One year since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, Yuliya Gorbatova shares her journey from refugee to UNHCR Protection Officer
What Yuliya Gorbatova remembers most distinctly about the first night Russian bombs fell on her home town of Odesa, a port city of a million people on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, is the reaction of her young daughter.
“There had been a lot of rumours that war was coming,” Yuliya told Trudi Mitchell, CEO of Australia for UNHCR, in an interview late last year, “but it was still unexpected.
“We woke up to sounds of explosions, but they weren’t too loud because of our air defence systems. But then we heard huge explosions in the industrial part of the city, and our daughter was running around the apartment, crying, saying, ‘Mummy, everybody told you that the war was coming and you did nothing and we are not safe here, we have to leave.'
“At that moment, I understood that there was nothing else to do but to leave the country in any way possible.”
And so, within days, Yuliya and her children – like most Ukrainian men, her husband was not allowed to leave – became among the nearly 8 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022.
At first, they attempted to leave by car, but the roads out of the country were at a standstill. Three days later, they finally boarded an evacuation train headed to Krakow in Poland.
After a long, cold journey, the family arrived in Poland’s second largest city. “The first thing I remember about landing in Krakow was thinking, ‘Now you are safe – everything will be all right.’”
Yuliya was deeply impressed by how the Polish government assisted the Ukrainian refugees pouring across its borders (about 1.4 million people so far), and was soon able to help others like her when she started working for UNHCR in Krakow, which was providing services and assistance to the most vulnerable and at risk.
“I was lucky to become part of the UNHCR team when it opened its Cash Enrolment Centre [which administers UNHCR’s cash assistance program] and Blue Dot hub in Krakow,” she told Trudi. “We were seeing thousands of people a day and for most of them it was the first place they turned to when they arrived.
“Apart from providing them with cash, we were showing them where to go for medical services or psychological services. We were guiding them because when you’re alone in an unknown country, you’re just afraid of everything.”
Yuliya and her children know only too well what it’s like to be away from home, from family, from friends for such a long period. “It’s a very difficult thing, especially considering that my husband, like many others, is in Ukraine. We try to communicate on video connections, but it’s just not the same. And every day you are worried about what that day might bring.”
But assisting other Ukrainian refugees provides solace. “Helping each other, helping your country’s citizens, it helps you to survive, it helps you to feel happy, it helps you to feel the meaning of life – and that brings a lot to your life.”
Cash assistance will provide a lifeline for displaced families fleeing conflict
More than 3.6 million people have now fled Ukraine
UNHCR’s cash assistance program helps refugees from Ukraine cover their most urgent needs