"Take the children and just run"

February 24 last year started out as an ordinary day for Juliia Chmil, her husband and their two children in the city of Zaporizhzhya, located in southern Ukraine. "My husband and I didn't understand anything at first," Juliia tells Karin Israelsson.

Julia refuses to give up and intends to make sure the family is reunited.

Julia refuses to give up and intends to make sure the family is reunited.

Foto: Karin Israelsson

Skellefteå2023-02-24 09:21

Little did they know that, within a few hours, their lives would be shattered and their family torn apart. The Russian military aircraft over their hometown of Zaporizhzhya were part of the beginning of Russia's invasion. Zaporizhzhya is located in southern Ukraine, near the Crimean Peninsula with a population of almost 800,000. Julia says:

– When we understood what had happened, we took the children, our backpacks and fled to my parents. They live a couple of kilometers away and after about a week my husband said to me: "Juliia, you have to take the children and run".

"The most important thing is that the children are safe."

Even though she did not want to leave her husband and parents in Ukraine 35-year-old Juliia says she acted on her husband's advice for the sake of the children. After an 18 hour bus journey they arrived in Sweden. The bus went via Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. The questions were many, the anxiety strong and the uncertainty burrowed into her.

–We didn't know where we would end up, it was so surreal. I looked out the bus window and wondered what was going to happen, she says.

Since the Russian invasion, according to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 8 million people have fled across the borders and 6 million people are refugees in Ukraine.

Juliia and her boys have been in Sweden for almost exactly a year now. The trio's first stop was Stockholm. Then on to Byske and a little further on they were placed in Jörn. They came to Skellefteå in August last year and now have an apartment in Skellefteå.

Juliia has recently been employed permamently in elderly care by Skellefteå municipality. She says that the children, who are now nine and eleven years old, enjoy school and have extracurricular activities.

– When we came to Sweden we were refugees but we have received so much help here. I took a course in Swedish and got a job, I have Swedish friends and two workmates who speak Ukrainian and I want to continue learning Swedish, she says.

She says that they received moral and financial support, jobs, school and a sense of security for the children, which is extremely important to her.

– All children should have a normal life, she says with passion. 

Julia and the children have an apartment in Skellefteå.

Her attitude from the beginning has been to acclimatize. Create a good life in Sweden, enter Swedish society and never give up.

It is in the apartment on Klockarhöjden that we meet. She speaks Swedish freely and it is only on a couple of occasions that she translates via Google.

Despite the war, her husband has been able to continue working; he works in the production industry in Zaporizhzhya. Juliia says that it is also important for the whole country that the wheels of society do not stop completely. She is in contact with both him and her parents daily and calls her husband first thing every morning.

– I know that neither my husband nor my parents tell me everything about what is happening in Zaporizhzhya and sometimes I wake up at night and don't understand anything - everything feels unreal, terrible, but I have to fight even if I get depressed sometimes, she says and continues:

– I thought it would only be a couple of months until we could go back home to Ukraine, but there is only fear and terror there now and sometimes it feels like I have two lives: One in Ukraine and one here.

Although she may feel torn, she is crystal clear about her stance on the attacks.

– Ukraine should not be part of Russia.

We talk about those who remain in Ukraine, especially the children, and Juliia is sometimes weighed down by a guilty conscience.

– I've thought about it a lot. Sometimes when my children go to the swimming pool and smile and have fun, I think of the children who stayed in Ukraine, for example when there is an air raid and they have to sit in a basement. But I also think that we made a decision to do this for the safety of our children. It feels right.

What does it look like in Zaporizhzhya today?

– Our apartment and my parents' house are still there, but ten kilometers from our block there's been lots of places bombed. The power station has also been bombed but I'm told they have power every day now.

She is determined that the family will be reunited - and says that she can imagine several variants of how the family's life will turn out.

–The most important thing for me is that the children are safe and the whole family should be together. Either in Sweden or in another country, she says and continues:

– But in my heart I will always be Julia from Ukraine.

The youngest son's birthday is on February 26. Last year it was celebrated in a basement.
The youngest son's birthday is on February 26. Last year it was celebrated in a basement.

Since mid-August, Skellefteå municipality has provided housing for 150 Ukrainian refugees. A third of the refugees are children.

Of the adults of working age, 80 percent were in work during the month of November, while all the children are registered for school attendance.

Source: Skellefteå municipality.