“We didn’t know where we would live or how"

The stories of four Ukrainian mothers fleeing war

The stories of four Ukrainian mothers , captured by award winning photographer Lewis Khan, highlight the heartbreaking decisions millions have had to make during three months of war in Ukraine.

They’ve left behind their family, friends, and their homes, in the hope of finding safety for themselves and their children. Their determination is beyond commendable.

Ukraine has faced the largest displacement of people since World War ll. Over 6 million people have now fled Ukraine and we estimate that half of them are children.

Romania has welcomed 750,000 Ukrainian refugees, and is now the country with the second highest number of people who have fled the terrible war.

Here are their stories.

Iryna* from Kyiv and daughter Nikolina*

Iryna from Kyiv, who is seven months pregnant, had just 24 hours to decide whether or not to leave Ukraine with her ten-year-old daughter Nikolina. As violence engulfed the country, and a curfew coming into force the next day she had almost no time to make her choice.

She didn’t want to go, but took the agonising decision to leave her mother – who was too ill to travel – her home, and her life in Ukraine for the sake of her children.

They travelled in a disused train toilet from Kyiv, with her daughter, Nikolina, to escape the crowds.  It was a difficult and frightening journey.

“At each stop we were so scared. There were harsh quarrels. So we locked the door at those stops. I said: ‘Nikolina don't move’, and we didn't move at all.”

“For my child and my unborn baby, I decided, if I can, I have to go. They have their whole lives ahead of them. At each stop we were so scared. There were harsh quarrels, so we locked the door at those stops.”

Her daughter Nikolina said, I was scared when we were near the railway station. There were lots of soldiers. They were standing, some were holding machine guns and others were holding rifles.”

Now, they’re living in the region of Maramures with a host family in a flat we helped secure for them.

Mariya*, Dnipro

Mariya, 34, from Dnipro took the first train possible heading towards Romania with her four-year-old son, Denys*, after missiles struck their hometown.

She made the “very painful” decision to leave, but only after a friend convinced her it was too dangerous to stay and suggested they leave together.

“It was the scariest day of our lives,” she said. “We didn't know where we would live or how. It was a journey to nowhere. I’ve never come here; I didn't know where I was going.”

But when they finally arrived in Romania – after a gruelling journey, especially for Denys , who was sick en route – they received an incredibly warm welcome.

“It's good here, they treat us very well. We have enough food. It's warm and cosy. We're very grateful for that.

“Romanians are very, very kind. I never heard anything about them. But when I got here, they turned out to be open-hearted, kind and understanding people.”

Save The Children have helped Mariya by providing cash voucher assistance to meet basic needs like food and medicines. Vital mental health support for Mariya and her son.

Milena* , Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast

Milena, 22, left for Romania with her one-year-old son, Bodhan* and her cousins , leaving behind her parents and brother.

“My heart is in Ukraine,” she says. “It’s painful to leave my home and country. It was difficult to say goodbye to the men in our lives at the border. We didn’t know if we would ever see them again."

“We packed only the most essential things for my one-year-old – warm clothes, food, documents and laptops. Save the Children have been great – [giving us] food, shelter, cash vouchers."

She plans to return to Ukraine if and when the conflict dies down. 

Save The Children have helped Milena by providing cash vouchers to meet basic needs like food and medicines. Vital mental health support for Milena. Delivering basic non-food items, outreach services, shelter and daily hot meals. Provided information and legal advice.

Vira*, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast

Vira had a good life in Ukraine, working as a nurse and raising two young children – Marta*, 3, and Alona*, 6 months. Then the war took that life away. The enormity of that loss is hard for us to imagine

The hardest part was saying goodbye to her parents. “They won't leave, even in a critical situation. My mother [who works as a paramedic] will go to help. I had a sort of panic attack. I was afraid of the border, and I didn't want to leave Ukraine.”

“It was tearing me apart. You want to stay, but you also have kids to protect. My mother asked me if I wanted to go, and I replied that ‘I can't, I'm torn apart, I have to stay and I have to go.’”

“It was very scary. I couldn't keep calm all the way to the border, I went like a zombie. But they gave us a warm welcome.”

 “We’ve had so much support here. They’ve given so much more than we expected.”

What we’re doing in Ukraine

Alongside our partners we are providing families with temporary accommodation, in northern Romania, and cash voucher assistance, mental health support and legal advice.

The displacement of nearly 3 million children is almost one child every second whose life is forever changed/disrupted by this ordeal. We are calling for all parties to end the war. Helping to rebuild the lives of millions across Ukraine.

*Names changed