Elena was forced to leave her home, friends, the work she loved and the life she was used to.
Elena was forced to leave her home, friends, the work she loved and the life she was used to, but she found the strength to close the doors of the past and open another one — into a better future.
Now she makes flowery dresses, writes a book, heals her soul with art, and teaches others to create beauty with their own hands. And no more to-do lists — she has learned to make her dreams come true every day.
Elena’s family lived in their own house in a Ukrainian village of Petrivka, Luhansk region, near the town of Shchastia. Elena worked at the school where her daughters, Nastia (15) and Alena (9), studied. In 2014, the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine changed their usual way of life dramatically.
"We were somewhat isolated from the outside world. It was reported that there were separatists in our area. Strange black cars with the flags of Pravyi Sektor appeared in the streets, the military arrived. We didn't understand what was going on," Lena remembers. "School holidays just started. And the worst part was to leave the girls in the basement when going to work. We instructed them on anything that could happen: what to do if armed people come, if a shell explodes nearby... We left food and water in the basement for several days. When anything exploded — in a couple of kilometers from us Shchastia was bombed, they shot people from helicopters, — I shuddered with horror and thought: how were the kids? Everything was trembling, the glass was shaking. It was very scary. While my daughters went to school with me, I had the illusion of having some control over what was happening".
But shells already began to explode in the streets, and people died. Children who found "butterflies" — percussion shells — were hurt. A kid picked up something they know nothing about, and it blew up right in their hands... It happened to the classmate of Lena's younger daughter.
Armed helicopters were circling over the village. Even coming into her own yard, Lena had goose bumps all over her body. There was always this feeling that you were in the crosshairs, that you and your loved ones were under surveillance every day.
Lena is still horrified by the memory of the last school day — that was a holiday, but suddenly they were told that a tank column was moving towards the village. Stanytsia Luhanska was shelled from tanks on that day... All communications were blocked, it was impossible to reach out to anyone.
"I remember how we gathered children together and didn't know where to run, what to do," Lena struggled to go through that day again. "We didn't understand what was going on and why. No one could answer our questions. Total disorientation. Kids were scared, and we couldn't explain anything, could calm them down. It is so terrible that our children watched and went through all this, comprehended it all and grew up so early".
"The bridge we crossed was soon blown up"
Family and friends warned Lena to take kids away. She objected: we are just ordinary people, didn't hurt anyone, it’s our home here. She was hoping it would still be fine one day. She continued to work, as well as her colleagues, regardless of what was going on — "fulfilled the obligations, the duty". The last straw was the arrest of her friend's husband.
"In the evening a black car drove into the yard of our friends — just like these prison vans in the 30s... They threatened with a machine gun, beat up the husband of my friend in front of the whole family and took him away, without explanation. At that moment, I realized: I had to do something.
Lena packed bags of clothes and called a taxi. She decided to take the girls away from the village for the school holidays — the tension was too high.
She remembers them crossing the bridge, which was soon blown up, with burned tanks, APCs and guns turned over on their way. The border was closed everywhere, except the only open station Izvaryne — locals called this bypass road "the road of life".
Lena's family went to Belarus because at some point her husband's brother served in the army in Hrodna and then stayed to live there.
"Taught each other to cook Ukrainian and Belarusian dishes"
It wasn't easy to find apartment and job in the city, so they had to stay in a village near Lida — there, in Voranaŭski district, the family got a house. Lena remembers gratefully how warmly they were welcomed in Belarus, both by relatives and strangers: people gave them clothes, shoes, collected the whole car of furniture, helped with money.
"Everyone came by to meet, brought potatoes and salo: you are Ukrainians, they said, how can you live without salo! The locals had their own vision of what a Ukrainian should be — they tried to help us adapt, make us feel good and comfortable," Lena smiles. "And I felt that here I could live and breathe easily".
The girls made new friends quickly and went to school to the nearby village. Lena, who once graduated from the culinary school, became the head of a canteen. She was happy to teach her colleagues to make Ukrainian specialties — dumplings, cabbage rolls, borsch, and they taught her to master famous Belarusian draniki, machanka, cured fillet.
"We lived in the village for a year. It was a good assimilation experience. It seems we are all Slavic peoples, but everyone is a bit different and special", Lena says. "I even learned to understand Surzhik* of Lithuanian, Polish and Belarusian, although at first it was difficult to sort it out. It seemed that people were speaking an alien language. I understand Belarusian, but it is difficult to speak it".
“Starting to write a book and healing myself with art"
When it was time for the eldest daughter to enter the university, the family moved to Hrodna.
"The Belarusian Red Cross Society Society helped us a lot when we applied for a residence permit," Lena says. "We were given certificates for the necessities and food sets. They helped me to look for a job via the employment center. The consulate encouraged us a lot too".
Lena got employed in a canteen as a crew member but felt she could do more. Her heart was set on art because it is "one of the ways to be healed, to find yourself". At home, in Ukraine, Lena wrote poems, but in Hrodna she started to write prose:
"I needed to somehow let my experience and my feelings out. First I made notes, then they grew into shorts stories, novels. A year ago, I started to write a book — it's about me and for me. I read what I’ve written and begin to understand a lot. My talent revealed itself here, in Belarus".
One day, surfing the Internet, Lena saw a photo of a girl in a white handmade shawl with an amazing pattern and remembered that she was fond of knitting since she was a kid.
"I fell in love with this shawl. For two days I was itching to start, then I ran to the store, found these threads, stuck my fingers into the wool and felt warmth. That's how I realized I couldn't live without it. It was like a breath of fresh air," Lena laughs. "I ran home like a breeze. Grabbed the needles and started to master the pattern right away. It worked out from the first time! I haven't slept for three nights and finished my first shawl".
"For six months I was making a flowery-meadow dress"
A friend advised Lena to officially register as a craftswoman and bring her works to Hrodna Cultural Centre "Heritage".
"My works were taken to the exhibition at once. We started close cooperation. I was happy to come to the center where you can see exhibits like nowhere else and talk to the people of art. I wanted to join this talented society," — and Lena began to get invitations to exhibitions.
Once she presented the project "Flowers of Belarus" — that's when she had an idea to make a dress like a flowery meadow. The dress had been tailored for six months, and then it became kind of a symbol, a trademark. The exhibition was held during the visit of the Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belarus Jean-Yves Bouchardy. Then Elena came up with the idea to open a studio of artistic knitting. 26 people have registered to participate right away.
"My girls are 14 to 76 years old. They have golden hands!" Lena could talk about her group and their talents for hours. "The most active ones are the veterans of the group. They master innovative 3D techniques, complex patterns, tried Irish lace and are now considering Bruges one. Their enthusiasm is so inspiring!"
“I always tell my daughters: look for opportunities"
Until the last moment Lena hoped that her family came to Belarus just for holidays. But sad news kept coming from home: the situation didn't improve, friends were telling who, where and when died, children were taken out from the village. So they decided to stay here. Lena doesn't want to consider herself neither a fugitive nor a victim:
"I always tell my daughters: consider it not a failure in our life but an opportunity to discover something new. We are explorers, travelers who have taken a step into the unknown. We just closed one door and walked into another. We shouldn't dwell on the past but look for a way out. Find something to survive. Creative approach helps in any situation. Open your heart, and everything around will respond.
Belarus has become my second home because I feel that this land accepts us. I belong here. I have discovered the artistic abilities that were missing in my life before. I made something I couldn't afford before. I do what I like, I can teach someone, transfer knowledge, serve in deed and word, and make people happy.
One day my daughter made me a card: "Make your dreams come true every day" — and that's become my motto. Every morning is a new opportunity!"
Surzhyk* is a mix of languages.
The article was prepared based on materials dated 2018.