On February 24th 2022, everything changed. The war started. Liudmyla and her family had to leave their home and loved ones behind. They escaped to the Czech Republic, the small town of Ledenice in southern Bohemia. From time to time, they spend time in Prague too. And that’s also where we meet to talk about their experience.
The cozy Tvaroh café is lively on a Saturday morning since this is a popular brunch place. While their sons are having breakfast and watching cartoons on their phones, Liudmyla and Oleksandr start telling their story.
How was your life in Ukraine before the war?
Oleksandr: Just fine! I used to work in the gas sector for 13 years. Two years ago, I opened my own company that specializes in gas services for companies, restaurants and bars. Everything was OK before the war, the business was doing great.
Liudmyla: I worked as a wedding planner, raising our children and balancing that with arranging events. My mother helped me a lot with the kids, and with the 4th child, we hired a nanny. Everything was perfectly organized. The household was established: shortly before the war, we moved from a flat to a house outside of Odessa, lived there for 1.5 years, got a dog. Then we had to pack up and leave everything behind.
Oleksandr, you are an officer, and in 2018 you joined the National Guard Reserve. Were you called into service when the war started?
Oleksandr: Yes, I was called to the military unit and had to serve. However, after 3 weeks, I decided to leave, as my wife and our four children were living in our basement at that time – I did not want them to suffer like that. At first, we didn’t know where to go. Anyway, on March 16, we left Odessa, crossed the border with Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria and made it to the Czech Republic.
Why did you decide to escape to the Czech Republic?
Oleksandr: In 2019, apart from my main job, I had a part-time job in Prague in the transportation sector. The Czech language is more or less understandable for me, and Czech people also welcomed us very well. All conditions indicated that our family would be better off in the Czech Republic than anywhere else, so we decided to stay here.
Did you experience any difficulties, leaving Ukraine?
Oleksandr: There were none, because I had a legitimate reason (laughs and looks at the children).
Liudmyla: At the border, the customs officers immediately analyzed the birth certificates of our children. We crossed the border very quickly, in about 15 minutes. In mid-March, there were no longer such large queues at the border as there were at the beginning of the war.
Speaking of children, how did they perceive the outbreak of war?
Liudmyla: On February 24, rockets flew past our house, and I thought it was the end. Oleksandr left to serve in the National Guard on February 25th. I took all kids into the basement and refused to leave, until my parents arrived, and my friends started calling, persuading me to come out. It was probably my strong fear that was the determining factor in us going abroad.
How did your children understand this change?
Oleksandr: They took it as an adventure. They didn’t feel any discomfort during our trip to the Czech Republic.
Liudmyla: Perhaps it will come back to them later, and they will remember the experience. However, when the children saw the whole family was travelling together, they knew everything was going to be alright.
Oleksandr: From time to time, our eldest son Misha misses our dog. He was always dreaming of having a dog, even sparing money he got from his grandmother for all the holidays, and when we moved into the house, we also added some money and bought a black Labrador retriever. We named him Nike – yes, like the famous sports brand. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take the dog with us. There was no space in our car, and we didn’t want the dog to suffer the long trip. Now Nike is staying with our parents, and they are looking after him.
You live close to České Budějovice, the biggest city in Southern Bohemia. Why did you choose this place?
Oleksandr: When we decided to stay in the Czech Republic, Liuda called her friend Inna, who was already living there, and arranged that we would meet a Czech woman called Jana not far from České Budějovice, in the town of Domanín. Jana helped us a lot with organizing our stay, finding accommodation, and arranging documents. That’s why we stayed here.
Liudmyla: Jana let us stay on the second floor of her house, while she was living on the first floor. We agreed to stay there for 40 days, for which we were very grateful for, and then we had to look for a new place.
Oleksandr: Everything was fine, but due to the fact that we have four children, and they can be quite noisy, we often felt uncomfortable and didn’t want to disturb Jana too much with our presence.
So, you registered in social housing.
Oleksandr: Yes. While we were staying at Jana’s house, we realized that we need to find a new place for our family soon. I registered at the labor center and found a job in the field of air engineering. There, I was asked whether our family had accommodation.
I got a call from work and was told to come up to Ledenice to see the place. When we arrived to see the house, we asked about the rent, and there was some fixed amount that we were prepared to pay. However, our question was answered with “nic”, which means “nothing” in Czech.
Liudmyla: We offered to pay at least for internet and utilities, but they wouldn’t even let us do that. We are thankful to this family who welcomed us as their own. In half a year of knowing each other, we have become very close, and we feel like a part of their big family. Now, we have an agreement to stay in their place for a year, until May 2023.
Oleksandr: And that’s a good period of time for us to settle in. When we first arrived, it was quite difficult without knowing the language, everything seemed new and not quite understandable.
Do your children go to a kindergarten and school?
Liudmyla: Misha finished his Ukrainian classes online and was immediately enrolled in Czech school in Ledenice back in May, in the same grade he went to in Odessa. Havrylo and Savelii go to kindergarten. The school and kindergarten are very conveniently located – they are in the center of Ledenice, next to each other. There is also a sports stadium, where the children play football and volleyball. During the day, I only look after the youngest family member – Heorhii.
What help does the Czech Republic provide to families with many kids, apart from social housing?
Liudmyla: In Ukraine, there was a program of state support for large families. In the Czech Republic, the conditions are the same for each family, no matter the size. In school and kindergarten, we pay the full cost of everything – which is fine, we do not feel entitled to any more benefits. Nevertheless, the Red Cross organization helped us with children’s clothes, stationery for school, and Misha was even given a new laptop for studying. But the aid did not depend on the number of children, it was given to all families. We were assisted as much as possible with everything we needed. Social allowances from the state for children and state health insurance are also a major help to our family.
What about you as parents – have you arranged a new life for yourself in the Czech Republic?
Liudmyla: I have already organized one wedding this summer in Prague. Now, I also have requests for weddings next summer, and I’m involved in arranging events for brides from Ukraine. My clients are mostly girls who have lived here for a long time, or those who came to the Czech Republic after the outbreak of war to be with their future husbands. So far, it’s all on an amateur level, but it’s already a good start.
Oleksandr: I work in the field of air engineering, because I studied as a heating, gas, and ventilation engineer. They hired me as soon as they found out I had a degree. I mostly work with Czechs.
Liudmyla: But my husband already knows Czech much better than I do! (laughs). He comprehends and speaks it in shops and cafes.
Do you plan to come back to Ukraine after the war?
Oleksandr: For now, we have decided to stay here and have no plans of moving elsewhere.
Liudmyla: We are now actively establishing our life in the Czech Republic. Oleksandr has a job; I’m developing in terms of organizing events and my own career. We also don’t want to take the children here and there and change their living conditions too often.
Oleksandr: In general, we’re already like nomads, because we can adapt to any circumstances. Of course, we have our house and parents in Ukraine, and I continue to run my business remotely and pay taxes as well.
Do the children feel any difference from their homeland?
Liudmyla: I suppose they don’t. Sasha is at work all week, and every weekend, we go out with the kids. We travel to other cities, visit the zoo and the parks… We used to be that active at home too, going to the different places every weekend. That’s why we can say that life in the Czech Republic hasn’t been a radical change for the children. They see that Oleksandr and I feel good here, so they feel good too.
What would be your advice to families with many children coming to the Czech Republic from Ukraine?
Liudmyla: The whole system of documentation, enrollment in school or kindergarten, and employment… All of this is already in place. Therefore, the most important thing is to believe in yourself.