Vitaliy and his wife Katia were living a life they describe as normal: running their own food shop and raising their three daughters, Kira 2, Alina 8, and Vlada 10, in the Odessa region. They didn’t believe war would ever come to Ukraine.
In the early morning of February 24th, the phone rang. It was Katia’s uncle, he said that war had started and that they should take the children and flee. They decided to wait. For four months they hoped the war would pass. Each day brought distressing news, an aunt called— all the windows in her apartment building were shattered by an explosion, a cousin in the Ukrainian military was caught in a missile strike and declared missing.
They had to close their shop, and work was hard to find. They lived close to an occupied area and worried about the Russian military living and training there. There was the constant sound of drones and planes. Their worries grew: “We realized that the war is not going to end soon, and we have to raise kids, it’s not safe for them” Vitaliy recounts. “We needed to move somewhere. We decided with the kids it’s better to get out and have normal lives outside of Ukraine.”
The decision to leave was spontaneous, there were no other choices. As a father of three, Vitaliy was permitted to leave the country. They boarded a train and arrived in Poland by crossing through the Przemysl border, like thousands of Ukrainian families who had fled before them. In Poland they felt lost, unsure of where to go once they arrived. They couldn’t find housing as many listings would not accept children. They spent the night sleeping on benches at the train station. A friend told them about the housing opportunity through Alight & Airbnb, so they traveled to Wroclaw, where they were introduced to Alight guide Yana, who set to work finding them an apartment.
“Even if a person doesn’t have money when they’re coming to Poland, there are jobs that pay daily so you can get food. With housing it’s not that simple to find and it requires money,” Vitaliy says. “It’s not easy.” Being provided a free Airbnb accommodation for 30 days gave the family a sense of relief. They had a safe, clean, place to rest, breathe, and recuperate as they mapped out their next moves.
The family entered the Airbnb and smiles broke across their faces. Two days had passed since they left their city, and they were exhausted from traveling aimlessly with kids and bags, tired and sore from the night on the station benches. The Airbnb was more than they were expecting— having a shower, beds, and a kitchen to cook for their kids overwhelmed them with joy. That first night the family showered and went straight to bed, sheltered and grateful.
Vitaliy says it is difficult to adjust to being in Poland. “Every bus that’s driving by sounds like a missile, every firework like an explosion. War is scary. We saw movies and heard news about wars in other places, we felt bad for them, but we could not understand it. We didn’t think it would happen to us in the 21st century, in a civilized time—” The doorbell rings, interrupting Vitaliy’s thought. He motions to the door, “Ukrainian children,” he says as his eldest daughters rush to greet their friends. He watches them with fondness and explains that there are other Ukrainian families in the building through the Alight-Airbnb program. The girls return and whisper into their father’s ear, they’d like to put out coffee and biscuits. Vitaliy gives a slight smile at this uncomplicated request for sweets, a normal moment.
“After two weeks of being here I can only imagine what is happening in Ukraine and what people are feeling. Here, there are no curfews, no air raids, no missiles, no planes, it feels safer. We are more at ease.” The 30-day stay has given them much-needed security, time to search for work and an apartment. In two days, Vitaliy will obtain his documents to become a taxi driver in Poland. They are making plans to stay in Wroclaw and enroll the children in school once they have found a permanent apartment. They are savoring the sweet days, including a trip to the lake to feed the ducks and Alina’s 9th birthday, that they plan to spend at the aquapark. Vitaliy looks at his wife and children, “It is important to understand that the main thing is that our family is safe and whole, this is what matters.”