Families torn apart amid mass exodus from Ukraine face uncertain future

Families fleeing Ukraine spoke with ABC News about their heartbreaking journeys.

March 02, 2022, 5:19 PM

When 25-year-old Yulia Yemelianenko crossed the border from Lviv, Ukraine into Poland earlier this week, she broke down in tears.

“I cried a lot,” she told ABC News at a train station in Przemysl, Poland. “...I was forced to quit my country, and I didn't want it.”

“I want to live in my city with my mother and my friends,” she added.

Yemelianenko spoke with ABC News about the difficult journey as she waited at the train station for a friend. She is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to flee from Ukraine into neighboring European countries like Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary amid ongoing attacks from Russia.

PHOTO: Yulia Yemelianenko speaks with ABC News after she crossed the border from Lviv, Ukraine Przemysl, Poland.
Yulia Yemelianenko speaks with ABC News after she crossed the border from Lviv, Ukraine Przemysl, Poland.
ABC News

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Wednesday the number of Ukrainians who've fled their country has so far climbed to 874,000, which is believed to be the biggest number of people displaced in the shortest amount of time since World War II.

“I don't know what will happen in Ukraine,” she said. “I don't know when I will come back.”

The emotional toll that the journey took on Yemelianenko was magnified because she had to leave her mother, who is recovering from COVID-19, behind.

Asked if she feels that she has been displaced, she said, “I'm trying not to think about this at all, because I don't know when I can see my mother next time.”

“Every time I start, like, crying and tears, won’t help in this situation.”

She said she hopes to return to Ukraine as soon as possible and reunite with her friends, some of whom stayed back to fight in the war.

'There’s panic, there’s chaos'

At the train station in Lviv, Ukraine, volunteers have been working to organize thousands of people seeking to board trains to Poland. According to UNHCR, more than 453,000 of those who fled Ukraine have gone to Poland.

“There’s panic, there’s chaos,” Yuliana Shchurko, a volunteer, told ABC News. “Those people are waiting for the train to call and they don't want to go to any other country,” she said, adding that it could be days before the next train would be scheduled to depart for Poland.

PHOTO: Adeyemo Abimbole, a Nigerian student in Ukraine, told ABC News he and his friends have been waiting for a train to Poland for days.
Adeyemo Abimbole, a Nigerian student in Ukraine, told ABC News he and his friends have been waiting for a train to Poland for days.
ABC News

Amid the congestion, some immigrants and students living in Ukraine expressed fear they are being discriminated against as they wait at the border, hoping to cross into Poland.

“The Ukrainians are given priority, which is to children and women,” Adeyemo Abimbole, a student from Nigeria, told ABC News on Sunday, adding that he and a group of African students have been waiting for a train to cross into Poland for nearly three days.

“Our lives also matter,” he added. It is unclear if Abimbole and his friends entered Poland.

UNHCR's Grandi confirmed during a press conference on Tuesday that “there are instances” of differentiation of treatment at the borders based on race, but said he was assured that “these are not state policies.”

“We will continue to intervene, as we have done several times, to try to ensure that everybody is received in the same manner,” he said, urging all nations to welcome those fleeing Ukraine without discrimination.

Marcus Lawani, who is also waiting with the group, told ABC News that he believed some of his African friends were “turned back based on their color” because “they want more Ukrainians to leave.”

“Mostly they give power to women, children, and their men follow,” he said.

Women and children have been given priority at congested border crossings and many Ukrainian men of fighting age have stayed behind after Ukraine began drafting reservists aged 18-60 to fight for their country.

A 'heartbreaking' decision

Alyona Tec said that her family’s decision to leave Ukraine was difficult and leaving her country has torn her apart.

“I felt really bad that I had to leave,” Tec told ABC News on Friday as her family arrived in Korczowa, Poland, explaining that she had wanted to stay behind and help her people in any way she could but left with her husband and son because they worried about the baby's safety.

“I couldn't [stay] because I knew [my son] is here and I need to take care of him and I'm responsible,” she said. “It was like heartbreaking for me because I saw people gonna go fight, like regular civilians gonna take up guns and fight, and I'm just gonna leave.”

PHOTO: Juan and Alyona Tec spoke with ABC News about her family's decision to leave Ukraine. Alyona said that leaving her country has torn her apart.
Juan and Alyona Tec spoke with ABC News about her family's decision to leave Ukraine. Alyona said that leaving her country has torn her apart.
ABC News

While Tec grapples with guilt as she thinks of those she left behind, her husband Juan Tec said that they initially considered staying in Ukraine.

“Things that are happening now in Kyiv are just really bad,” he said. “Shelling, gunfights, tanks, rolling over cars, people getting hurt civilians. And now that I look back, I'm really glad we made that decision.”

According to UNICEF, the 7.5 million children in Ukraine are at heightened risk. Many have been traumatized, wounded and at least 13 children have been killed by Tuesday — a number that is expected to rise as the war rages on, UNICEF said.

Alyona Tec said that her family’s decision to leave Ukraine was difficult and leaving her country has torn her apart.

An uncertain future

For families who separated at the border, it is unclear when they can see their loves ones again.

In an emotional embrace, husband and wife Sasha and Svetlana Olekciirak said goodbye on Saturday at the Polish border in Korczowa.

PHOTO: Ukrainian husband and wife Sasha and Svetlana Olekciirak say goodbye as they separate at the Polish border.
Ukrainian husband and wife Sasha and Svetlana Olekciirak say goodbye as they separate at the Polish border.
ABC News

The couple spoke with ABC News as Sasha dropped off his wife and two children after what they said was a 30-hour trip from Ternopil, not knowing when he will see them again.

"I don't want to go," Sasha said, explaining that he wanted to stay in Ukraine to fight for his country.

Asked how she felt not knowing when she can see her husband again, a tearful Svetlana said, "it's fear … you don't know what is your future.”

Their story is one of many playing out on the borders of Ukraine, like that of Sergei and Marina, a couple that was also separated at a border.

Sergei spoke with ABC News as he waited with his wife Marina and their two children – a 5-month-old and a 3-year-old – at a train station in Lviv.

Sergei said that that amid the bombings in Kyiv, he was worried for his family’s safety and decided to send them to Poland while he stayed behind to fight.

PHOTO: Sergei and Marina, a Ukrainian couple, wait for a train at a train station in Lviv as Marina and their two children head for Poland.
Sergei and Marina, a Ukrainian couple, wait for a train at a train station in Lviv as Marina and their two children head for Poland.
ABC News

“I have to ensure that my family [is safe], so that's why we're here,” he said.

Asked how she feels about leaving her husband behind, Marina said, “I have no other choice.”

“We will start from zero there,” she said. “I will be better for my kids and I don’t care about stuff.”

ABC News' Jessica DiMartino contributed to this report.

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