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The “Longest Month of My Life”: The Searing Grief of Ukrainian Refugees

Some are desperate to return to their homeland. Others want to live in a “normal, civilized” country. What they have in common: pain.

Mother and infant from Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A mother and infant from Ukraine arrive at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on March 4.

Maryna Redchenko fled Kherson at 5 a.m. on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Had the 35-year-old project manager tried to leave a day or two later, she would not have been able to get out, as the city near Crimea was one of the first to fall to Russian forces. After leaving by train on February 24 with the clothes on her back, she picked up her 4-year-old son, who was staying with his grandfather in Dnipro. Her ex-husband gave them a ride to the Slovakian border. They made their way to Warsaw, Poland, and then Berlin, where they were staying in a nearby town where her sister lived.

“The most difficult thing to realize is that many relatives are in danger in occupied Kherson, and there is no way to help them,” she said, after speaking at a March 27 rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin as part of a group called Mother’s March.

She was, like many Ukrainian refugees who fled to the European Union, stuck in a state of limbo. Although many who left Ukraine hoped the war would last a week or two, over four weeks in, there is no sign that it will end anytime soon. Out of a population of 44 million, an estimated 3.6 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and over 90 percent of them are women and children, as the vast majority of men between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country under martial law. Some want to go back to Ukraine. But returning home now is often not an option. Therefore, many are making contingency plans for an exile that they never thought would happen.  

Redchenko was thinking about moving to a smaller town in Germany—she didn’t want to stay in Berlin, which is a center for refugees—or working at a seasonal restaurant this summer in an Italian town where she has friends. She hoped to return to Ukraine by the time her son was old enough to start school, but that would be in two years. 

Others wanted to stay in the EU because so much had been destroyed already in Ukraine. Natalia Denisenko, 38, left Kryvyi Rih on March 4 with her two school-age children, leaving her husband and mother behind. She said that she couldn’t wait there for the city to become another Mariupol or another Kharkiv—two cities where many Ukrainians have been killed by Russia’s aerial bombardment. She was in Hamburg, headed to Bremen, where she was going to register—the first bureaucratic step in Germany to getting a job (she had worked as a teacher) and signing her kids up for school. 

“I would like to stay here, because even if the war ends, there will be no prospects for children in Ukraine. Large cities have been bombed,” she said. She wanted her children to get a good education and live in a “normal, civilized country.” Neither she nor her kids knew any German. She granted that it was a tall order to try to stay, learn the language, and reunite her family, but said there was nothing “waiting for us in Ukraine to allow us to return to a normal life.” 

Tetyana Grynova, 37, had wanted to go back to Ukraine, to Kyiv, where she is from, to try to pick up her aging parents, who refused to leave the city. But now it was too dangerous. She happened to be in Lviv on business the day the war broke out and drove to Berlin with her 9-year-old son. The month since Russia invaded Ukraine, she said, has been the “longest month of my life.”

She, like many, felt guilty for leaving her homeland behind. But she said she also had a child to take care of. “All of my work is for Ukraine,” she said. Carrying a Ukrainian flag, she was running a half-marathon each day, raising over $80,000 for various charities, including Come Back Alive, a group that provides personal protective equipment for the military. She hoped to return to Ukraine when the war was over. In the meantime, now staying in Amsterdam, she had enrolled her son in a Dutch school where she said the teachers and students were “very friendly” to Ukrainians, after he had been in remote schooling in Kyiv.

The United Nations has called the exodus of Ukrainians into other parts of Europe the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II. By some estimates, World War II created over 60 million refugees. In this war, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said that eight million could leave Ukraine, a country of about 45 million, for the EU. Even if some return, that outflow would change the continent as World War II did. For Grynova, that conflict did not seem very far away. “It’s the most awful war since World War II,” she said.