: maybe Poland, if she can find a suitable art project. We say goodbye to the family and wish them the best of luck.

In mid-April, we receive a message. Daria from the theatre family tells us she’s gone to Italy to try her wings. The other girls of the family are in Georgia, and father Kirill has stayed in Berehove.


Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen
Photos: Antti Yrjönen
Translation: Anne Salomäki

Tyttö istuu kyykyssä kapealla sillalla.

10-year-old Mariia fleed with her family from Kharkiv to West Ukrainian city Berehove. Mariia misses her school.

Junan kylki. Ikkunoiden takana näkyy junassa istuvia ihmisiä.

The war in Ukraine began on February 24th. Over 10 million people have fleed both inside and across the borders of Ukraine.