"It feels like it only started yesterday" – Ukrainian refugees reflect on the anniversary of Russia's invasion

Ukraine supporters protesting last year in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. / bne IntelliNews
By Dominic Culverwell in Lviv February 25, 2023

One year ago, Europe saw its largest influx of refugees since the Second World War. With Russia launching missiles across the entirety of Ukraine, millions woke up to the sounds of explosions and Russian tanks rumbling. It was a frenzied nightmare that few anticipated.

Over the first weeks of the invasion, millions boarded packed trains bound for the European Union, leaving behind friends, family and their lives, uncertain of what would await them. Although some have returned home, the UN estimates that over 8mn Ukrainian refugees are still living in Europe and many continue to face the challenges of adapting to a new country whilst dealing with the trauma of war one year down the line.

“It feels weird,” Yulia from Kyiv told bne IntelliNews, reflecting on the anniversary. “On the one hand, so many things happened; on the other hand, it still feels like it only started yesterday.”

Yulia lives in Germany; however, she is considering moving to the UK, where she has family members. She struggled with the move to Germany, particularly with the language barriers and building up a network from scratch.

“At the same time, now I understand it’s possible to survive in any situation in another country,” she added optimistically.

Yulia remains adamant that Ukraine will be victorious, stating that they don't have another choice. For now, she is keen to make the most of the opportunity to live abroad, but can also see her future back in Ukraine.

Tanya, a Poltava native, woke up on the anniversary experiencing the same emotions as February 24, 2022. She lay in her bed in the UK thinking about the uncertainty of the war as well as her family back in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, she too is certain that Ukraine will win. She is reassured by the words of the head of Ukrainian intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, who said that Ukraine will win by the end of this summer and return to its 1991 borders.

“But how many Ukrainians must die to stop the war,” she added.

Tanya has lived in two countries since being forced to flee Poltava, which borders the war-torn Kharkiv region. Initially, she went to Sweden with help from the company she worked for; however, she has since moved to the UK.

“It's been almost a year but it's still hard for me,” she said. “I always feel like I’m an immigrant; there are some cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. But the most difficult thing is that my family is far away.”

For now, Tanya is unsure if she will move back to Ukraine. She said she can only decide when Ukraine wins.

Chris and his girlfriend Lena were among the first wave of refugees fleeing their homes from Kyiv as quickly as they could. They left via Lviv to Poland and have been travelling across Europe ever since, spending time in both Spain and Germany, with Chris being able to leave the country as he is a US citizen.

“We feel disconnected a bit since we've been travelling around a whole lot, but we are remembering the tough times we went through, and the ones that [we] are still going through, and it's kind of a sombre thought,” they said.

Both feel that time has been warped, comparing it to the same feelings as the pandemic: “We feel like this vacuum due to not being able to come home to Kyiv,” they added.

Christoffer and Lena said there is no other option than for Ukraine to win. “It is an inevitability,” they both said. However, the high cost for Ukraine and the number of deaths means that victory isn’t necessarily a cause for joyful celebration right away.

“It’s going to be more like a breath of relief,” Christoffer explained.

“We will celebrate that we kicked them out (...) but you cannot ignore everything else; all the tears and pain that have been throughout,” Lena stressed.

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