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‘I cry nearly every day’: For refugees in Ukraine, survival is measured one day at a time

The Pasynko family fled to Chernivtsi, a western city now teeming with refugees, four months ago. They don’t know if they will ever return home.

The Pasynko children played ball and biked around their small makeshift bedroom, housed in a former kindergarten classroom in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The Boston Globe spent eight days in western Ukraine speaking with people about how they’re coping amid the ongoing war and what’s next. This is the first in a series of dispatches from a nation under siege.

More from Ukraine:

Refugees away from home

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The mood of the people

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Bostonians come to aid

CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — Irina Pasynko, seven months pregnant and far from home, wipes away a tear. The formless blue dress she wears is not her own, the food donated to her family usually contains no fruit or vegetables, and her life as a refugee has become an exhausting, excruciating struggle to find the will and the means to continue.

“I cry almost every day,” said Pasynko, a mother of 10 children who live crammed together in a kindergarten classroom, where thin mattresses and tiny beds have replaced school desks and almost all of the furniture.

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The family fled to western Ukraine from their embattled home near the Black Sea, stopping first in Lviv and then in Chernivtsi. Pasynko thought she’d be gone for only a month, but it’s now been four, and she doesn’t know if she will ever return.

A sense of limbo envelops Chernivtsi, a city of 260,000 that is relatively safe and hundreds of miles from the front lines of a grinding, brutal war with no end in sight. It is teeming with 40,000 refugees seeking safety, a fraction of nearly 13 million Ukrainians who have been displaced inside the country or sought haven in another since the Russian invasion in February.

Pasynko, 37, has not heard from her brother, a Ukrainian soldier, for almost a month. He is fighting somewhere on the eastern front, and she has no idea whether he is alive or dead.

Irina Pasynko, seven months pregnant and far from home, tries to keep her family content while living in the kindergarten classroom that they now call home in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“I’m trying to find any information I can, but no luck,” Pasynko said during a recent Globe visit to Chernivtsi, about 30 miles north of Romania. “I don’t know where he is.”

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In the meantime, she has the children to care for and comfort, children who range from 2 to 18 and don’t know where they will live once kindergarten resumes in September.

The family is from Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding center under relentless attack that has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance. The children’s father has remained near there despite the constant danger.

At least six people in Mykolaiv were killed June 29 in a missile attack. On July 5, more missiles struck the city. And on Tuesday, nearly two dozen rockets hit the city in what its mayor said was revenge for mounting Russian casualties.

“We are not at home. That is the hardest thing,” Pasynko said, thinking of the four-room house her family fled in mid-March.

Kamilla Pasynko drank from a juice box while enjoying a cool breeze on a sweltering day. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“It was a lot of explosions near the city, the bridges. We saw the missiles. We sat in a basement for eight days,” Pasynko said, recalling her decision to flee. “We had some food, but it wasn’t enough. There wasn’t even bread in the city.”

Now, the family survives on food and shelter donated by the city of Chernivtsi. On this day, volunteers brought lunch in large metal pots carrying bread, soup, and spaghetti with cream sauce. There are 11 mouths to feed, but the portions seem large enough for only half that number.

Where the war stands now

  • On Feb. 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a full-scale escalation of a conflict that dates to 2014. After nearly five months of brutal combat, as well as indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilian neighborhoods, there is no end in sight.
  • Currently, most fighting is concentrated in the eastern territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, two disputed areas led by pro-Russian separatists that Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared independent.
  • On Saturday, Russian rockets struck an apartment complex in the Donetsk city of Chasiv Yar, killing at least 45, according to Ukrainian authorities. The United Nations human rights office has said that more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion.

The food remains uneaten on a table, growing cold even though the temperature outside has climbed into the mid-90s. The children are distracted by a television show, kick a soccer ball around the room, or sit listlessly on the edge of their mattresses, whiling away another day in a seemingly endless string of them.

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There is no air conditioning in the room, where the windows are thrown open at night to help the family sleep.

Pasynko says she is grateful for the small monthly stipend she receives from the Ukrainian government, as well as financial assistance from the children’s father. Still, the future for her family is fraught with dread and uncertainty.

Regina rested in her bed while her siblings play nearby in the kindergarten classroom that they share.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“I am praying,” Pasynko said.

Yurii Lesiuk, deputy mayor of Chernivtsi, said the war has turned life upside-down in the city, a cultural center dubbed “Little Vienna” that once was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Pre-invasion plans for improving public transportation, as well as building new bridges and municipal offices, have been put on indefinite hold as revenue is diverted to the refugees.

With the school year approaching, Lesiuk said, the city is scrambling to find other housing, such as hostels or dormitories at the university here. Fifty-two refugees live in the kindergarten where Pasynko is staying.

“We want to manage it somehow and allow our schools to work,” Lesiuk said. “We hope we will be able to help them until we win the war, until victory.”

Lilia, 4, Kamilla, 2, Ramir, 5, and Artem, 6, gathered around the television to watch a cartoon. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

But victory, if it comes, is likely a long way off. Russian forces recently seized the last Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk, part of the hard-hit Donbas region in far eastern Ukraine, where most of the fighting shifted after the invasion stalled outside Kyiv, the capital.

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In a meeting with Russian lawmakers last week, President Vladimir Putin warned ominously that his military “hasn’t even yet started anything in earnest.”

Pasynko tries not to think beyond the next day, and the unending string of chores it will bring. The large room where she lives does not feel large enough for all the work.

Each day is a draining regimen of washing clothes by hand in a tiny sink, making sure her children are fed, and cleaning their 45-by-20-foot room. The chores are similar to the ones she faced every day in Mykolaiv, but now they’ve become yet another burden amid the stress and anxiety of war.

Even using the bathroom is challenging. All the fixtures are miniature, with sinks, urinals, toilets, and even a small shower built to accommodate 5-year-olds.

On a recent morning, her 2-year-old, Kamilla, ran across the room and flung her arms around Pasynko’s legs, crying through a pacifier. Against one wall, three tiny beds with no space between them held three sleeping children. Three more children slept side by side on mattresses set beneath a window.

Kamilla, 2, hugged her mother Irina Pasynko while her sister Lilia, 4, sits on a small chair nearby. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In one corner, given a few feet of privacy, 18-year-old Shamir roused himself just before noon, moving slowly to face yet another day with little to do, and no reason to think that his life would change for the better anytime soon.

“I want to go home,” Shamir said. “When the war started, I wouldn’t believe it. I kept saying, it’s not true.”

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Sveta Butuchel, a friend of Pasynko’s from Mykolaiv, is being sheltered in an adjoining room with her two children, 15 and 10.

“The war has ruined all of our plans. We left everything behind,” Butuchel said, crying as she covered her eyes with her hands. “It’s so scary to be here in Ukraine now. I can’t expect anything tomorrow, because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

The refugee families at the school have been asked to begin looking for apartments or other places to live.

Ramir Pasynko, 6, grabbed a juice box after his family of 11 received their lunch distribution at the kindergarten where they live. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“We hope that soon this will be a kindergarten again,” said Silvia Yakobchuk, the principal.

But she realizes that establishing any semblance of normalcy will be difficult. And after nearly five months of war, compassion fatigue appears to be taking a toll in Ukraine.

“At first, parents at the school helped these refugees with food and clothing. But after that, there have not been that many volunteers. It’s harder right now,” Yakobchuk said.

Butuchel, like her friend, is grateful for the roof over her children’s heads, even as the life-altering effects of the horrific conflict are reinforced every time she looks around the kindergarten.

“This is not my home,” she said with a deep sigh. “I want to return as soon as possible.”

But for now, she is a refugee, and she is determined to stay strong for her children, to find the inner strength to carry on, to refuse to give up.

Butuchel wears a shirt with bright, bold lettering that could be a mantra for the other war-scattered people living in this crowded kindergarten.

“If you never try,” the shirt reads, “you’ll never know.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.