Kyiv Refugee Mom, Son Spent Year Dreaming of Return

  • Kseniya Kharchenko and her then 5-year-old son fled Kyiv a day after the start of the invasion.
  • Since then the single mother has fantasized every day about returning to her country and family.
  • “I don’t have a plan. I have a fantasy,” Kharchenko told Insider. 


The sky over Ukraine was streaked with missile smoke as bombings began and troops advanced in a ground invasion, as Kseniya Kharchenko packed what she could carry in her Volkswagen Golf and —with her then 5-year-old son in tow — began searching for a safe place to escape the war just a day after the Russian invasion began on February 24 last year.

“When the bombs started falling, we didn’t know when they will stop — and whether they will stop or not — and how it will all go,” Kharchenko told Insider, describing the fear she felt when she chose to leave the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

Her parents stayed behind. As did some of her friends. “Some friends of mine inserted IUDs to avoid pregnancy in case they will be raped,” she added. And yet, Before the war, her ex-husband had called her paranoid over her fears of an invasion — Kharchenko said she was waiting for the war to begin for months. She bought a radio, purchased extra gas for her car, made copies of essential documents, and started packing bags in early January. 

“I also went to a training on survival in the city under siege for civilians in the end of January, and this is when I realized that I don’t want to survive in the besieged city,” Kharchenko told Insider.

Then the air strikes began. Her fears were realized as Ukraine’s foreign minister called Russia’s actions that day “a full-scale invasion” of her homeland. 

Blasts were heard in Kyiv, a city of almost 3 million people. Russian tanks poured over the border from Belarus and from Crimea, which had been under Russian occupation since 2014. In the year since, there have been reports of the use of chemical weapons, war crimes including rape and torture of civilians, and mass graves discovered in the cities of Bucha and Mariupol.

While Ukrainian officials do not reveal information about their dead and wounded, Norwegian defense officials estimated in late January that 30,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the war so far, in addition to 100,000 troops killed or injured in action.

The Norwegian Chief of Defence, General Eirik Kristoffersen, also estimated 200,000 Russian troops have been either killed or wounded. In less than a full year of war, that number is eight times higher than all American casualties in two decades of war in Afghanistan, Insider previously reported. 

Fleeing from Kyiv

The trip across the border took nearly 32 hours. Kharchenko, a writer and translator, first arrived in Poland with her son, staying in a small city in an apartment that belonged to the mother of an old friend’s boyfriend. She told Insider that fleeing Kyiv felt like “diving into the past,” as many people she’d known over the years reached out and offered to help keep her and her son safe.

The pair stayed in the apartment for four days before moving on to Kraków, where the coordinators of a writer’s residency program she attended prior to the invasion hosted them for the next month. During this time she translated children’s books from Polish to Ukrainian, for work and to keep her mind busy.

While she was comfortable in Poland, the country was inundated with people fleeing the war and housing was scarce. Kharchenko realized she’d need to work multiple jobs to keep herself afloat. The economic reality of life as a refugee — especially as a single mother — deeply worried her. 

“I was so frightened, I really was,” Kharchenko told Insider, thinking about how she and her son would survive. “Being with a small kid is a huge burden, let’s be honest. But, on the other hand, it’s a really, really huge support and a driving force.”

The act of protecting her son’s life, Kharchenko told Insider, brings her strength and gives her purpose when she feels overwhelmed by the events of the last year. “Like a heartbeat,” she said, she must keep going every day for him.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 8,073,182 people from Ukraine have been displaced across Europe in the last year. Nearly 5 million have registered for temporary protection programs in countries across Europe, which allow refugees to live and work abroad while their homeland is at war or impacted by political unrest or natural disasters.

While some of these programs offer housing support or a stipend for living expenses, the UK Center for Poverty Research has found refugees, who are often unprepared to flee and may not fluently speak the language of their host countries, are more likely to live in poverty than the general population and that of other types of immigrants. 

Representatives for the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

No plans to return — but a fantasy of Ukraine’s future

While she and her son settle into their day-to-day life outside Kyiv, Kharchenko said it is difficult to look very far into the future to arrange things like housing and schooling for her child, while she still hopes Ukraine will win the war. 

“This is a very weird thing of being here, making these plans in advance, but at the same time having these fantasies of how your life can look like and also having these dreams of being in control enough to choose to change your life and to decide what you want,” Kharchenko said.

From Poland, Kharchenko and her son made their way to Vienna, Austria, after another friend from her past offered to help her get more stable and affordable housing. She took a job with the Institute for Human Sciences, managing the Documenting Ukraine project, which offers grants to researchers, journalists, and artists across mediums to capture their perspective of the war.

Some of the 200 projects funded so far include a photographer capturing images of city signboards that have been damaged by the war, a researcher collecting interviews about childbirth during the war — more than 50,000 babies have been born in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion — and a novelist writing about his experience as a refugee.

Kharchenko said the projects are a way to focus on the individuals impacted by the war in Ukraine and allow creators to focus on their work without worrying about how they will survive financially. Seeing the projects and speaking with grantees also keeps her connected to home, and focused on the important work of highlighting the war.

Her son turned six this month, and Kharchenko hosted a birthday party with his friends from school, where she planned to practice her German with the parents in attendance. Though her son is adapting to life in Vienna and building new connections is important, she said, he’s a Ukrainian kid — with vastly different life experience to his peers. 

For now, though she finds it challenging to plan for the long-term in Austria, Kharchenko said she also does not have a plan to return to Kyiv. She misses her friends, but they’ve all fled; she misses the city, but it has been bombed. Her apartment, in a heavily damaged area of Kyiv, remains standing. 

“I don’t have a plan. I have a fantasy,” Kharchenko told Insider. “I would want to go back to life you know that I had on 23rd of February, but this is impossible. So I don’t plan anything. I want the war to end and I want to live like normal, you know, in a normal country, in a normal Ukraine, in this life — this really good life — that we used to have.”

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