Participants: Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: So, Evghenia, how do I pronounce your name?
J: In Ukrainian, Євгенія (Evghenia) or Женя (Zhenya), the short name.
N.M.: And your full name in Ukrainian?
– Evghenia Rozbytska.
N.M.: Okay. Tell me your life story. What are the most important events, who are the most important people?
J: So, I’m originally from Kyiv. I’m 40 years old now and I lived in Kyiv for 33 years. I have a husband, we have been together for nearly 20 years. Next year we will celebrate 20 years, not of marriage, but of being together. Because it was not very important for us to have a stamp on a piece of paper. My family consisted of my mom and my grandmother. I didn’t have a father. Unfortunately, neither of them is alive today. I lost them both in one year. So I was born in the Soviet Union. And then, when I was a teenager, everything changed. My mom was not young at that moment, because she gave birth to me when she was 41.
N.M.: She was more or less your age now.
J: Yes. And it was not okay for her. She was 50 years old when the Soviet Union ended and she had got used to living in the Soviet Union system. Of course, it was difficult for her to adjust to a new system. She was working in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy at that time. It’s a very Ukrainian University, historically a very Ukrainian University, a legendary one. By the way, she sent me to a Ukrainian school, and it was very uncommon in 1991 to send kids to Ukrainian schools. So I studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. And it’s thanks to this that I have a deep understanding of Ukrainian heritage and of what Ukraine is, because when I studied there, it was like the main place of all the Ukrainian culture.
As to the working experience, I have never worked in my specialization. I have a degree in IT. When I started university, the field of IT was just the beginning to develop. I graduated from school with a gold medal and after that I went to the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where there were 60 boys that knew computer sciences very well. And I was lost because I have never even touched a computer before, so it was a rather haphazard choice of profession.
But at the same time, it was useful. After the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, I worked as a website creator in the trade company Kiev Climate that delivered air conditioning systems of well-known brands, like Mitsubishi Electric and GREE. And very quickly I became the Head of Marketing in that company. I worked there for five years. After that, I moved to an event planning agency and again… You know, it’s probably my karma. Every time, I would come into a structure as an employee, but very quickly I would understand the system and tell the owners what we need to change in order to evolve. Yeah, that’s why I started as a website manager, but soon I became the Head of Marketing and then I started at the events planning agency and very quickly I became the CEO of that agency. I’m always joking that in Ukraine I never worked on a salary. I would get a percentage of the income, so it was like being co-owner.
So, I was the CEO of an events planning agency for seven years. And we had huge, very interesting projects, different types of projects. Mostly for private companies. Like when you’re ordering some MICE activity, or a New Year’s Party. The most interesting project was with a major television company in Ukraine called STB. Maybe you know this USA TV show format called “The Biggest Loser”, where fat people are supposed to lose weight. So, they got a license for producing that show in Ukraine, and I got the contract with that television company. For three years we produced all the challenges for those fat people while they were losing weight.
N.M.: Were they filmed while they were losing weight?
J: Sure, it’s a live show. So, they start each season of this program at the beginning or middle of April. And the participants have four months of training, a healthy food diet, those challenges, some psychological work. And it’s all a real show. It’s not fake, there are no stunt doubles. We produced all the challenges for filming. Maybe you remember, all the time there are some challenges that the participants need to go through. For example, extreme competitions of speed, endurance and so on. So, all these challenges were produced by my agency, and they were made for filming in real time. It was a rather crazy time because we always had like, two challenges in development, two challenges waiting for approval, two challenges in filming. We did not have a very big team, but it was a very nice team. And it was really challenging for us also, because it’s like you are always trying to find answers to some strange requests. You need to find, for example, two similarly high buildings with one entrance to the same roof, so that two teams of participants can simultaneously climb the steps of different buildings and go to the same roof. Or you need to find a swimming pool where you can build some kind of stage, where participants can hang over the pool, hold on to a pipe and stay out of the water for as long as they can. So it was a very interesting and challenging period.
And then 2014 came and the Maidan and thar war-like conflict started. Maidan started in December. For events planning agencies, December is the time when you manage a lot of events and earn money for the next half a year. And then suddenly, Maidan starts—actually, the war—and revolution starts. And of course, almost all companies refused to organise any New Year’s event. Because it’s not okay to celebrate when such awful things are happening. Of course, we lost a lot of clients and a lot of money, and we didn’t know what to expect. At first, we just postponed, postponed, postponed all planned events. After that, we rejected, rejected, rejected everything. And the owner of my company, one of the two, he escaped to the USA and he’s still there, as a refugee in the USA. I’m not in contact with him anymore.
So it was a rather hard period for me from a business point of view. At that moment, one year after the beginning of Maidan, my husband and I decided to take a break, like refreshment or downshifting.
N.M.: To reinvent yourself.
J: Something like that. We decided to move to Odesa. My husband is originally from Lugansk. I don’t know how or why, but when he was 16 years old, in 1993, he went from post-Soviet Luhansk directly to the USA and studied there for one year. Also, during that time, he studied Computer Sciences. So when he was 16 or 17 years old in Lugansk, he somehow knew that English and computer science will be of use in the future. So it was very good for him. And, of course, he didn’t go back to Lugansk. He studied in Kharkiv and then he moved to Kyiv, and that’s where we met each other. So at that moment we had been living together for 11 years or something like that. But his father, his brother, his brother’s wife and their daughter moved from Lugansk to Kyiv in 2014. We accommodated them. For a while, they lived with my mother and my grandma. But then my husband and I moved to Odesa. At that time, he was a private entrepreneur in startups, and he also was a bit burned out. So he decided to work as an employee for some time. He received a job offer from a very good Odesa IT company and we decided to move to live near the sea, in a smaller, calmer city, and maybe have kids. So it was, in a way, like a decision to downshift.
We thought that we would spend two, maybe three years in Odesa, but we ended up spending seven. We rented an apartment. The last one, from which we escaped, was just near the sea, with a very nice sea view. It was the best sea view ever because it’s on the 13th floor. And it’s panoramic.
So, my husband worked in Odesa. And first I didn’t want to work, but very soon I got acquainted with a very nice and, like, true tourist agency called TudoySudoy. Not the kind that is sending people abroad, but that is providing local tourism programs, a local tourism operator in Odesa. We had very good guides, with a good knowledge of history, as well as very interesting storytellers. So we challenged the idea that a guided tour is something boring. Yeah, because usually you think that it’s a lady telling you “look at this building, it is made by someone sometime”. And thanks to Odesa’s history… Because Odesa has a bright history. It’s rather short, something like 300 years, but it’s very amazing, bright and full of stories.
So for five years I made absolutely amazing tours, some several days long, programs, theatrical tours, some small theatre shows within city tours. Because Odesa is about people and in each… Well, it’s a long story, I could talk about it for hours… Because if you’re talking about Odesa, on the one side you will hear about rich people, the Opera House and very famous leaders like Vorontsov or the duke de Richelieu, who ruled the city for some time, and then he became the Prime Minister of France. But at the same time, you’ll see the legendary Odesa courtyards, and that will be more about family life and about Jewish people. So that’s what Odesa is. Very diverse and very interesting.
N.M.: And what were you doing exactly?
J: I was R&D Director, so I was doing almost everything. SMM, new ideas and new development, new tours, new trips, new programs, implementation of everything in the programme. Website, Facebook. And also management of big corporate groups. That was also my responsibility.
N.M.:So, your clients were corporations.
J: Yes, most of them were companies. The clients of the tourist agency varied, but my personal clients were companies or groups who wanted to organize, for example, a week-long program of visiting Odessa and they had certain reasons for coming.
N.M.: What nationality were they? Were they Ukrainians, Americans?
J: Most of them were Ukrainian, but sometimes they were, for example, people who left Odesa 20 years ago. And now they wanted to come back with their friends and relatives and show them the place where they were born and where they grew up.
N.M.: So nostalgia trips.
J: Yes. And we prepared them very nice surprises. So, like I said, we put on theatrical performances during city tours. For example, you would meet some musicians in some courtyard, or there would be gastronomic tastings, or you would meet heroes from history who interacted with you.
N.M.: Were people expecting this to happen? Or was it more like a surprise?
J: Of course, the entire program was approved by whoever ordered the tour. But if you’re a company and you’re like an HR or marketing manager who brings people to visit Odesa, most of them didn’t know what the program would be. We were leaders in the tourism sector in the South region. And it was not only about Odesa, because Odesa and the South region are completely different things. Odesa was a city created from nothing, so it doesn’t have deep historical roots. It was made on a vacant plot of land, planned and built from zero. The region is Bessarabia and it’s very different, it has a different history from other parts of the country and very interesting things have happened there throughout history in general.
And then… dark times came…
N.M.: But before we get to those dark times, do you feel like you made you career choices or things just happened in a certain way that led you to this moment?
J: I have always had some vision for my life… How to explain this… I have never been to an interview for a certain job. It was always more like a flow of feelings, ideas and accidents. When you understand: I want to go that direction, that’s the road, I should go there. And then it develops into stories, positions and achievements.
N.M.: Does your husband operate in the same way?
J: No, my husband is… he is a man (she laughs). For me, when you’re a woman, you’re more like water, you’re more about feeling. But if you’re a man, you make more straight-forward decisions. But he is never afraid of changes and that’s good for him, he is very flexible.
N.M.: You also have this in common, you’re also not afraid of changes.
J: You know, I don’t like changes. But at the same time, when they happen, we very quickly adjust to them, so… He is not afraid of changes. He even likes changes. And of course, you know, I was discussing this with Mircea… Every time changes happen in your life, maybe you would have been afraid to make those changes yourself. But each time shit happens, you get this blank slate, this carte blanche, this plain paper… There is even a song, it’s a Russian song, but… It says that when you lose everything, you find everything. So you don’t have any more limitation or frames for your life. And it’s always, well, it’s always like a chance to make something completely new. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. Of course, it’s better to have some platform to give you stability. But throughout our life there are always crises. Whether financial or military or COVID or something else, all the time we need to adjust to these changes, again and again. So…
N.M.: Have you ever felt, during your lifetime, that you’re just an actor in a play where politics, empires, other people decide for you?
J: Mmm… No. Because politics and common people…
N.M.: I mean, there is History with a capital H and we, the common people…
J: That’s what we are talking about just now, that when you’re reading about some historical thing in a book, it is put there like a finished story, with numbers and dates and everything. But frankly, when some bad thing happens, in your everyday life or such things that are happening now, they are so… ordinary, so… how to say… Even when someone’s relative gets sick or dies, when you’re telling someone about this, it’s a tragedy. But when it is happening, it’s just life. You didn’t plan it, you just received the phone call. And that’s it. And that’s what is happening now…
You know, my grandma was born in 1923 in Berdychiv. It’s a city not far from Kyiv. And this city was commonly inhabited by Polish and Jewish people because it was a historical settlement of those nations. Her name was very unusual in Ukraine. Her name was Romalda Vatslavivna. That sounds more like Polish. Vronska Romalda Vatslavivna. And my mother’s name was Yadviga Frantsivna. That’s also Polish.
N.M.: Because they were Polish…?
J: The settlement was historically Polish.
N.M.: Was the name changed to sound more Polish? Or you don’t know that?
J: I don’t know. So, my grandma was the child of the oldest daughter in a very big family. They were eight sisters and brothers, and my grandma was the daughter of the eldest one. The youngest sibling was close to my granny’s age. Most of them were religious, from Poland, they had a very big family. Very nice roots. And then it was 1933 and the Holodomor. And then it was 1937 and the Soviet Union arrested most of them just because they were not Bolsheviks.
And the relatives didn’t even know that most of those who were arrested were killed very quickly. My grandma’s father was arrested. In the archives in Zhytomir, we found the interrogation protocols. He was in prison for 5-6 months and he was definitely tortured. Of course, the papers don’t say that. But from one folder to the next, you can see that he was asked “Are you connected to any Polish anti-Soviet movements?”. And he said “no” again and again, until eventually he said “yes”. And we don’t know what happened next… So for many years, even after we received all those folders, my grandma didn’t want to know the entire story. And then the war came. From 1941 to 1945. She gave birth to my mom in 1941, and to my uncle in 1943. And I was always asking her: “How did you live through the war?”. And she said: “We just lived”. They didn’t move away, they continued living in their town. I think it was not so active as now, maybe. They didn’t have internet, there were no breaking news. They were just living, doing whatever. Her mother was sent to Kazakhstan. Her husband was in the army. But they somehow lived through it.
N.M.: Was she deported?
J: Yes, and she came back afterwards.
N.M.: Do you know where in Kazakhstan?
J: No, I don’t know.
N.M.: On what accusation?
J: I don’t know. Not grandma, her mother. I know only the stories from my grandma. She told me that once, for example, Germans took her when they were collecting young people. And she was standing before those inspectors and she was breastfeeding in that moment. So she just took her breast and squirted milk in the faces of the inspectors. She was standing there and thinking, either they will kill me, or they will let me go. And they let her go. It was strange for me to hear all these stories. And now we are living the same. Well, not same, but…
N.M.: Maybe similar.
J: Yes. And also, for example, like I told you, at this tourist agency in Odesa where I was working, the owner, Alexandr, he’s a historian, he published a lot of books, and he specialised in war. He wrote some books about the occupation. By the way, Odesa was occupied by Romanians during World War Two. He did a lot of research about all the territories in Ukraine, about how things were then. He’s a very good lecturer and many times during his lectures he said that we should understand that when those things are happening, it’s not about heroic scenes, but about everyday people in everyday situations. Just imagine you’re living in some West Ukrainian village and your family has nothing to eat. And the army comes, and they call you to fight, and they say they will pay you. You will go and fight because you don’t have food. So it’s all very… ordinary… We have a very good word in Ukrainian “pobutovyi”. But mainly, when you’re talking about things that happen every day, it’s not about heroism, it’s…
N.M.: … about ordinary choices.
J: Yes. Choices you make in that moment. And when you’re making those choices, you don’t know the end of the story. You’re just acting in that moment based on your circumstances. That’s why all these stories are very different. So going back to our life in Odesa…
N.M.: Can you hold on a bit… You’ve mentioned Holodomor.
N.M.: What do you know about this? Have you found about it from your family, from history books, how do Ukrainians find out about this?
J: Some things I learned from family, some things from books. But those archives were only opened recently. Most of those things were locked away for many, many years. So we are only now discovering more and more about how things happened. My grandma didn’t tell me a lot about this. I don’t know why. The whole family was living on a small street in Berdichiv. They all had their own houses and households. And they were all related, of course, but at the same time, there were very hard times. Yeah. Because of all those things. And she was a kid.
N.M.: Did you say she was born in 1923?
J: Yes. So at that time she was 10. They had a huge family. So they had some kind of support. But you should understand that, at the time, in a small town. Berdichiv is not a village, but it’s not a big city either. They were living in small houses, they didn’t have electricity, they didn’t live a rich life. They had an ordinary life of preparing food and household chores and trying to get a harvest. Most of them lived on their own.
N.M.: Did your granny have any stories about Soviet soldiers? Because our grandmothers, for example, have stories about Soviet troops coming and the most common one is about young girls hiding because they were afraid of being raped.
J: No, she didn’t. She told me that when the German soldiers came, they even accommodated them somehow. They were not rude to them. About the Soviets… no, she never said anything. And when the Soviet Union ended, she was not happy about it. She liked the system. She had got used to the system. They didn’t know any different. Yes. And for them it was like… their lives changed completely after the revolution. But my grandma was a very strong person.
N.M.: Did she speak Russian?
J: No, her first language was Polish when she was a kid. And Ukrainian, because it was a small city. There was a mix… Ukrainian mixed, in small part, with Polish words. And some Russian. Our family has always been bilingual, because we were living in Kyiv. My mom was the first to move to Kyiv.
N.M.: Did she go to university?
J: No, no. To work. And when she gave birth to me, my grandma moved to Kyiv to help her. As a capital, Kyiv was always more Russian speaking than Ukrainian speaking. But the government, and then the education system, became more and more Ukrainian, and then the media started to be in Ukrainian too. So it is changing.
N.M.: Has it changed from using Russian on a day-to-day basis to using more and more Ukrainian?
J: You mean when talking to each other?
N.M.: Yes. In big cities.
J: You know, for example, even in my family, I’m speaking to my husband in Russian and it’s more common for me to speak Russian on a day-to-day basis. Even now. I know that not many people will agree with me on this, but that’s how things are. In big cities we used to speak Russian. My opinion is not necessarily mainstream, but it’s my opinion. There are a lot of examples of countries, for example, Switzerland, that don’t have their own language, and yet they have a strong identity. For me, I don’t think that the problem is language. Because if you look at a map of Ukraine, in Bessarabia you have a lot of villages that were originally Bulgarian or Moldavian or Romanian, and in those villages people speak 4-5 languages, Moldavian, Ukrainian, Russian and English. So I think that we should know all the languages, as much as we can. Again, maybe it’s because my mom chose the Ukrainian school for me. So since I was seven years old, it was ok to speak Russian, as well as to speak Ukrainian. And then I studied in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and it was always only about the Ukrainian language. And then I worked for a short period of time in youth social services, and that was also in Ukrainian language. So I can use both languages just as easily.
N.M.: So you are bilingual. What about English and learning Romanian?
J: I think only if Tim will attend kindergarten [in Romanian], will I be able to somehow learn the language.
N.M.: What language do you use to speak to your son?
J: We try to speak several languages. We try to explain the words in all the languages. If we are reading books, we try to read Ukrainian. If we’re watching cartoons, very often they are in English or in Ukrainian. Songs are mostly in English. So it depends.
N.M.: Did you learn English from working or from school?
J: From school. Yeah, the school I attended was not only Ukrainian, but it also had intensive English classes. Starting with first grade, we had an English class and by the time I was in third grade, we had five English classes, two of English literature and two of technical translation. That’s why it was a good background, and we had really good teachers at the time. It was uncommon for Ukraine at the time.
And then COVID started.
N.M.: Yes. Were you in Odesa when COVID started?
J: Yes. But before COVID, you know, I had several years of strange things happening, every three months something bad happened. I still don’t have an explanation why.
N.M.: What do you mean by bad?
J: So, it started when my grandma fell. She was 96 when she died. And she was ill at the time, but she had been ill for some time. But suddenly she fell and broke her hip. And at that age, all you can do is lie in bed. It was the beginning of 2018, and we were in Sri Lankan at the time. My mom and granny were living together in Kyiv. She was 95 and my mother was 76, or something like that. So of course, when that happened, you understand that that person is in bed, and you need to take care of her. My granny had a very strong character, so it was really hard for her to just lie there. Three months later, I lost my first pregnancy. Then after three more months… Well, my cat had given birth to kittens. And I gave one to my goddaughter, as a present. The kitten was very tiny, so it was a nice present for her. But suddenly this small kitten gets sick and after three months it dies. And then three months later, my grandma died. And then three months later, in December, my mother went to the hospital with some virus or something like that. She had a very high temperature. And, again, we were not in Ukraine at the time. So I asked my friends in Kyiv to help me. And a little more than three months later, at the middle of April, in 2019, my mom had a problem with her stomach. She had three surgeries, and she spent two months in intensive care, and at the middle of summer she died. So when I say bad things, I mean really bad things. Then, two weeks after she died, I found out I was pregnant again. Oh, yeah. And she had been dreaming about this all her life. You know, it was a big deal for her: “When will you have a baby? When? You and Denis have been together a long time. When? When?” And then in December COVID started and then in April Tim was born.
N.M.: How do you explain all these losses? Loss after loss after loss…
J: Maybe it’s also about him (Tim), I don’t know. Maybe some things needed to change for him to be able to come. I don’t know. But we were talking about business. When I was pregnant, living in Odessa, near the sea, working at that tourist agency, we started to prepare the tourist season for the summer. I dreamed that I would give birth to my child and I would be sitting with him on the sea shore while earning money from the tourist season. And I had one more very nice project. It’s called an iForum. It’s the biggest Eastern Europe IT conference and we have organised it every year for the past 10 years. The last one was in 2019, when Zelensky took office, and we managed to have 13,000 people per day. It was a huge conference and it was in Kyiv. Another one was held in 2021, but in another place and with the COVID restrictions, it was not so massive. So I planned to give birth to Tim in April, organise the iForum in May because almost everything was prepared, and then I would sit on the seashore with my small child while the tourist season happened. And everything would be ok. But no, COVID started. And of course, everything stopped. Neither iForum, nor the tourist season happened. So… I just enjoyed the summer with my child.
And two years later, when COVID finally finished, again we were preparing the big iForum with all the exhibition space. We planned to receive 15,000 people or something like that because everybody wanted to meet again after the pandemic. And, once again, we were preparing for the tourist season and we had a lot of plans for the summer. And the war started…
N.M.: Okay. Can we go back to the 24th of February? How was that day?
J: You know, of course we understood that something might happen… Because starting with October, there were a lot of Russian soldiers near the border…
N.M.: For exercises, right? That was the narrative.
J: It was like training. And of course, we understood… If you have such a big country, why would you concentrate all your army near the Ukrainian border just to train, come on! So we definitely talked to each other about what we would do in case of… so we were somehow prepared. We took out some very important documents from the storage unit and we made a list of things. But none of us believed that such things could happen in the 21st century, you know. I have a friend. Our kids were attending kindergarten together. She’s also an Event Manager from Kyiv, but we were both living in Odesa. That’s why we were very close, because of our mentality. Her husband was working at a USA company. They had an office in Odesa. They received a recommendation from the head office to move all the families to safety. You know, there are a lot of big international IT companies in Ukraine, like Terrasoft, Luxoft, Epam. They usually have a lot of employees and of course they care about these families. So all of them were advised to move to a safer place for a period of time. Their family moved on the evening of the 23rd. And of course, that previous week, every day we would meet when we were picking up our kids from kindergarten and we would talk: Oh my god, what to do? What if it happens? Oh my god, it can’t happen! Why would it… So it’s like… I don’t know. Like now when we are hearing the news that they have bombed a nuclear plant… And until the end, until the moment when the accident happens, you don’t believe that it will happen.
But at the same time, we made a list of things. We had heard Putin’s speeches and when he was talking about the demilitarization and denazification it was clear… What Nazis? According to him, we are all Nazis. Because we are not Russians and we want to live in an independent country, to speak Ukrainian, to have our own history, our own heritage. Because we are not Russians. It’s just like when someone decides to kill you because you’re Romanian, not Hungarian or Serbian. And you are just shocked. “Why?” Your neighbour wants to kill you just because you’re not him. And, of course, it was very scary. We understood that if he was going to start this, it was going to be huge because that was the message in his speech.
So on the morning of the 24th of February my friend called me at six o’clock in the morning, she called me and she told me: “Jane, the entire territory of Ukraine was bombed, it’s time”. We collected all our things in just two hours, Tim was sleeping. So we had two hours to collect everything, to put them in the car, to wake Tim up. To say goodbye to our apartment and leave. It was a very quick decision. We decided that if something happened, we would leave because we were living on the 13th floor, in a building by the sea, with a two-year-old child, so it wasn’t okay for us to remain in a place where we could be bombed at any moment. It was very good that we made this quick decision because we managed to escape quickly and we are together. You know that most moms with kids are escaping without husbands now because men are not allowed to leave.
So that’s it. For now. Well, after three months or so… For the first three months our landlady didn’t ask for any payment. She is from Moldova, she’s a very good person. But, of course, after three months she said that we must decide something. So, thanks to our friends from Odesa, we remotely collected all our things from the flat and sent them to Kyiv. And this is how we moved from Odesa back to Kyiv while being in Timisoara…
In December, we had invested all our money in a new house in Kyiv and we dreamed that in a year and a half the house would be finished and we would live in a new neighbourhood and finally be back in Kyiv, because I really miss Kyiv. It’s very nice. My heart is in Kyiv. I didn’t live there anymore, but every three months I tried to go there, to see all my friends and relatives. Also, when you are living by the sea, from May to September, every weekend our friends would come to visit. We offered them accommodation and spent together. We were very attached to all our friends. So that’s it for that period. And then the period in Timisoara started.
N.M.: You did not expect this after Odesa.
J: Sorry, but I didn’t even know about this city. The same as you didn’t know about Kherson or Chornobayivka, Bucha, Irpin or other cities in Ukraine.
N.M.: Yes, we’ve found out a lot of things about each other.
J: Yes. Of course, you knew about big cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odesa.
N.M.: I also knew about Uzhgorod because I’ve been there. What did you take with you when leaving Ukraine? What are the most important objects?
J: Our cat, some food and water. Clothes. We took some for the winter and some for spring/autumn, because we thought that maybe it was going to be for a longer period of time. Of course, not all the wardrobe, but some. Laptop, documents, money.
J: Yes, all the documents, of course. Some toys for Tim, some Ukrainian books. But again, we’re lucky because we had a car. I don’t know how we would have managed if we had to carry all those things.
N.M.: Something to remind you of your home?
J: Later, when my friends were packing our things in Odesa, I asked them to send me some. Sleeping bags and yoga mats. Because we didn’t know where we would sleep, and I wanted to have the option just to put them on the floor and sleep.
N.M.: That’s the material stuff. And what did you take with you that’s immaterial, that reminds you of your home?
J: The family. You know, we were so scared in that moment, and we really didn’t know how long it would last. And even now we don’t know. The first days, the feeling was that Russia will very quickly occupy Ukraine. Then we understood that it wouldn’t be so. What we were really surprised about was the force of our army. Because we knew that it was rebuilt and restructured, but we didn’t know that it is so huge and powerful. Yeah. We were really surprised by Zelenskyi and how he reacted to everything.
You know, for me it’s all about a very strong position and a very clear position. I think that’s why Ukrainians connected to each other so quickly and understood that this war is not about someone else deciding, it’s our story, we need to help as much as we can, to be involved as much as we can and that’s why those chains of humanitarian aid, chains of informational help were created so quickly, we became united in struggle. I think that it’s because of the government had a clear position. Personally, I think he [Zelenskyi] was in tune with all the Ukrainian people, saying the right things at the right moment and in a very sensible, very frank manner. In that moment you understand that no, it’s not some mystical government people who will decide everything, but each and every one of us can do something. And there are amazing stories that Mircea will get to film, about each of us and how we changed. Even a small contribution matters. After the war started, things and people changed. And you saw all those stories: if you were an English teacher and you could teach, you taught kids. Yeah. It’s the story of how I ended up volunteering. We have achieved a lot in the last half a year.
N.M.: What did you discover about yourself that you didn’t know?
J: Well, again, that you can adjust to everything. We were talking about this with Mircea, that we lost the frame of our existence, you know, we have nothing to lose now, we have nothing, well, not to be afraid of, but… That was what we were talking about with Ira also. For example, she understood that Ukrainians need a place to bring their kids to and she started looking for a place to do it. And we’re just doing it.
I can tell you about some of my Ukrainian friends. One guy was top manager at an IT company. When the war started, they moved to Truskavets, in the Carpathian Mountains. I don’t know why, but suddenly he started crowd funding money to buy thermal cameras. And they are very expensive. One costs 2,000 euros or so. So far, he managed to collect money and buy almost 1,000 items. And he became one of the biggest buyers of thermal cameras in the last months. Another friend of mine was CEO of an event planning agency, and before that he was a DJ. When the war started, he started to cook food. And now they have the kitchen in Irpin. They were the first to open a kitchen there. And each day they feed 3,000-5,000 people. We are all focused on doing something useful.
And also my story. I just came here, to the support centre, and asked how I could be useful. At first, I did translations, then I understood that we need to create a channel to inform people. And that’s how the telegram channel “Ukrainians in Timisoara” appeared, where we disseminate information. Today, there are 700 people on this telegram channel. And it really links everything because when a new service or news or something comes up, we have a quick way of informing people. And I involved some local people who can speak Russian or Ukrainian on this group, so people can quickly receive answers to their questions.
And after that I started to go from NGO to NGO, telling people we should involve Ukrainians to help, because it’s really important for us to do something, with our hands, with our mind, anything. And it became like a big network of connections between local companies and people and more and more Ukrainians are involved in the process. It’s very important because it’s good for Ukrainians to be useful and to keep busy. It’s good for the Ukrainian community to receive something from Ukrainians. And it’s about the connection between Romanians and Ukrainians when they are doing something together. And it’s about the next steps and about helping and supporting Ukraine more and more. Because in this situation, I heard a very good phrase, we are not refugees, we are more like ambassadors of Ukraine in Europe. The idea is that we are not economical refugees. It was not our choice to move. And we definitely want to go back when the war stops. And to rebuild our country. I hope that we will be able to do this. But for now, it’s very important for us that Europe doesn’t forget about this war. Because we need this support and it’s not about Ukraine and Russia. It’s about some human things in general, because such things shouldn’t happen in the 21st century.
And if he wins, if all of us allow him to win, that will… How will we live in the world where dictators and the Soviet system can win over democracy? Then all these democratic systems and associations and organizations fail, they are nothing. If he manages… I hope not, but… and I think that it will take a lot of time. I don’t know, but because he has a huge country and a lot of people and he still has resources. He has this fucking propaganda and people just don’t see what’s really happening. And they just believe in him. Tsar.
N.M.: Yeah, that’s how propaganda works.
J: Yes, and I think the only way to stop him is from the inside. All those regions should start to rise against him, to make their own revolutions. I’m not a historian and I’m not God. Otherwise, he just can stop for a while to collect more force and then to go at it again. If he will be able to do this… Already we can say that it’s possible in the democratic world, in democratic European world, for these absolutely horrible things to happen. And that’s what Ukrainians want, not to be not forgotten. For people not to close their eyes to this sensitive content. There was this comparison with the terrorist attack on 11th of September. But today, in Ukraine there are terrorist acts every day. On 11th of September the whole world was shocked, and people remember it for the rest of their lives. Now we got used to it. From both sides. You know, when I hear that we killed… that our army killed 42,000 Russian soldiers… Yes, it’s not good for them to come to our country and kill our civilians. But we took 42,000 lives. And they killed thousands of civilians, thousands! So I think that altogether this war has already killed 100,000 people, 100,000 lives in half a year! Half a year ago it would have been crazy to hear such words. And now it’s like a common thing.
N.M.: We got used to it. We are not moved by this anymore. Yes, I know.
J: It’s like a statistic.
N.M.:How did you find out about Timisoara? And how did you get here?
J: We were in Cluj for two weeks.
N.M.: So you went from Odesa to Cluj?
J: Yes, to Cluj.
N.M.: How long does it take directly? Were both of you driving? How did you manage?
J: You know, it was a long and very stressful period…We were driving and waiting at the border… I don’t want to… it was a hard, scary period. We spent two weeks in Cluj with our friends. And then their parents were expected to come, and they were looking for a house for their whole family. They were seven adults, a small kid and a cat. And we understood that we needed to move somewhere else because it wasn’t okay to live together with our friends and their family. So we started looking for apartments. And we wrote on that Facebook group helping Ukrainians. You know it?
N.M.: I know it. I think that was one of the first groups.
J: Yes. There were a lot of people there and we received a lot of advice to move to Timișoara. They said it had a very big Support Centre and really good support. Because they managed to unite municipalities, like a social department and LOGS, an NGO that historically worked with refugees. Something they did, which was very good, was that they collected information and created a database of accommodations offered by local people. Angela told me that they checked each host for quality assurance. And on the other side, they registered all of us and also checked for quality assurance. And they matched us to find the best option for each case. For example, just before us, my very good friend escaped with her family from Kyiv. They were two couples, two kids, a grandmother, four cats and a dog.
They stayed in Cluj for one day and then they were searching where to go and they just called the Support Centre in Timisoara and asked if it’s okay to come. And the Support Centre said: “Definitely, come, we will easily find you accommodation”. So they came here and they stayed.
For us, a friend of a friend of a friend of my husband helped us. We remembered that while we were driving during those first few days, we had talked to Alex, and he had told us that we could ask him for help. So he helped us with accommodation and with other things. And after that we discovered the Support Centre with all the information and volunteering.
N.M.: When did you come here?
J: At the middle of March. We stayed in Cluj for two weeks, then we moved here. As for Timișoara, I said this many times, it is similar to Ukrainian cities. Because of the greenery, for example. Because, you know, in Europe you often have historical neighbourhoods and very narrow pedestrian streets. It is not common to have trees lining the streets like here. And in Ukrainian cities, it is very common to have trees on the streets. Also, all the architecture in dormitory neighbourhoods is very similar, as well as that in the city centre. Many things are very similar. A bit of Lvov, a bit of Kyiv. Similar nature, similar people. There are a lot of very familiar things here.
We’ll see now what happens. Half a year has passed really quickly. I personally accomplished a lot, I think. Volunteering, supporting as a translator, then managing the telegram channel for Ukrainians. Then I made the FAQ document. At one point we realised that there was a lot of information and people didn’t understand what was happening. So I made this document. Then together with LOGS we organised an Easter picnic for the Ukrainian community at the end of April. And it was the first event we made together, so there were both people from the Romanian and the Ukrainian side organising it. Then we had a very nice embroidery day on the 19th of May, “Vyshyvanka day”. And it was organised not only for Ukrainians, but also for Romanians, so we could celebrate together. That evening there was a nice Vanesa from Odesa concert. Then, together with FITT, we organised a flashmob, “They dance alone”, in Piața Libertății. It was our first public activity. I’ve also managed to send some humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Then, thanks to Oxfam and Intersect, we opened a social shop. And now we are preparing a mural, “Stand with Ukraine”, a video mapping show, “Sensitive content”, and the “Moving fireplaces” project. And a festival.
N.M.: And next year Timisoara will be a European Capital of Culture.
J: Yeah, I know… I need a small holiday…
N.M.: Do you have plans for the near future? What are your ideas for now?
J: First we made plans for two weeks. Then we planned for months. By the way, many people went back to Ukraine. Many people are living near the border, many mothers who are separated from their husbands. But, of course, for us, now, it’s not… We want to go back to Kyiv, I really miss Kyiv and I really miss Ukraine.
N.M.: Do you still have friends there?
J: Of course, most of them are in Kyiv. And our relatives.
N.M.: Relatives? Is your husband’s family in Kyiv?
J: Yes, in Kyiv. So, my husband has a father, a brother and a sister-in-law. And their daughter, she is 26 years old or something like that, she lived in the USA for 3 or 4 years.
We are not planning for the long term. For now, we understand that for today it’s okay to be here because my husband can work from anywhere and, frankly, life is not so expensive here. It’s more expensive than in Ukraine, but not much more. We still have free accommodation for now. I need to find a kindergartener for Tim. We have a huge Ukrainian community, also Masha, who’s an English teacher at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, she’s a very close friend and she has twins who are five years old. It’s very important to have such close friends here.
N.M.: Do you organize play dates for them?
J: Of course, several times a week, in the evenings, and on weekends. It’s also very important to have such close friends here, not just the husband and family, but also friends. And we have a very large, nice Romanian community. And we have very nice important things to do. Very active, more than I expected.
N.M.: You need a vacation.
J: Yeah. But you know we suddenly discovered… Before COVID and before Tim’s birth, my husband and I managed to visit 50 countries. We travelled a lot. And finally, a month ago, we had the idea of visiting Belgrade. Because it’s not far away. It was good, we visited the Zoo. But I had a very strange feeling. Firstly, because they don’t support Ukrainians… But also, it was very strange for me to travel…
Before, when we were travelling somewhere, we were departing from home, we were going somewhere to rest, then we came back home. But suddenly we realized we were not departing from a home, but from some random place, travelling to some other place. And when we were coming back to Timisoara, on the one hand I had a feeling of returning home, but at the same time, it’s not home. And we moved our stuff from Odessa to Kyiv, so we don’t have a home to come back to anymore. Well, I have a flat that remained from my parents, but it is old and needs repairs.
So, I don’t know what to tell you about our plans. Until the war ends, we won’t feel… how to say… So, you can decide to choose a country and plan to spend the next 5 years there, for example. Or you can accept this situation we are in and live from one day to the next. And act in the moment. Like, ok, I want to work or do some social activity, let me do it! And let me see what comes next. And for now, our decision is to choose this kind of life. Because we are not ready to disconnect from Ukraine. I don’t want to be far away, I want to help somehow, together with the Ukrainian community here, to do something for Ukrainians and for Ukraine. This is my wish for now. Also, we want to donate a lot. My husband is working, and we donate to many places in Ukraine. It’s what we choose for now. We’ll see. Because if someone tells us that this will go on for another 10 years, and after that, I don’t know, all of Ukraine’s economy will be destroyed, then probably we will decide to move… I don’t know… to New Zealand, somewhere… Not to the USA, because they could still get involved. The possibility of a Third World War, of using nuclear weapons, of a nuclear catastrophe is still real.
That’s why, for now, it’s like a temporary decision.
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu