”Mamma, if you could choose to have a superpower, what would It be?”
“I think I’d choose to teleport. Then I could teleport myself home back to our apartment and back to dad. What would you choose?”
“No mamma, that’s not right. First, I would teleport myself to Russia and kill Putin with my hockey stick. THEN I would teleport myself back home”. Nina is 5 years old.
Nina, her mother, Anna, her 10-year-old sister, Oksana, and their Maltese poodle, Baron, left their home in Kiev two weeks ago. They made their way to the Polish border, avoiding roadblocks and sleeping in their car until they could cross to safety.
From there, a Polish airline offering free flights to Stockholm flew them 1000km northwest to their new life in Sweden. Andrej, Nina’s 37-year-old father has stayed behind in Ukraine. The family’s old, but loved Mercedes, waits for their return in a long-term parking lot in Poland.
I greet Anna outside the front door of our home in Stockholm on a cold, clear spring day. She has 2 heavy suitcases with unknown contents that were donated to her at the airport in Poland.
Nina is carrying a fluffy toy in one hand and is holding tightly onto her mother’s hand with the other. Her older sister is carrying a broccoli fluffy toy (broccoli is her favorite vegetable) and Baron is barking and desperately trying to get out of his little carrier box. Anna has one small bag of her own.
We take Baron out of the airline box and take him outside. He runs desperate circles around his tail until he finally finds just the right spot on the cold grass to do what he needs. The girls see the trampoline in our garden and are immediately on it. Anna lights a vape. Her gaze is weary. She looks exhausted.
She tells me they’ve been up since 2 am and been on the go for 5 days. We watch the little girls jump for a few minutes and I run around with the little dog. When Nina finally gives a squeal of delight from the trampoline, Anna breaks out in a huge, beautiful smile.
She looks up to the sky, brings her palms together, and whispers something into the air. I can see she’s close to tears and instinctively go to her and hug her tightly. “You’re safe now. It’s all going to be ok”, I tell her. It sounds and feels like we’re all actors in a movie.
How does one re-start a life from nothing in an unknown country with no connections and a foreign language? Where is the manual for how to manage to flee your home where a war is raging? Anna is as baffled as I am. I’m eager to make everything right for them. I try hard to be positive and cheerful, talking and laughing just a little too much.
She’s determined not to be a burden or a bother. She’s quiet and considerate and her children are polite but shy. We struggle to understand each other and there are many moments of awkward silence. She speaks basic English but I speak not a word of Ukrainian. I can’t even read their alphabet.
Our days together are intense - organizing and getting to know each other. Sometimes on our dog walks, a plane flies over us. Nina freezes and her sister Oksana looks wearily up into the sky. I have no words to comfort them and I have no reference points to even begin to understand their trepidation. How are we born into the lives we have? Why are some of us born poor, or rich, white or black, in war-torn countries or in peaceful ones?
Sweden has opened its doors to Ukrainians and one of our neighbors also has a mother and her child living with them. When I suggest that the children should meet, Anna thanks me and declines. She doesn’t want her daughter to make a new friend that she could lose again when the families find long-term accommodation somewhere else. Great loss has already become part of Nina’s five-year-old life.
It's hard to imagine that our new friends are refugees. What does that even mean? They seem just like us. The girls play and chat and watch TV. Anna works on her computer. Baron sleeps; curled up and close by. I talk about work and food and holidays. I catch myself wondering how I can be talking about such banalities.
They’re not tourists in a new city. Can I suggest a visit to a museum? How do I classify them? Are they my guests? New friends? Family? Who or what is a refugee in a new country really? Can I ask whether they’d like to come bowling with us when they have nothing other than the clothes on their back?
Anna spends a lot of time at her computer reading the news, checking up on family, and looking for work. What she’s going through is hardly Instagram material. And my experience of them is not Instagram material either. Her mobile phone pings continuously.
She checks in with her husband every couple of hours throughout the day. I ask her how things are at home. She shows me photos and shakes her head. No words come except “it’s very hard”. The lump in her throat dares her to not cry in case she’s not able to stop.
I’ve suggested she meet other Ukrainian refugee families, but her answer is always no. The unity of hardship is simply too much to bear for the moment. She wants to forget and move on and not wallow in what has been. It’s enough to remember through the sleepless nights and the nervous smoking.
It’s Easter soon and the neighborhood children will be coming by dressed in Easter costumes and asking for chocolate eggs. Parents will be painting freckles on small cheeks and putting cheerful handkerchiefs on small heads before sending them off to knock on doors with baskets to fill. I’m hoping Nina and Oksana will want to participate.
We’ll look in the suitcase of donated children’s clothing for something appropriate. I really hope that for just another short while they can forget where they are and why; and what and who they’ve left behind.
Our community is a platform for travelers around the world to connect and share their unique travel experiences with exclusive access to travel resources, tips, and personal experiences. Want to get involved? Join our community, contribute your stories, or become a supporter today!