Participants: Iryna Chykaliuk (I.C.), Nicoleta Mușat (N.M.), Evghenia Jane Rozbytska (J)
Location & date: FITT Timișoara, Romania / August 2022
N.M.: Can you tell me about yourself, Iryna? Where are you from? What was your occupation? What was your life like before the war started?
I.C.: I’m 40 years old. I escaped from Vinnytsia, where I lived for the past 20 years. I escaped with my son, who was 15 years old at that moment. Now he’s 16. During the first month of the war, my son lived with my mom in a village not far from the city. I stayed in Vinnytsia in case help would be needed. I wanted to help, to weave camouflage nets, cook food for the army at checkpoins, to be as useful as I could. But it was very scary because we had very loud air raid sirens, which caused huge panic and anxiety.
In the first days of the war, Kozyatin was bombed. It’s a city not far away from Vinnytsia, and after several weeks, the Vinnytsia airport was bombed. It’s not close to my apartment, but I was living near the weapon factory, so it was a rather dangerous place. It’s an objective with a high risk of being bombed.
At first, I hid in the basement of my building. It was messy and very cold. It was not equipped, there was a lot of dust, and it was very difficult to breathe. Later, I decided not to go down to the basement anymore. I tried to sleep at home, but it was very scary.
Then I went to my mother’s house. My mother persuaded me to go live with her. I stayed with mom for one month. I was also volunteering. I wove camouflage nets, cooked food for the army, and did other helpful things every day.
After a while, I had the feeling again that I wasn’t doing enough, I needed to be more useful, I wanted to do more, so I moved back to Vinnytsia. My son wanted to go with me, so we went back together. After a day, the Russians bombed the TV tower. I heard the sound, and I saw the light from explosion, but I didn’t see the explosion itself, and again it was very scary. My son was sleeping in the bathroom. That’s when I decided that it was too much, I couldn’t stay anymore. I decided to escape. My mother stayed because it was time to start planting the garden.
N.M.: How old is your mother?
I.C.: My mother is 61.
N.M.: Oh, she is very young.
I.C.: She is working in a school, as a teacher of English and German. But I’m not good at languages (she laughs). My English is not good.
J: Tell me more about what you did before the war started.
I.C.: In Ukraine, I had a very good life. For 4 years I worked in a trading company as an HR Director. Our company sold doors throughout Ukraine. Before the war, I also had a plan to open my own HR school. On the day the war started, I was planning to go to government agencies to get information and consultation on how to open this school, what I needed for it. But the war started, and all the plans became pointless. I don’t know if they will still be relevant after the war finishes. Everything has changed.
N.M.: How was the day of the 24th of February?
I.C.: I had plans to go to the government agency in the morning. But at 6 o’clock I was woken up by a phone call from my friend in Israel, who told me: “Do you know that war has started in your country?”
J: We are joking about this because everyone says the same thing: “I was woken up by a phone call from someone”.
I.C.: I told him: “It’s not possible, it can’t be true. It’s a joke”. I switched on the TV and understood that it was not a joke, it was true. I was shocked and disoriented. What to do, where to go? To go to work or not? To go to this government agency or not, where to call, who to call? Nobody knew anything that day. To allow the kids to go to school or not? Nothing was clear. In the afternoon, a friend called me and offered to drive my son to my mom’s house because it was safer. So that’s what I did on the first day. My friend came over, took my son and her kids, and drove them to their grandmother’s village.
N.M.: So your son was somewhat safe.
I.C.: The next day, I started to look for things to do, ways to be useful. At my workplace, all the processes had stopped, there was nothing to do there. No business processes, no volunteering, nothing.
Then I heard that a school was asking for help. They needed people to come and help them put tape on the windows.
J: If windows are not taped, they can easily be broken by shock waves caused by explosions. So it’s mandatory and highly recommended to put tape on windows during the war.
I.C.: I was searching for other things I could do to help. But at the time volunteering activities were not systematically organized.
J: It was all over the place in the beginning. It was the same at the borders. There was no help in the first few days, then there was huge support, but unorganized and chaotic. Only later it turned into a system.
I.C.: It became more organized in the later weeks, when I had already moved to my mother’s village and I was staying there. Frankly, I don’t remember exactly when I went there. It is a small city, called Lypovets, so it’s not a village, but a district centre.
J: I don’t know what it’s called in Romanian. For example, Timișoara is the main city in the region. And you also have other subdivisions. For example, Lugoj is the main city in its area.
J: So, Vinnytsia is the main city in the region and Lypovets is the main city in its area.
I.C.: At that moment, volunteering activities in Lypovets were much more systematic. They were coordinated from the school, and there was a group chat where coordinators would write: “we need this… we need that”. People knew where to go, what to do, and if they could help, they did. About that time the first wave of displaced people and refugees started. We accommodated them in schools, brought them clothes or food from our homes, and helped in any way we could.
J: You need to understand that Vinnytsia is in the middle of Ukraine. And all the roads from the Eastern part of Ukraine to Western Ukraine go through Vinnytsia.
I.C.: Which means a large stream of people passed through Vinnytsia.
J: It seemed like a big transit point.
N.M.: So people escaped through it?
J: Look at the map, you will understand. For example, if you are going from Kharkiv…
I.C.: Many people also came from Bila Tserkva, from Kyiv, from Bucha. That was another big wave because at that moment the road through Zhytomyr was already bombed, occupied, and very dangerous. So it was not possible to use that main road to escape to the western part. All those people who wanted to escape from Kyiv were going through Vinnytsia.
J: Also, Vinnytsia is pretty close to the Moldavian border, so people who wanted to escape to Moldova, or Romania, they chose this road. And there are a lot of border crossing points, so it’s the closest if…
N.M.: If you are not going to Poland or in that direction.
I.C.: The parents of my brother’s wife started to accommodate people who were running away. They took in someone new every day, families in transit on their way to the border. Every night for four weeks they let families stay in their house. They also sheltered some relatives and friends from Bucha, Irpin, and from Bila Tserkva. From Bucha, they took in a family of acquaintances who had left immediately, because they were originally from Donetsk, so they already knew how it was going to play out and decided to escape as quickly as possible. And they made the right decision.
That’s what was happening in those days.
Each day we were scrolling through Telegram news channels. We were scared, nervous, anxious. It was very difficult to sleep. We already had air raid alerts on our phones, and the sound was very loud every time.
N.M.: What was a regular day like during this period? You woke up in the morning and what did you do?
J: You know, we didn’t sleep much during that period. We slept for several hours, then woke up, scrolled through the news, then tried to go back to sleep.
I.C.: When I was at my mom’s house, I had more things to do, more chores. I knew that when I woke up, I needed to cook some breakfast because we were all living together: my mom, my brother’s wife with her kids, her parents, and my son. We were all living together as a big family.
N.M.: Why did you decide to live together?
I.C.: We were living together in my brother’s house, not in my mom’s apartment. My mom’s apartment was close to the big gasoline station, and we were scared to live there.
My schedule was pretty regular because every day I would go to school to help, weekdays and weekends. Every day I was at school until 5 o’clock in the evening, we wove camouflage nets while it was still light. Then, in the evening, we switched off the electricity. At that time, there was a rule that you should switch off the lights in the evening. My mom still does it to this day.
When Zhytomyrska road was occupied and under attack, we received a request from the city municipality to help remove or paint over house numbers, city names, and road signs in order to disorient the Russian army. At that time, they were already near Zhytomyr, which was rather close to us. There was a high risk of them reaching our area and there was already information that if they were disoriented, it would help our army during the fight.
People were very united at the time. Everyone tried to follow the instructions we received. If we were told to switch off the light, we switched it off; if we were told to remove the signs, we removed them.
So I wove camouflage nets every day. On other days, we cooked food for the Ukrainian soldiers at checkpoints: dumplings, pies.
We made a huge amount of camouflage nets, so at one point we received news that it was enough. We had made enough for the entire region and even for neighbouring ones. The school started cooking three times a day for the checkpoints. And a lot of refugees came. And then suddenly we found ourselves without work. Once again, there was nothing to do and no way to be useful. That’s when I decided to go back to Vinnytsia.
My acquaintance from Lugoj, whom I had met once in Vinnytsia, 4 years ago, suggested that I come to Timișoara. Of course, I didn’t know where it was. But that night, when we were sleeping in the bathroom, when I saw the light of the explosion and the house wobbled, I decided that we would escape. It didn’t matter where.
I went to the railway station, but none of the regular trains were running, only the ones ran by volunteers.
J: At one point, the Russians bombed a railway station somewhere in the Eastern part of Ukraine. I believe it was Kramatorsk. A lot of people died in the explosion. That was probably the reason.
I.C.: Yes, probably. So I couldn’t take the train. Because there were only trains run by volunteers that were going from Eastern Ukraine to the West, but they were very crowded.
J: Those trains didn’t run on a regular schedule. There was an announced time of departure, people came to the railway station and the train left when it was full. At that time, a lot of people wanted to escape.
N.M.: And how did you get from Vinnytsia to Lipovets, to your mother’s house?
I.C.: There were regular minivans on that route. It’s only 50 kilometres away, so it’s not that far.
Then I told my friend that I wanted to leave, and she told me that buses ran by volunteers were leaving every day from a bus stop near the Officers’ House. Later, this bus stop was bombed, and a lot of people died there. But every day there was a free bus ran by volunteers leaving from that station for the Moldavian border.
This is how we got to the Ukrainian-Moldavian border. Then we crossed the border on foot. That day, we were only 6 people on the bus, but it took us to the border anyway.
N.M.: Was it because people didn’t know about this bus? Or was it a minivan?
I.C.: We arrived here on the 17th of March, so we left on the 15th. By then, the first big wave had already passed and the next hadn’t started yet. So it was like a gap between the waves.
N.M.: Was this bus Ukrainian? Were they Ukrainian volunteers?
I.C.: Yes, yes. At the Moldavian border, there were other volunteers who welcomed us and offered their support. They were with the Red Cross or maybe a church organization, I don’t know exactly. They helped us with transport. It took three cars to the Romanian border, where we arrived late at night. A Moldavian family gave us shelter for that night.
J: I’m just wondering why they changed three cars to get there, because the Romanian border is very close.
I.C.: The next day, we crossed the Romanian border. On the Romanian side, there were also a lot of volunteers who offered support, food, they even gave us some money, 250 lei, and helped us board a free train to Timisoara. We travelled for 18 hours. Here, in Timișoara, we were also welcomed by very good volunteers. I didn’t know about the volunteers here. They met us at the railway station, brought us to the Support Centre and helped a lot.
I spent one night in Lugoj, in the house of my acquaintance. But then we came back to Timisoara and stayed here.
N.M.: So you decided not to stay in Lugoj?
I.C.: It was not even Lugoj, it was a small village not far away from Lugoj. I’m grateful to these people, but I wouldn’t be able to live there. They are farmers and very good hosts, but there is no Internet, no TV, no modern civilization.
So I decided to come back to Timisoara. The Support Center helped me with accommodation, while I started my life here.
N.M.: So you stayed here.
I.C.: After a week I started looking for a job. I found work thanks to OLX. First, I worked in the Iulius Mall Spaghetti Pasta Bar. Very nice place and it has very tasty spaghetti. And the people there also are very good. The owner is from Moldova, so she speaks Russian and she wanted to help. I would have probably stayed there, but a few days after I started, I felt my hands swell with pain. I was washing the dishes there and pasta is prepared in these big heavy frying pans, so all day long I was washing those frying pans. I was working for 12 hours every day. I also helped with slicing and dicing. So after a few days, I got this chronic pain in my hands. I had never used my hands so much. One morning, I realized I couldn’t raise my hand anymore. I got scared and started looking for a new job.
I found a job at Profi. I thought it wouldn’t be so difficult being a shop assistant, but there was a lot of heavy lifting. For three full days, I lifted boxes and items weighing 15-20 kilograms and put them on shelves. My hand warned me that I couldn’t do it, so I terminated the contract. Ever since I’ve been having problems with my hands.
But people helped me and now I do cleaning work twice a week in several houses and apartments in Sânmihaiu German. But not every day, so it’s good for my health and my time, and I also get some money.
N.M.: Do they pick you up?
I.C.: No, I take public transport, which is free for Ukrainians at the moment.
Also, thanks to Jane I can show my talent and do what I like, cooking.
J: It’s not thanks to me. Ira wrote on our big Telegram group that she enjoys cooking and she can make dumplings, pancakes, cabbage rolls. So we can order them from her, put them in the fridge and have a quick tasty dinner when we need it. For me, it’s priceless!
There was also a picnic organized by LOGS and Ira cooked almost everything. A huge amount of various tasty things. After that, we talked about the opportunity to make these Ukrainian culinary events available for Romanians thorugh Reciproc and through Intersect and Mihaela. FITT asked Ira to cook for a children’s party and now we plan to cook a big Borscht for La Pas festival, also with Mihaela. We plan to cook Borscht for the cultural symposium “Why culture matters?”, which is organized by Prin Banat. So we are opening up and showing our talent. I’m joking—or maybe not joking—with Mihaela and Sergio from Reciproc that maybe we will rename it ReciBorscht or ReciPorc (she laughs). And it will be a Ukrainian restaurant, why not.
I.C.: Timisoara is a very warm city. I felt a very warm attitude toward me and my kid, and to all Ukrainians, to our situation.
My son is now in the class of secondary school. He is studying online. Next year he will finish school. But he didn’t want to take active part in the public life of Timisoara and in the Ukrainian community here.
J: I joke about never seeing Iryna’s son.
N.M.: Yes, he’s a teenager.
I.C.: It’s very difficult for me to get him out of the house. He’s online all the time, playing games, talking to friends.
N.M.: His friends are all over Europe now, right?
I.C.: Yes. Some friends are in Ukraine, some are in different countries. Some of them went abroad, but then went back to Ukraine.
J: And school starts today.
I.C.: Yes, today is the 1st of September, when school starts in Ukraine.
As for future plans, I don’t know yet. I want to go back home.
N.M.: You already knew what I was going to ask. (she laughs)
I.C.: But I have no idea what I will do in Ukraine. I still rent an apartment there.
N.M.: So your apartment is ok?
I.C.: Yes, but I’m paying for it.
N.M.: Do you pay to a bank or to the landlord?
J: In Ukraine, we usually pay the landlord directly. I rented an empty apartment and I bought everything in it. All the furniture, everything is mine.
J: So you are basically paying for storage (she laughs).
N.M.: I’m sorry if this is too personal. But is what you earn enough to pay rent there, and also live here?
I.C.: Yes, it’s ok. This month I took in a refugee girl from another territory of Ukraine, she’s staying in my Vinnytsia apartment. She’s a teacher, she will be working at the school. So she will pay for apartment and it will help me with rent.
Generally, I really don’t know what to do. I have problems with my hands, there are not very many jobs available, and I don’t speak English too well. I started studying English, but then there were a lot of cooking jobs, so I stopped. You gave me a lot of work with the cooking. (she laughs)
N.M.: Who makes the menu? Who chooses what to cook?
I.C.: Me, always. But I always make changes. We agreed on the menu for the first culinary evening, and for the second and the third I changed it a bit because it’s more interesting to cook different things. I need to change something.
I also want to say that there are not that many traditional Ukrainian dishes. When you start thinking of cooking traditional Ukrainian dishes, you find that there is not a huge variety of them. We cook a big variety of nice, very tasty dishes in general, but not so many of them are Ukrainian.
J: Yes, for example, Borscht is a specific Ukrainian dish, but if we are talking about dumplings, there are lot of similar dishes in the world, like ravioli, manti and others. Or sarmale.
N.M.: Yes, we have it. Serbians have it too, and the Turkish have something similar. And every Romanian woman has her own way of making this dish.
I.C.: And I want to show more of what I can make, because each cook adds something special, which makes the dish their own.
I also have an idea. It’s a trend today to donate money for army drones. I would like to do something in Timișoara and collect money for at least one drone. I’m thinking of this because many people in Timisoara want to help, they want to give money for something specific.
J: There is now an official initiative of Zelensky called United24, they are collecting money for army drones. So, maybe we can use their QR-code for donations while cooking Borscht at the festival or at that cultural symposium…
N.M.: What does cooking represent for you now?
I.C.: First of all, I think of my mom while cooking. She taught me how to cook. I also like to see people eat my food and enjoy it. When I see this that look that says “Mmm, so nice” when someone tastes my food, I really like it, it’s a pleasure for me. I also want people to know that in Ukraine… I don’t know how to explain this idea, but I think it’s possible, through Ukrainian cuisine, music, through culture, to disseminate Ukrainian traditions and Ukrainian heritage. To show this thing that is common and different at the same time. Because it’s important.
At those culinary events, we were also cooking with Masha, and she said that every time the dishes we cook were different, but all of them had something in common: it’s a bit of our heart, we put a bit of our soul into each of our dishes.
Translation: Evghenia Jane Rozbitska
Proofreading: Cristina Chira, Alexandra Palconi-Sitov
Photo credit: Mircea Sorin Albuțiu