When the war began in Ukraine, 36-year-old Olena had been working at a coffee factory in Poland for a month. She had gone to Poland with a friend, temporarily leaving her four children with family in Ukraine so that she could earn more money to support them. When her home city of Zhytomyr (close to Kyiv) was bombed, she knew that she would have to bring her children to Poland to protect them. Olena’s husband passed away when she was pregnant with their youngest daughter, and she has been raising them on her own since. “I didn’t want them to see the war or to hear air raid alerts. I didn’t want them to be stressed by all of that.”
Olena’s sister brought the children, Vlad, 17, Maria, 13, Ania, 10 and Natasha, 5 to Poland on a crowded freight train before returning to Ukraine. While thankful to be reunited, they miss home, the children’s grandparents, their aunt, and their cats and dogs are all still in Ukraine. After arriving in Poland, Olena faced new challenges– she was fired from her job which provided housing, because children weren’t allowed to live there.
“It was difficult to find housing since I have many kids,” she said. Olena was able to secure a temporary housing arrangement with a Polish family in the suburbs of Wroclaw. With a secure, safe place to live the children were able to finish their school year. Although they faced some difficulties, like Vlad being unable to continue studying welding outside of Ukraine, there were also upsides, like the children all beginning to learn Polish. As the end of their stay approached, Olena didn’t know where they would go next.
Someone suggested she go to the train station to look for housing opportunities. At the central railway station in Wroclaw, Olena met Alight Guides working to connect displaced Ukrainians with free Airbnb stays. Alight’s partnership with Airbnb.org provides free short-term accommodations from 14 – 30 days to Ukrainian families in different cities in Poland, as well as in other European cities and towns. Alight Guides (who are Ukrainian speakers) listened to Olena’s needs and provided the family with an entire apartment for a 30 day stay.
Walking into the Airbnb for the first time, the family was shocked by the size and quality of the home. “It’s a nice big apartment, with space for all of us, it’s a good apartment,” Olena said. She loves the big kitchen, which is the perfect size to prepare meals for the kids who aren’t shy about requesting their favorite dishes. Vlad loves sitting on the balcony and looking out at the water, while Maria, Ania, and Natasha all agree that the big TV is the best. Ania, who wants to be a veterinarian, can watch shows about animals again. The apartment has given them back their privacy, a sense of freedom, independence, and normalcy. The kids can sleep and get up when they want.“Where we were staying before there were a lot of people, there were house rules, no one should be moving around after 9pm, and there was a schedule to use the kitchen.”
Now, Olena can cook anything the kids ask for, and they can take family walks to the city center or to the bridge to watch the boats pass by. They spend time together every evening, eating dinner, relaxing, and watching TV. They’re much calmer now but Olena notes the uncertainty of the war, since they don’t know how long it will go on. But with a roof over their heads, they have hope, and they can begin to think about the future again. For the time being, Olena hopes to stay in Poland. She is in the process of obtaining a contract from her current cleaning job which would allow her to secure temporary residency for the family.
Olena’s biggest hope is to earn enough money to put down a deposit on a permanent rental. Although “home is home” as Vlad says, and nowhere can replace that, they are trying to build a new life in Wroclaw. As Olena watches Natasha run around the living room with an abundance of joy, she says “From all the things that have happened to us, coming to this [Airbnb] was the best.”