Refugee’s Voice

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine toward Kyiv enters its 6th month, we take a look at the main developments through the eyes and experiences of Alina Bielun. The 28 years old artist, originally a resident of Kyiv came to the Netherlands on February 25th, a day after the bombing attack on her hometown. Since then, Alina has been counting the days “as if it (the war) would be over tomorrow and at the same time as if it would be extended for the next 10 years”, says Alina, affirming that it is the way she finds to prevent herself from getting stuck. In fact, Alina has been very active while facing this long wait, especially after embracing, as a volunteer, the hospitality project at Road of Hope called Together (“Pazom” in Ukrainian), a collective initiative that aims to support newcomers from Ukraine in Amsterdam.

According to UNHCR, it is estimated that more than 6 million refugees fled Ukraine. Until May, more than 63,800 Ukrainians were registered with a municipality in the Netherlands. Among them, is Alina Bielun, who shares her journey with us in the following interview.

ROH – Could you tell us a little about your life in Ukraine? What is the fondest memory you carry from your place?
Alina – My life is about discovering and exploring everything. I love my country and I love the city where I was born, so I have many memories from there. I like the contrasts of Kyiv: it is a multicultural and business city with a special atmosphere in each district: somewhere cozy and friendly, somewhere dangerous and extreme. If I had to choose one memory from my home, it would be very difficult, and if I tell you everything, it would be the size of a book, because all my 28 years were spent in Ukraine.

ROH – Where were you on the 24 of February, when the Russian invasion advanced toward Kyiv? What were your thoughts on that day? Did you think that this war would last this long?
Alina – February 24 was the last day of a four-day trip to Germany for me and my friend. The return flight to Kyiv was supposed to take place at 16:00. My friend’s mother called her at 5:00 saying, “Putin is bombing Kyiv,” so my flight back was cancelled because of the war. On the first day of the war, my friend went to Amsterdam to visit her friend, and I remained in Germany in a state of shock. The war was not a surprise for me. But the collapse of my plans and the complete danger to my family was such a strong feeling. Inside, everything turned upside down, but nothing changed on the outside: the grass was turning green, and children were playing in the yards.

At that moment, I had thoughts: 1. What a fool I was then when I heard about the war in Syria and thought: “thank God, it is so far from my country”, Ukraine is now also at war, only now it will not pass me by. Don’t even think of blaming people outside of Ukraine, you were the same; 2. When Russia seized Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk in 2014, we had many temporary refugees inside the country, including my relatives, whom I could not understand, and finally, I understood them!; 3. “There is no safe place anywhere in the world, there is always danger, safety is an illusion” – this I clearly realized on the very first day of the war. It was without fear, it was a fact.

Did I think this war would be so long? I didn’t think about it at all. We have already had 8 years of war with Russia, starting in 2014, and now it has finally been called “war”. About deadlines, I told myself, “live as if it’s over tomorrow and at the same time as if it’s been for the last 10 years.” It helps keep me from getting stuck, but I still feel like February isn’t over yet – some crazy mind game.

ROH – How did you get to come to the NL and how long have you been here? What are the most difficult things for you while in the Netherlands?
Alina – On February 25, I came to Amsterdam by bus to meet my friend. She was already there with her acquaintance. We decided to do this on February 24: it is much better to be together. I have been here for 163 days – by the day that this interview was made.
I believe that I really have no difficulties here, I have enough of everything, and I try to be useful to someone in need.

ROH – How did you meet Road of Hope and how was it able to help you during this time?
Alina –
I met Road of Hope in the person of Patricia – she advised me and my friend on everything related to our status – where and when to go, what to do, and what to wait for.

Alina carries a Ukrainian dish for Together lunch at Ru Paré Community

ROH – For the last 3 months, you have been volunteering at “Together”, how would you define this project, and what does it mean to you at this moment?
Alina –
This project helps me connect with different types of people, different stories, and different issues. I realized one important thing when we prepared ordinary Ukrainian dinners – the memory of tastes and smells can be carried home. And a common language gives the illusion of another world.

ROH – What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Alina –
I have great hope for the future in Ukraine and am currently planning to create a visionary art project with Ukrainians while I am here. And after the war, to open a network of public gardens in Kyiv, as I dreamed of before the war.

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About “Together” – Together is a Road of Hope project aiming to support newcomers from Ukraine in Amsterdam. This project has been happening since May and consists of a weekly meeting with three main activities: lunch; information sessions during lunch; English lessons. Together counts on the great support of our partners Ru Paré and Samen Women Samen Leven.