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D – Donetsk

If we consult Wikipedia, we’ll read the following:

Since April 2014, Donetsk and its surrounding areas have been one of the major sites of fighting in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, as pro-Russian separatist forces battle against Ukrainian military forces for control of the city and surrounding areas.

I am chatting with Katia; she, her husband, and their two kids (ages 6 and almost 1) were forced to leave their home in Donetsk due to ongoing shelling earlier this year. They are now rebuilding their life in their new home in Lithuania.

“Well, for us, the war started back in 2014. We stayed at the time because things kind of calmed down after 2014. We didn’t really want to leave home. It’s always a tough decision to leave one’s home, no matter how scary things might get. But of course, the magnitude of this year's shelling is well beyond anything we had seen in either 2014 or 2015. It's right over the center of the city and it’s still ongoing. So we finally picked up and left because we couldn't stand it anymore. We didn’t want to expose our kids to that. So, we packed a few suitcases with what we could take and left.”

Their journey first took Katia and her family to Taganrog, Russia, as it was the easiest place to enter from Donetsk. They spent about a month there while trying to figure out if they’d be able to eventually return home or if they would need to keep moving to find a more permanent arrangement. Katia refers to that period in their lives as being in limbo – neither at home nor on the road; neither staying nor going. Friends and family kept on saying that the war is likely to go on for a while and that was when Katia’s sister put her in touch with volunteers from Rubikus. After talking to them about where the family could potentially resettle, Katia decided on Lithuania.

“It's not that far from Ukraine and there are lots of Russian-speakers. Somehow, I felt that would be best. My heart was set on going there.”

The road to their new home was mapped out in five stages and took them across three borders. First, they boarded a train from Taganrog to Moscow. The trip took a full 24 hours.

“It was interesting and difficult at once. The kids loved it, especially Vladik, the oldest. The last time he had been on a train was when he was about a year old, so he barely remembered it. It was pretty tough for us, to rattle on for 24 hours aboard a train with a baby in tow. We adopted a mindset of traveling towards a better life and somehow that gave us the strength to go on.”

Volunteers in Moscow put Katia's family on a bus to Minsk, where they were met by a local family who put them up for the night. They continued on toward the Latvian border the following day.

That’s where their adventures really began. While Katia and the kids were allowed to leave Belarus and cross into Latvia, her husband was left behind because of some issues with his paperwork. Once again, Rubikus volunteers came to the rescue, and about four days later, he was able to leave Belarus and rejoin his family, now in Lithuania.

“He was finally able to leave; otherwise, I simply don’t know how this story would have ended. Because I couldn’t have managed alone with two kids. It would have been really tough for me to work and take care of them, all by myself,” says Katia.

After arriving in Alytus, Lithuania, where most Ukrainians first enter the country, the family was directed by local officials to the town of Palanga. Once there, they were placed in a single hotel room, which will be their new home until some more permanent housing is found, either in Palanga or elsewhere in Lithuania. Katia is excited that she followed her heart and that this is where the road took them.

“I arrived first; about four days later, my husband joined us. I am very happy for us to have ended up here. The city is great; it’s a resort town on the Baltic Sea. Nature is just beautiful. The city is very calm. I guess I can say that I found peace here. My soul is at rest. Doors are being opened for us wherever we go, everyone is helping in any way they can.

“But to leave home, no matter how unhappy you are there, is hard. Going by my own feelings, I understand those people who stay behind. Many have no choice. I was lucky to have come across Rubikus volunteers. No words can express my gratitude; without them we never would have left. We didn’t know all the nuances of paperwork and crossing borders, and we never could have afforded it financially. They simply saved us.”

Here's hoping that Katia and her loved ones will find happiness in their new homeland.

- the story was written by Alina Sheyman and edited by Anna Smirny.

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