Iryna Khyliuk and Yaroslav Velychko: There’s no way out. We just have to move forward

Iryna, her husband Yaroslav and their son Myroslav (8) are a young family from the town of Vyshhorod in the Kyiv region. We met them through NAUTIS, the National Institute for Autism, because Myroslav is an autistic child. “The war taught us that we should not put down our roots too deep in one place,” the young couple begins their story.

Iryna and Yaroslav got to know each other under rather unusual circumstances – during the Orange Revolution in 2004. “We went there together and became even closer after that. Before the war, we lived in Vyshhorod and worked constantly in Kyiv,” explains Yaroslav and Iryna adds: “The whole town lives like that: people leave for Kyiv in the morning and return home in the evening.” However, their routine changed on February 24, 2022.

What do you remember about the first day of the war? How did you manage to escape?

Yaroslav: There is a town near Vyshhorod where a military base was located. It was bombed on the first day of the war. We lived on the 15th floor, so our house was shaking incredibly from all these explosions. In the morning, there was smoke behind our windows. We were not ready for the war – nobody expected that it could happen.

Iryna: My father came to pick us up, and we had all the documents collected. We were basically prepared to leave since the Crimean crisis in 2014. We took everything we could, left our place and went to my parents. They live near the Kyiv hydroelectric power plant. We stayed at my parents’ house until March 15 and then, we went to get our son’s special document that proves his disability, because without it, it would not be possible for us to go abroad.

Yaroslav: After we got Myro’s documents, we went to Mukachevo, from where we crossed the border with Hungary. Volunteers met us there, took us to the train station and put us on the train. We got to Budapest, where volunteers also found locals who provided us with accommodation for the night. People in Budapest warmly welcomed us in their home. The next day we went to Prague, where we arrived on March 19.

“The family that hosted us in Budapest remembered the events related to the occupation of Hungary. They were very compassionate towards us and our homeland,” say Iryna and Yaroslav.

How hard was it to leave your homeland?

Yaroslav: It was very difficult to say goodbye to everyone in one day and leave everything behind. But when you have rockets exploding next to you and planes flying overhead, you don’t think about the fact that you need jackets, furniture, or any things in general. You just take what you need and go.

When the waitress brings our drinks, Yaroslav thanks her in Czech.

So, you do speak Czech?

Yaroslav: I’m trying to, it is very inconvenient when you do not understand people and cannot communicate with them. We try to learn Czech on our own: I practice on YouTube and learning apps, and Ira studies with the help of textbooks. I also work with Czechs, which helps me to practice a lot. I found a job installing fireplaces, which I learned how to do in the Czech Republic. But for the last 3 years, I worked in Kyiv as a taxi driver.

What about you, Iryna? What were you doing back in Ukraine?

Iryna: I ran my own business selling protective gear, and I had the opportunity to work remotely over the phone. During the last year I also worked as a sewer. First, it was my hobby, and then I decided to learn more and got a job in an atelier.

Iryna and Yaroslav’s optimism and positivity is something to be admired.

Why did you choose Prague?

Yaroslav: We had friends in the Czech Republic who left for Prague in the first days of the war. For the first week after our arrival, we lived with them.

Iryna: But soon we also got help from the volunteers at the congress centre we registered at. They found a family – very kind people, who let us stay in the apartment. We were living there for free during the first six months, and now we are renting this place. It is a nice apartment with a backyard and all amenities.

Yaroslav: We were very surprised by such a warm welcome. It turns out that there are kind people in the world. People who want to help and do not ask for anything in return.

Your eight-year-old son Myroslav, who is autistic, also found a new home here. When did you realise he was different from the other kids?

Yaroslav: At the age of two, first signs of autism began to appear, but we did not even know about the existence of such handicap.

Iryna: I began to notice that Myroslav was a little extraordinary, and then I saw the word “autism” in a dream, so I began to look for its meaning on the internet. Yaroslav: And since then, our life has changed. We started to look for places where we could find specialists, and we searched for different ways how to deal with it. At first, we thought that there was some magic pill that he could take to make everything fine. But, unfortunately, that is impossible.

Myro attended a kindergarten in Kyiv, one that specialises in taking care of children with autism and Down’s syndrome. Were there no similar facilities in Vyshgorod?

Iryna: There was a center for children with handicaps, but it was designed for the entire Vyshgorod district. It was difficult to get a place there, and the center also had a more individual approach without allowing children to fully socialize. We wanted Myroslav to grow up among other children and communicate with them – and that’s why we chose the Kyiv kindergarten. This year, Myro was supposed to start going to an inclusive class with an assistant at a regular school, this time in Vyšhorod. But the war changed our plans, so Myroslav goes to school here, in Prague, where he has a teaching assistant. He was nervous at first, but during the last week, the teachers complimented him a lot. They say that Myroslav has become more attentive and focused.

Myroslav is very happy about the toy cars the waitress at the café has kindly offered him.

How difficult is it to find appropriate specialists or diagnostics in Ukraine?

Yaroslav: Autism awareness in Ukraine is not very high. Many people do not face autism every day, and some don’t even know that it exists. There are multiple specialists in Kyiv, but only private ones. There are very few public institutions or specialists.

At first, it was very difficult for us, and we did not even know whom to contact. We searched for everything ourselves using the internet: symptoms, specialists, psychologists. There were almost no specialized kindergartens when we found out about Myroslav’s symptoms. They only started to open in the last few years.

The waitress at the coffee shop gives Myroslav a variety of toys, which he plays with during the interview. Sometimes, he starts walking around the place or counting something, because he is very good at math. “Myroslav is very hyperactive, he cannot sit still. He constantly needs to do something,” laughs his mum Iryna.

For people with autism, sudden changes are usually stressful. How did Myroslav cope with the unexpected situation?

Yaroslav: Pretty well. Throughout our life, we have already moved apartments 3 or 4 times in Vyshhorod. Myroslav reacts quite calmly to the relocation, and even moving to the Czech Republic did not bring him that much stress. The same also goes to Ira and me. As for the air raid alarms and sirens, Myroslav did not respond to them, but when the air defence forces started shooting down missiles, he always got scared and ran away.

You found specialized help at the National Institute of Autism (NAUTIS). How did you come across the organization?

Iryna: Not really. There are about five mothers I speak with, but we mostly communicate through Viber. Each of them is now busy with enrolling her child in a kindergarten. We came across some specialists among Ukrainian refugees on Telegram, but all the professionals that worked with Myroslav in the past have fled the war to the Western Ukraine. But the kindergarten our son attended in Kyiv still remains open.

Myroslav hardly speaks and cannot form sentences. He communicates by sounds or singing. For him, singing is one of the means of stimulating the nervous system.

Did you have the opportunity to meet other Ukrainian families with autistic children in Prague?

Iryna: Not really. There are about five mothers I speak with, but we mostly communicate through Viber. Each of them is now busy with enrolling her child in a kindergarten. We came across some specialists among Ukrainian refugees on Telegram, but all the professionals that worked with Myroslav in the past have fled the war to the Western Ukraine. But the kindergarten our son attended in Kyiv still remains open.

Myroslav likes to focus on specific things – for example, he is very fond of counting.

What about you – how do you spend your time in the Czech Republic?

Iryna: We do a lot of different things. On the weekends, we go for walks in the woods. There is also a yard in the house where we live, and we take care of it. Prague is very beautiful, everything is blooming during spring and summer months – it soothes our soul. Myroslav also loves the trams, so sometimes we ride around and explore the city.

We watch the news every morning,” says Yaroslav. “We have parents in Ukraine, and other friends and relatives. Almost no one we know has left the country.”

Seems like you have adapted to the new life in Prague.

Yaroslav: Our life here is not very different from the one we had before. It’s mostly the small things that surprise us. In the Czech Republic, for instance, there are no high-rise buildings, and people here still use regular mail for many purposes. As for returning home, we do not have a clear answer to this question yet. Ira wants to eventually go back, but we don’t know what will happen after the war.

What have you learned from this experience, both positively and negatively?

Yaroslav: The only positive thing is that we now have a chance to get to know the Czech Republic and we’ve met many new people. Of course, there are more negatives, because we had to leave our home and loved ones behind. This experience taught us that we should not put down our roots too deep in one place. You have to live in a way that, if necessary, allows you to just pack up and go.

Most people cannot imagine fleeing their home. What helps you to move forward?

Yaroslav: There’s no other way out. We just have to move forward.

The family of Iryna, Yaroslav and Myroslav can overcome all difficulties together.


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