We’re meeting at one of the two Křižanov restaurants. As soon as Andrii and his son Mark enter the room, some of the guests start greeting them. “These are local people, the Pipa family. They have been helping us from day one,” explains Andrii. “We’re well known among locals. They’ve been very welcoming.” Andrii has been learning Czech to understand them better, which he demonstrates right away. “Jednu kávu, prosím. A malou Kofolu pro syna,” he orders and starts telling his story.
It’s a pity your daughter Sofia couldn’t join.
Unfortunately. She’s working, now that I have to stay at home taking care of Mark, it’s mainly her who provides for the family. She is a very independent girl, and I’m lucky to have her. Fortunately, we also receive regular allowances from the state.
So, you’re not able to work at all?
I have to drive Mark to school every morning and be with him all the time. The school is in Velké Meziříčí, we take the bus at 7 AM, Mark goes to school, then I wait and bring him back to Křižanov. I can’t leave Mark on his own. He can’t, let’s say, cut bread or make tea by himself. Sometimes, I get the chance to do some part-time jobs. That’s when I ask my neighbours from the castle to look after Mark. Perhaps in autumn, I will be hired as a janitor to look after the grounds of the castle where we live. This way, I can help and take care of Mark.
You actually have a degree in History from Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Back in Ukraine, did you work in your field?
No, I never worked in my profession, because the salaries in this field were very low. I tried to work in the state structures: I used to work for about a year in the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. Then, I was trying my luck in business. My last job was in Odessa in security services, where I worked for 3 years.
When did you realise Mark had autism?
When Mark turned three, the doctors diagnosed him with autism. I had to give up all my ambitions and dreams and take care of my son. A special feature of his condition is that he becomes attached to places and people. Therefore, he is very attached to me.
Did Mark attend school in Kyiv?
Yes, at first, he went to a regular school in Kyiv, to an inclusive class. However, his studies didn’t go well, and we were transferred to home education. Mark’s grandfather, my father, took full responsibility for his education. In the autumn of 2021, Mark went to a boarding school and stayed there until the outbreak of the war.
What do you remember about February 24?
At 5AM, explosions woke me up. After the first one, my daughter came to me, Mark was still asleep at that time. More explosions followed, and I realised that the war had begun. Of course, I was depressed and had absolutely no idea what to do. On the first day of the war, there were huge queues at shops and pharmacies – I spent the whole day buying food and medicine, I bought a lot of things in panic. My father told me to do so since he used to be a military spy and has experienced war too.
How did your kids manage?
Sofia was very frightened during the first days of the war, living and sleeping in the bathroom. After four days, she said she would like to leave Ukraine. We went to the railway station, and I guided her to the evacuation train. My sister met Sofia in Poland and took her to Germany, where she has been living for a long time. Me, Mark and my 70-year-old father stayed in Kyiv, because he refuses to travel at his age. I didn’t want to leave my father on his own, so going abroad was not a priority for me. I accepted the situation and decided – let it be what it should be.
But finally, you and Mark left too.
I changed my mind as soon as we were exposed to missile and shelling fire. Mark and I went for a walk. The first missile flew by, and it was shot down by the air defence forces about 200 metres away from us. There was such a strong explosion that my ears blocked immediately, and I had a slight concussion. Then, there was a second explosion. I was confused, but thanks to Mark, we managed to escape. He immediately ran and hid under a house arch. I ran after him. After that, he said to me: “Dad, we must leave. I’m very scared.
How difficult was it for you, as a single father, to escape the war? Did you face any problems at the border?
At the time when we decided to leave, the ban preventing men aged from 18 to 60 from leaving the country was already in place. However, I made enquiries and found out that given my situation with Mark, it was possible to leave with certain documents. I had everything prepared and we were ready to leave. My father drove us to the Polish-Ukrainian pedestrian border in Lviv, we crossed it and spent the night in a refugee centre in Poland. That’s where we met a very nice guy Alex from Austria who drove us straight to Prague. We left on March 25, a month after the war had started. On March 27, we were already in Prague.
How did you explain the situation to Mark?
Mark, why don’t you explain why we went abroad?
Mark: Because the war had started, and we were being shot at.
Yes, Mark told me himself: “Dad, we won’t survive. We’re going to be shot and killed.”
Why did the Czech Republic become the country for you to move to?
Initially, I was planning to go to Germany and stay with my sister. But when we crossed the pedestrian border and ended up in Poland at the transit point, I realised that we should not go to Germany. Ever since the explosions, Mark began to experience meltdowns: he was running, screaming, banging his head against the wall, covering his ears. Everyone tried to calm him down, a psychologist came to see him. In this state, I decided not to take him to my sister, as she has two small children, and my daughter was also with her. I started considering other options and remembered my neighbour from Kyiv, Jano, a Georgian. He, his ex-wife and three children moved to Prague. He was living in a hostel and I decided we’d go there too and rent a room in the same place. Later on, my daughter joined us too.
What came next?
When we arrived and settled in the hostel, we went straight to the visa centre to get our documents. There were huge queues, but a kind woman noticed us and let us go to the front. I did not ask for it – the volunteers did everything themselves. I felt quite guilty, there were small children, pregnant women, and elderly people ahead of us in the queue – and we got through without waiting. It felt inappropriate.
Did Mark get professional help?
Fortunately, he did. Jano helped me find a contact for a professional institution, NAUTIS (National Institute for Autism). We got in touch with Sara Urakbayeva, a psychologist and therapist. She took Mark out of his breakdown after our arrival in the Czech Republic. She insisted that we come to NAUTIS and gave Mark several sessions free of charge. This helped him a lot and I’m grateful.
How did you end up in Křižanov?
After spending a month in the hostel, the social services found a summer house for us in Kundratice, but we could only stay there for a couple of months. Luckily, we met a kind woman called Ivana, who referred us to social services in Jihlava, a town in the south-east of the Czech Republic. Just one hour after our visit, we found accommodation in a nearby town, Křižanov. And here we are, in the castle. Disabled children used to live here, and now it’s a home to refugees from all over Ukraine. Each family has their room. As soon as we had arrived, we were provided with food, as well as all the necessary household utensils. It felt like coming to a Hilton hotel! (laughs). Mark is also comfortable here – there are children, animals, and a large garden around the castle.
Have you noticed any differences between Czech and Ukrainian mentality?
The differences are very noticeable. When we lived in Kyiv, many people didn’t understand Mark, they would call him names and yell at him. I was often told that I was bringing him up badly. I couldn’t prove anything to anyone, I accepted their approach and just tolerated it. Here in the Czech Republic, even in the countryside, people are all so tolerant and friendly. When we came to the playground for the first time, I was expecting conflicts, because we often experienced similar situations in Ukraine. But here, the children play with Mark, socialise, and not once did they make fun of him.
Does Mark like it here in Křižanov? Does he miss home?
Once, I asked Mark if he wanted to come home. He did not want to hear about it and was panicking for another two days. And I understand why. Here, children like Mark are treated with empathy, and he senses it. Mark doesn’t miss home at all, just his grandfather. Sometimes, he talks with him via a video call and asks for a home tour.
How is Mark coping with the language barrier?
The Vysočina region has provided us with a wonderful teacher who comes to the castle three times a week and teaches children and adults. We are learning Czech together with Mark. The teachers only speak Czech, and Mark understands everything, but he can’t speak yet.
You’ve mentioned Mark does not want to return to Ukraine. What about you?
No one knows what will happen in Ukraine. For the upcoming few years, I don’t see any prospects for myself there. Considering that I’m learning the Czech language and I plan to continue, I will try to establish myself here and if possible, find a suitable job too. I would really like to set up my own business in the future.
Looks like your biggest motivation to move forward, despite difficult circumstances, are your children, right?
Yes. I had ambitious plans for my career, and I was often traveling for work. However, these plans were at odds with my family. I realised that my family was a cross to bear, and my children were my guardian angels. Mark taught me a lot about life – patience, humbleness. And I am grateful to him for that.