Occupation: Restaurant owner
From: Chernihiv, Ukraine
Current location: Freiburg, Germany
Elena and her husband own a successful restaurant chain in Chernihiv. She left Ukraine on March 10 with her 8-year-old son and a friend.
When did you know it was a war?
Around 4:30 a.m. on the morning of February 24, I was awakened by an explosion. No one else woke up, so I started walking around the apartment in a panic. Around. 6 I saw a dark smoke begin to rise in the distance. The sirens went off. That was when everything changed, when I knew it was a war.
We stayed in Chernihiv for another week. Chernihiv is one of the cities hardest hit by the war – we heard explosions every day and each of them felt like a small earthquake. Sirens went off 15 times a day and we ran off into the basement. After a few days we just stayed in the basement all the time – neighbors and I put internet cables there, brought furniture, water dispensers. It was our home for a few days.
What was the moment you realized you had to leave Ukraine or your city?
I persuaded my husband that we should leave when the power in the basement began to disappear. Early in the morning of March 3, we packed up and drove out of town towards the Polish border.
What have you packed?
I packed in a panic – clothes for my son, documents, all the food from the fridge that I knew would perish otherwise. While we were waiting downstairs for my husband to drive up in a car, a siren went off and I got so scared that I left two bags – one with all our documents proving the ownership of our apartment, cars and real estate , and another. with all the food.
How was the journey?
The Ukrainian soldiers at the checkpoint on their way out of the city told us that it was not safe to take the highway to Kiev, and suggested that we take detours and drive through the fields, villages and forests. So we did, and the trip – one that usually only took a day and a half to get to the border – stretched to five days.
We tried to cross the Polish border on March 9, but the queue was too long. The next day we went towards the Slovak border where the line was shorter and after 12 hours we managed to cross. My son and I moved to a car with a friend who followed us all the way from Chernihiv and my husband drove back in our car. He is volunteering in Ukraine now.
We arrived in Germany on March 14th and it has been hectic ever since. It is almost impossible to find affordable housing here. After a short stay with friends, we went to Freiburg, where volunteers offered their house, but it turned out to be unequipped to stay. We found two Russian programmers who supported Ukraine and who took us for a week. Afterwards, we moved to another house where a volunteer welcomed us. It’s a big house – we’re 20 here now, and every family has a room. The woman who owns the house cooks and feeds everyone for free – people in town help her with money to make it happen. We are so grateful.
How is it where you are now?
From morning to evening we spend our day at the apartment on the hunt. Without an address, I can not register in Germany, enroll in social assistance, get health insurance or enroll my son in school.
Back in Chernihiv, I have no one left to call and ask how things are going there. Everyone is gone. My high school friend and her family died after a missile hit their house.
I need to start building a life for my son and me here, start learning the language. But it is difficult for him to adapt. “Mom, let’s go back, I forgot my dog,” he says of his favorite toy he used to sleep with, and we forgot to take it with us.
What do you think about the United States and what is being done or should be done to help Ukraine?
Before the war started, I saw exactly what the United States said about Ukraine. I saw Joe Biden speak, and from his rhetoric I knew from his face that the threat of war was serious. His speech was the reason I thought it was a war when I heard the first explosion.
I know the United States is helping. But if only the skies over Ukraine could be closed, it would be easier. I think Ukraine would do well.