BARCELONA, Spain — Two weeks ago, Maryna Bilokin was living comfortably in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. “Now, one [suitcase] and my daughter — that’s my new life,” she told Yahoo News at a protest more than 1,500 miles away at Plaza Catalunya where 1,000 people called for the implementation of a no-fly zone to protect Bilokin’s homeland from Russian planes.
Two weeks ago, Bilokin’s nail salon business in Kyiv was thriving and she lived in an apartment with her 18-year-old daughter, not far from her mother and aunt. That world collapsed on Feb. 24, when Russian forces rolled into her country, bombarding cities, airstrips, hospitals and orphanages.
After spending that night in a damp bomb shelter, Bilokin and her daughter decided to leave Ukraine behind. “We had no choice,” said Bilokin, although her mother and aunt refused to flee with them. She feared that staying in Kyiv meant that they “would die. [We] choose life.” They squeezed into a small automobile with three friends and two cats and headed for Poland. The bulk of the cramped, four-day journey was spent waiting in line to cross the border.
Greeted by volunteers offering food, shelter and rides to other countries, she and her daughter decided to make their way to Spain, a country they’d visited once before and where more than 112,000 Ukrainians were residents before Russia’s most recent invasion began. The next leg of the journey took a day and half.
Seven days after deciding to leave Kyiv, Bilokin and her daughter finally arrived in Barcelona. They were among the first of what Migration Minister José Luis Escrivá said will be “a significant volume” of refugees heading to Spain, with 6,000 or more believed currently en route.
Relatively speaking, Bilokin and her daughter were lucky: All it took was a call to the Ukrainian Embassy for them to find a family to stay with. Bilokin regards the Barcelona family who took them in giving them food, shelter and clothes as “a gift from God” and she said she’s “happy not to hear the sound of bombs,” but she can’t relax knowing her mother and aunt remain in Ukraine. “I cry every time I watch the news.”
At least 2,000 civilians have been killed so far, and Bilokin and her daughter are two of an estimated 1.7 million Ukrainians who have fled the country.
Josep Borrell, high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, on Monday warned that the 27-member bloc needed to rapidly prepare for an influx of some 5 million Ukrainians; other estimates have put the likely number of refugees at twice that. And while many of those fleeing are currently in neighboring countries, particularly Poland, hundreds of thousands are likely heading to Western Europe, which thus far has been welcoming them with open arms.
Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union,” said EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during a recent appearance on CNN.
How many refugees have already arrived in Spain is unclear — those driven in by volunteers in Poland began arriving late last week in Barcelona, and busloads of Ukrainians, offered free transport by Spanish NGOs began arriving this weekend in cities such as Valencia.
As the regional governments in Madrid, Barcelona and Alicante scramble to establish official refugee reception centers and to reserve hotel beds for new arrivals, hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainians have already set themselves up in Spain, renting short-term apartments or staying with friends since mid-February or earlier. This group is mostly comprised of young urban Kyivians in their 20s and 30s, some of whom hold IT jobs with international firms who urged them to leave Ukraine weeks ago. And while many of the refugees who got an early start are relieved to be out of a war zone, many struggle with depression.
“We are in shock,” Nastia Makarova told Yahoo News Saturday as she sat at a pizzeria with her Ukrainian colleagues near the beach in Alicante in southeast Spain. “It’s hard to talk about what is happening.”
“We didn’t expect this,” added Makarova’s colleague Svitlana Tymenko. “The Americans warned about it, but we didn’t believe it.”
Both women traveled to Spain at the urging of their employer. The government here recently announced that in addition to free transportation on all national trains, Ukrainians can stay, work and have health care in the country for at least one year, though it may be extended to three years depending on pending EU legislation.
But not all of the new arrivals feel assured about a future in Spain. “We don’t know what our status is — how long we can stay, if we can work here and have health insurance,” Artur Kandur said.
Still, Makarova and her colleagues are constantly reminded of how good they have it compared to many Ukrainians.
“We have money, we have jobs, we have places to stay, we have food,” she said. “A lot of Ukrainians can’t leave — they don’t have money, they don’t have remote jobs, they don’t have relatives in other countries, they have nowhere to go.”
Makarova’s grandfather, whose wife died two weeks ago, can’t walk. “So, my family, they are staying in Ukraine to help him,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.
Kandur is upset because he has friends and family in the hard-hit port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, where the internet, electricity, water, heat and phones have been cut off for a week. “I don’t know how they are,” he said. “We can’t communicate.”
“There’s a lot of guilt that we didn’t experience the true nightmares of war,” Anton, a talent agent who plans to reside in Spain until the war lets up, told Yahoo News. The situation “is further complicated, because men aren’t allowed to leave Ukraine now.” Some who escaped before the invasion began are considering returning to fight. Many, however, are figuring out how to fight for Ukrainians from outside of the country.
Like Anton, musician Ira Luzina, who flew to Barcelona at the end of January planning initially to return to Kyiv in early March, has been working to help friends and family find rides out of Ukraine or at least to the western part of the country, which has not yet been pummeled by Russian forces. “But nowhere in Ukraine feels safe anymore,” she told Yahoo News. She is particularly worried that Russian forces have seized not only the radioactive remnant of the Chernobyl plant, but her southern hometown of Enerhodar, which holds Europe’s largest nuclear plant, the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia.
“When Russian troops began attacking the Zaporizhzhia plant, I started writing emails to all nuclear and atomic energy societies and agencies and organizations around the globe, begging them to do something about the Russian threat,” she said.
Of the 48 emails she’s sent to official governmental agencies and NGOs, only the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has written back, saying they are “closely tracking the situation” and the “NRC stands in solidarity with our counterparts in Ukraine.”
Other Ukrainian refugees in Spain are raising money for Ukrainian fighters, even searching for ammunition for the army. Many are waging an information war — writing and telling people the reports they’re hearing from Ukraine, and pounding home the message that NATO and the U.S. need to enact a no-fly zone. That request has so far been denied over fears it would lead to World War III.
But as displaced Ukrainians wage information and persuasion battles, they long for the day that the war that Russia inflicted upon their country will be over. Even though she’s fond of Barcelona, Luzina is waiting for the moment when she can return home. “I will fly back to Kyiv and help to restore it,” she said.