Participants: Iryna Horycheva (I.H.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022

N.M.: You can start with the beginning, the middle, or this period, it’s up to you.

I.H.: Then maybe I will start with where I was born in Ukraine. I was born in Odessa, in the south of Ukraine, on the Black Sea coast. It’s a very beautiful place that I highly recommend you visit one day. So maybe I should mention some important moments of my life. I graduated from the University of Philology, so I can work as a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, and also as an English teacher.

– Was this your specialisation?

I.H.: It is my specialisation. Ukrainian and English language and literature. I have worked in various places: a public school, a private language school. I’ve even tried my hand as a sales manager selling British course books from British publishers, because they were of better quality than the Ukrainian English books. They are more authentic, that’s why they are very popular in Ukraine. Then I started my own little business. It was a language school. So before the war I was working as an English teacher at my own school. Since we had some free space and some free time, we also had art classes for students. 

In the beginning, nobody believed it. Unfortunately, neither did we. We didn’t think it was anything serious. Rumours about war started going around, they said there were a lot of troops at the border. We thought these were just political games, that it was all a show designed to influence the political situation. So I was sure nothing would happen. But some people were ready. When they packed their suitcases, I thought they were mad. How could they think of this happening in modern times, in the 21st century? But then the war started and six days into it, I decided to leave because I have a six-year-old daughter. I was really afraid because I didn’t know where I was going to live or what I was going to do. I had to leave everything: my husband, my parents and my job. It was a very tough decision, but I was afraid for my daughter. I didn’t want her to be traumatized because we could hear explosions. They were not frequent, but we could hear them from time to time. When it all started, I was afraid of sleeping in my own bedroom. Every evening, we took our mattresses out into the corridor because we were afraid to sleep next to the window. And for six nights we slept in the corridor.

So I realized it was impossible to live like that and I had a feeling it would last for a long time. I was sure it wouldn’t just be for a month or two, but for half a year or more. And now half a year has passed, and the situation hasn’t changed, unfortunately. It’s still ongoing. My husband was also a big influence. He feared for our safety and insisted that we leave the country. So I took some of our savings and went to the Moldavian border because it was the closest. 

It would have been difficult for me to go on this trip alone, so I talked to a friend who also wanted to leave. She had a daughter too and we decided to leave together. One of our friends drove us to the Moldavian border and we crossed with our children. There were a lot of volunteers there in the first days of the war. We were advised to remain there for a night and get some rest. At first, we were planning to go to Poland because we thought the Slavic language was more similar. So we spent a night in Chișinău.

– Did you stay in a refugee centre or somewhere else?

I.H.: A woman offered to take us to her apartment, so we stayed there. 

– In what language did you talk to each other? 

I.H.: All Moldavian people speak Russian. 

– Do you speak Russian?

I.H.: Yes, in South Ukraine more people speak Russian than Ukrainian because of the region’s history. It was part of the Russian Empire before it became Ukraine, which is why a lot of people still speak Russian. It was one of the reasons they invoked for starting the war: “saving” the Russian-speaking people. But now we understand. Even though language is not a valid reason to start a war, I personally try to speak more Ukrainian now to show that we are Ukrainians, not Russians. My first language is Russian because my parents speak it. But now I try more and more to speak Ukrainian to my husband and some of my friends.

– When did you usually speak Russian before the war?

I.H.: Mostly in day-to-day life, with my family and at school, because I worked in a private school. In public schools the teaching language was Ukrainian. When I visited my friends and relatives in central Ukraine, we spoke Ukrainian. It was okay for me, but it was maybe more convenient to speak Russian. We were raised bilingual. 

– Would you relate language to identity?

I.H.: Yes, I understand now that we need to speak Ukrainian more and more to show Russia that we are not Russians. It was one of the reasons why they started the war, and I don’t want them to have any more reasons in the future. And I want them to understand that we are Ukrainians, and they should respect our borders, our language, our culture, and our people.

– So you were in Chișinău?

I.H.: Yes. 

– You were there with your friend?

I.H.: Yes. With my friend and our daughters.

– And this lady who offered up her apartment for one night.

I.H.: Yes, for one night. And then the following day we took a train. We were in touch with volunteers and one of them put us in touch with volunteers from Romania. We took a train to Iași, where we were met by Romanian volunteers, and we spent a night there, with a very nice family. They lived in a house in the countryside. That is when we noticed the language was very different, it’s not similar to English or our languages. And it was complicated, because the people we stayed with did not speak English, but it was very interesting too.

– How did you manage to communicate?

I.H.: Google Translate. It was very helpful. So this family advised us to go to Timișoara because it was easier to get to Poland from there. I didn’t know anything about Romania. I just knew that Bucharest was the capital, that Dracula’s castle is in Romania, and that Ceaușescu was killed. That was all the information I had and maybe that wasn’t good because we are neighbours, and yet we knew very little. And I had never been to Romania before. I had visited other countries in Europe, but not Romania. 

So we came to Timișoara. I think it was on the 3rd of March. We were offered an apartment for a few days. The volunteers told us that there was going to be a free bus to Poland, but we needed to wait a few days. During this time, I was reading the news about the situation in my country and about the refugees’ situation. There was a lot of information that Poland was overcrowded with Ukrainians and that it was difficult to find an apartment. I feared it wasn’t such a good idea to go there, so I decided to talk to David, a volunteer from Timișoara.

I called David and asked for his advice. I told him: look, I’ve read all this news and the situation in Poland is not good. And he said: Why do you want to go to Poland? We have offered you an apartment for free. We can get you a job here too. So everything will be fine. Stay here. It’s a good city. So I discussed this with my friend and we decided to stay here. 

– Did you talk to your husband about this?

I.H.: Yes, yes. He also advised us to stay. He thought it was good if people could help us with the apartment because we could save some money. We didn’t know how long this was going to last, so it was better to stay, and I began to look for a job. At the time I didn’t have any online classes with my students from Ukraine because they were all with their parents and everybody was in a state of shock. It wasn’t a good time to ask them about continuing the lessons online, so I decided to look for a job here. I went for an interview at a language school, but when I was asked if I was still going to be here when the war stopped or if I knew for how long I was going to stay, I couldn’t lie. I said I would go home if I had the opportunity to do so. And then I found out about the refugee centre on Dragalina Street, operated by LOGS and DAS. They helped us a lot with food, hygiene products and some vouchers, which was more than enough to live on. After a month, I decided to talk to my students’ parents and most of them agreed to continue their classes online, so I started working from home. 

– Did they connect from wherever they were?

I.H.: Some of my students were in Italy, some in Poland, some were even in Egypt. Some of them had stayed in Ukraine and had moved to villages because it was safer there. Missiles usually hit big cities. So we had online lessons till the end of June, and now they’re on holiday. And then I was offered a job working here, at FITT, with Ukrainians. I accepted the offer because online lessons give me backache because of all the sitting in the same position. I don’t know what I’m going to do from September on, maybe I will give online lessons, or maybe I will ask someone to help me. I haven’t decided yet. 

– How many hours a day do you teach online?

I.H.: I have 3-4 lessons, that’s about 3-4 hours. It’s not much, but enough to give me problems with my back. 

– At FITT, do you only work with Ukrainian kids or with adults too?

I.H.: I work with kids, teenagers and adults.

– Do you teach them English? 

I.H.: Yes, yes, English. Sometimes I help with English to Ukrainian translation. We have a department here that organizes different kinds of events for the Ukrainian people, such as festivals, movie nights, pottery classes, art classes, meetings with psychologists, and so on. Yesterday there was a trip to the art museum.

– Was it for children or for people of all ages?

I.H.: For everyone who was interested. But of course, not for five-year-old kids, because it’s very complicated for them. Both Romanians and Ukrainians work in this department, and Romanians sometimes need help translating announcements into Ukrainian for our groups. Yesterday I was invited as a translator on that trip because the guide spoke English and not everybody could understand him. So it was a great experience for me, as I had never done it before.

– Translating is different from teaching.

I.H.: Yes. It’s rather difficult to translate art-related content, so I didn’t know how to prepare for this trip. I asked them if they had anything written down for me to read but they didn’t, so I found the site of the museum and translated the information for myself. I read up on the history of this museum, which was quite helpful. 

– And educational.

I.H.: Yes, educational too. And it was good experience. 

– How many people were there?

I.H.: About 15 people, not a big group. The museum is very beautiful.

– It’s one of the oldest buildings in Timișoara. 

I.H.: And I was impressed by the paintings. Different styles, Baroque, Impressionists. The guide explained all the differences in very simple words, and it was memorable. I still remember most of the information. I like that I have an opportunity to work here because it keeps my mind busy.

– How many kids do you have in your class here? And how does it work?

I.H.: I have an average of ten people per group, but some of them miss class sometimes.  

– So you work with different levels? 

I.H.: Yes, we divided the adults into groups: elementary, pre-intermediate and intermediate. People are very different and it’s not interesting for them to start from zero if they already know some words. 

– So you also teach them the Latin alphabet. Do they write using the Latin alphabet?

I.H.: Yes, they need to. We have audio materials, we watch short videos. We do it all.

– What other materials do you have? What do you use? What books?

I.H.: Luckily, I brought my laptop with me, and I have a lot of materials on it for kids and adults: various books, plus flashcards for kids. We also have a colour printer here that I use to print flashcards for the kids. So it’s very helpful that I have all this material. We don’t have to buy anything new, just print what we already have. We’re also planning to open a Ukrainian school here. We already have all the teachers for primary school, because it’s not very complicated. You only need one teacher per class. But it’s more complicated for secondary school because you need many teachers for different subjects. Our children can go to Romanian schools, it’s allowed, but they will lose one year because they will only listen in for the first year. They are going just to learn the language. This was a proposal of the municipality.

– Yes, of the ministry too.

I.H.: But only one school said… Do you have a Serbian school here? 

– Yes. 

I.H.: The language is a little similar to Russian and Ukrainian. They said they would accept our children so they wouldn’t lose a year, but they might need to take some extra classes of Serbian. I have a friend who lives close to this school, and she decided it would be better for her children to go there. Also, some high school students have decided to continue their education online, because they already know their teachers and their colleagues.

– So starting September they will be online with people who are in…?

I.H.: In Ukraine. Most Ukrainian schools will move their classes online because it’s very dangerous to go to schools, as they don’t have safe basements or shelters. I was reading about my city yesterday. It has a population of more than one million and 95 schools, only 13 of which will be working offline. 95% of the parents voted for their children to continue their studies online. They are afraid and I understand them.

– So will you have a primary school here? 

I.H.: Yes, we will have a primary school here. That’s 100% certain. We already have a lot of applicants.

– How many do you have?

I.H.: We will have about 15 students in each class.

– And how many classes?

I.H.: For primary school, we will have 4 classes. For secondary school, there will be a different format. The parents liked the idea. We are going to have both online and offline lessons. The teachers we were able to find here in Timișoara will be teaching offline. For example, I will be teaching English and we found a Romanian teacher too. They need to study Romanian because we don’t know how long we are going to stay here. Other subjects they will study online, but they will be together in the classroom, and they will have a tutor. They need someone to keep them in line because teenagers are more difficult. They might play computer games, for example, but they will be supervised by a tutor. During this time, the parents can go to work or do other things. They like this idea because they feel safe knowing their children will be there, looked after by someone. They’re going to have some snacks, they can socialize and make friends. They’re also going to play sports and take art lessons. So we try to make it work both for the kids and the parents.

– Will the classes take place here? (at FITT) 

I.H.: Yes, they will take place here and we are going to buy them more laptops. We have already found some sponsors and some materials, but we need more funding for the salaries. Our future headmaster, Irina Yetskalo, is dealing with this. I think you interviewed her yesterday.

– Yes. Iryna, what did you tell your daughter about this? How did you explain to her what was happening?

I.H.: I explained to her that there was a war, and it wasn’t safe to live in Ukraine now, in our city. And that it was better to leave and come here, to Timișoara, for a while. But I tell her that everything will be fine. We will go back home. You will live in your apartment with mom and dad and so on. Oh… When I’m talking about it… I’m crying. (crying). There was something on my mind and I forgot.

– Well, it’s not easy explaining this to a child.

I.H.: She saw the situation for herself. She could hear the explosions. She was afraid too because she was six years old. Now she’s seven. And of course, she understands a lot.

– And do kids in your class ask about what’s happening, or do you keep away from the topic?

I.H.: We don’t usually talk about it with the children. But… maybe sometimes we say things about the war when they are present. I can see that kids have already accepted the situation. Most of them have been living here for four or five months, and they already feel at home because they came with their mothers and their grandparents. So the way I see it, it’s much easier for children to adapt. Because they feel more positive. Because they are kids. They can enjoy their lives in any situation. 

– What did you take with you when you packed your bag? How did you make the selection? What did you choose to take?

I.H.: Like I said, I was planning to go to Poland, and I knew Poland was in the North of Europe. I expected it to be cold and I packed a lot of warm clothes. Then, at the beginning of April, it was already so hot here, 20-25 degrees Celsius. I said: Oh my God! 

– 30, even 40 degrees Celsius now, as you can see.

I.H.: Yes, it’s very hot here for us, especially for people from the Kyiv region. It’s terrible for them at this temperature. For us, it’s easier because we’re from the south of Ukraine. In summer, we have a maximum of 35-37 degrees Celsius, so we are used to it. So I took a lot of clothes I didn’t need. And what else did I take? I took an e-reader because I wanted to be able to read. 

– Like a Kindle? What books do you have on it?

I.H.: For example, I had a book about French kids. Why do French kids behave so well? I discovered that they have a good education culture. There are a lot of good recommendations. For me, it was a very useful and interesting read. I like reading before going to bed, so I thought this would relax me. And I got a massager for my face because I like all the things that have to do with cosmetics. This was also supposed to be relaxing because I knew I was going to be under a lot of stress. I took a lot of medicine because I knew that it was impossible to buy antibiotics here…

– … without a prescription. 

I.H.: Yes, yes. I thought it would be very complicated, but now I know it’s not that bad. The hospitals here are very helpful. We went to the emergency room several times, and everything was free for us. I was afraid it would be very expensive. I didn’t know what to expect, but there were no problems.

– I think it’s more or less the same as in Ukraine.

I.H.: Drug prices are the same, yes, but I took some medicine with me. And when I came here to Timișoara and unpacked all my clothes, I found a postcard from my husband. (crying) He wanted to surprise me with it… I’m sorry, it’s too difficult…

– I’m sorry you have to go through this.

I.H.: I wanted to say that we decided to meet with him because the situation is very good at the border. There are no air raids, everything is fine. So at the end of May, my daughter and I went to Ukraine, not to our city, just beyond the Romanian border. My husband met us there and we were together for a week. I asked my mom to come to Romania with me because I had found a bigger apartment for us and I wanted to work, so I needed help with Alisa, my daughter, who is only seven. And she agreed.

– Is she here?

I.H.: Yes. She’s here, we live together.

– How old is your mother?

I.H.: She is 58. 

– She’s young.

I.H.: Yes, rather young. She had me when she was 22 and I’m 36. So yes. I am a good daughter, I remember my mom’s age. And we are planning to meet with my husband again at the end of this month. I found a bus to Sighet, so we will go there. It’s next to the Ukrainian border and he will come to Solotvino. We will spend a week there. Of course, we want to see each other from time to time because it’s very difficult. This hasn’t just been two or three months. It’s been half a year already. And I think it will be… I’m sure it will go on until the end of the year and we don’t know what to expect next year.

– Is your husband in Odessa now?

I.H.: Yes, yes. He is in Odessa.

– And your father? 

I.H.: My father too. 

– Do you have brothers or sisters? 

I.H.: Unfortunately, no. I’m an only child because my mom had some problems with her health, and she couldn’t have any more kids. But the situation in Odessa has improved now. They have work, and everything is fine. Yes. Most people go to work and try to live their day-to-day life like before. But of course, people are evacuated from regions where fighting is still on going. Mostly in the east of Ukraine.

– Which is at the border with Russia.

I.H.: Yes, closer to Russia and to Crimea.

– How far away is Odesa from Crimea?

I.H.: About 500 kilometres, rather far away.

– Timișoara is farther away.

I.H.: Much farther. I don’t want to say I regret that I’m in Timișoara. But sometimes I think: why Timișoara? It is so far from Ukraine. But it’s safer. It is a big distance because when I first visited Ukraine in May, we went to Galați by bus, and it was a 15-hour ride. I spent all day and night on the bus with my daughter. But she is very good. She slept all through the night and in the daytime, I gave her some illustrations, some books and some toys. 

– So she was having fun. 

I.H.: And she is not very noisy. She slept a little in the daytime too, so it was fine. But difficult, still. Yes. I was very tired after this trip.

– Where did you go with your husband?

I.H.: I was afraid to go to Odessa. And close to Galați, there is a Ukrainian town called Izmail. We stayed in Izmail for a week, we rented an apartment. It will be the same situation in Solotvino, we’ve found an apartment already. Yes, it was not very expensive, because it’s in the countryside.

– Yes. I know Solotvino.

I.H.: So you’ve been there. It was not very expensive. We found a room with a private bathroom and a shared kitchen. But it’s ok for a week. 

– What do you like to do in Timișoara? What do you do for entertainment? Besides keeping your mind busy by working here, translating and taking care of your daughter.

I.H.: Well, I like water because I lived near the sea, and I actually miss it a lot. But you have a lot of swimming pools here, so at weekends we try to go to the swimming pool because my daughter likes swimming, and she can already swim without a swimming vest. I like to take walks along the river because, especially when it is very hot, it seems like the air is cooler there. And you have very nice cafes near the river, sometimes we go there too. I was also surprised that you have so many shopping centres in such a small city. I know Timișoara is Romania’s third biggest city but to me, it doesn’t look that big. 

– Here, going to shopping centres is still one of the most popular forms of entertainment for people.

I.H.: Yes, sometimes we like to do that too. It’s good to spoil yourself, maybe buy something nice for yourself. Yes. And I like to go to the city centre. You have very beautiful buildings, historical buildings. But I did notice that the city centre could use more investment because it’s the first place you see and there are a lot of buildings that still need to be renovated. I’ve also heard that next year you will be the cultural capital of Europe. And I don’t like the railway station. Sorry. Because tourists always arrive at the railway station and it’s a place that should be very nice. But in general, you have a lot of nice places. 

– You are very kind. What’s your plan? Do you have a plan for the future? 

I.H.: I’m the kind of person who likes planning and that’s why this is so difficult for me. I don’t like all these spontaneous situations. In my life, I like to plan. Before the war, my plan was to change the apartment for a better one. But now… The war has made us change our values. An apartment is not important at all, a personal car is not important at all, expensive clothes are not important at all. But I do like to feel comfortable. I like nice clothes. We bought a car before the war. But now I have begun to understand that it’s not so important. Just having a calm life, having the people you love close to you, that’s important. And to have the support of the people you love. But still, I don’t see myself living here or in any country in Europe. I just want to go back. And I hope I will be able to do that soon. But after all of this, I realized it’s not good to invest in one country only. You know what I mean, it’s not good to buy an apartment and a summer house in the same place. Maybe you need to think more strategically. What might happen in your country in 10 years or 20 year’s time? So maybe this will also influence you in how you think about your future. These are my thoughts about this period. I don’t know what other people say, but these are my ideas.

– So far I have only talked to Jane and the other Iryna. Jane also said she wanted to go back. A lot of people want to go back. You had a nice, comfortable life, or a relatively good life.

I.H.: Yes, yes. Because we had everything. 

– You have to rebuild the country, but still…

I.H.: I hope our city will stay safe because so far it hasn’t been damaged too badly. Maybe some damage, but not too much. The situation is very bad in other cities. You know, you saw the videos, they’ve been burned to the ground. So in our city, it’s quite okay. Yes, we had our own business, a good job, an apartment, a summer house. So, of course, we want to go back because we had a very comfortable life. What do we have to keep us here? So the Russians have destroyed our lives, unfortunately, for now. It’s like they took this time away from us. Now we live, but we don’t live a complete life. 

– Did your parents or your grandparents tell you anything about the Second World War?

I.H.: Yes, mostly…

– Or did you learn about it in school? Because you surely studied it in history classes. 

I.H.: Yes, we heard all the stories. We learned about it at school, but it was all just a story. But you see, I realized that the Second World War was not as dangerous as nowadays, because weapons and missiles are more dangerous now, they are more powerful. For example, people could hide and be safe before. Now it’s impossible. 

– They can locate you anywhere.

I.H.: I saw all these holes in the ground after the attack, they were like five meters deep. So if you’re in a basement, it’s not going to be safe. Now humans have so many different types of weapons, some chemical, some with phosphorus, I don’t know if you’ve heard, and they are banned. 

– I’ve heard that they used them anyway.

I.H.: Yes, they used them. I think this war is even more dangerous. Of course, in the Second World War a lot of people died, and it spread to a larger territory. But now my nephew and my husband’s brother, as well as a close friend of ours who is in the army, tell us that even only the sound is unbearable sometimes. A lot of people get concussions because of these shock waves. They cause brain damage and affect the whole body. Because of the powerful weapons. 

– Where are they fighting? Do you know? Your nephew, your brother-in-law, where are they now?

I.H.: They can’t give us the exact location, they are not allowed to, so they just tell us the region, for example, Kharkiv. I know that my brother-in-law is in the Kharkiv region, and my nephew is in Luhansk. It is the most dangerous place. And when it is very close to Russia, they call it nulevka in Ukrainian, which means “zero”, where enemy troops are very close to each other. 

– How do you say homesick in Ukrainian? What do you say when you miss your home?

I.H.: When I miss home… mmm… I don’t know how to say it in one word. Sumuvaty za domom.

– Does this mean you miss your home?

I.H.: Yes. Like I miss my home. Maybe we have a special word, but I can’t remember. I will check. Because I know how to say it in Russian. Tuga. But it can be for everything, not jut for home. It can be tuga for parents, or tuga for a certain time of your life, for school days or for university days. We don’t have a specific word for homesickness. We need to explain what we feel tuga for.

– Do you feel that?

I.H.: Oh, a lot. Once, when I was in a video call with my husband, he switched to the front camera, so I was able to see my room and I began to cry. You can imagine how I feel. I told him: no, don’t show me the rooms and the house, because when I see them, I feel stressed, frustrated and disappointed. That’s why he tries not to show me anymore. Is this fine? Did you get enough information? 

– Yes. Thank you, Iryna. 

Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska

Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov

Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu