“When strangers are coming, / They come to your house, / They kill you all and say, / ‘We’re not guilty’.”
The Ukrainian pop star Jamala sang these words when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016. The song was about the murders of Crimeans in 1944, the Holocaust, the World Wars, genocide and repression. And it describes well what is happening in my life right now.
Hello. My name is Sabina. I’m Jewish and from Ukraine. And I am a refugee.
My life was the same as many others. I worked, raised my son – who planned to attend university – and dreamed of trips abroad. We lived and rejoiced in life. But everything changed in one moment. That was the day I woke up my son with the words, “Wake up, the war has begun.”
It was the early morning of 24 February, 2022. I awakened hearing the sound of sirens and, in my half-conscious state, thought it was a practice alarm and that, as per the training, another would sound 10 minutes later.
The first thing you experience is not even fear. You just don’t understand what’s going on around you. The adrenaline rush keeps you from being afraid.
It is cold outside, a gloomy, overcast day. It is not quite dawn yet. You hear explosions and sirens, but you cannot understand how in the 21st century, in peaceful Kyiv, this can happen at all, why it is not just a nightmare. And why your peaceful, beautiful and developing country is being attacked by a brutal enemy. But people have a unique ability to adapt to everything. We lived under shelling in Kyiv for nine days. So much happened we can’t believe it was only nine days.
Jewish communities all over Ukraine almost immediately organised daily evacuation buses. Since I worked for a Jewish organisation that searched for documents and prepared people for aliyah, I had a large client base and helped those who wanted to leave, mostly women and children.
Some wanted to wait out the war, since so many thought that all this horror could not last longer than two or three weeks, because this cannot happen to a civilised society. Some wanted to flee to Israel immediately.
My son and I hoped that it would soon be over and we would live our peaceful lives again. We lived for two days in a dusty bomb shelter, an underground car park, sleeping on the cold concrete floor. Then we returned home, because it was too cold in the shelter. Some groceries were missing from the stores and people were panicking. It was even more difficult with kosher food. Some stores closed, unable to operate safely, some were open during certain hours. A curfew was imposed in Kyiv, sometimes for several days.
On 2 March, a catastrophe occurred, the repetition of which horrified the entire Jewish society of Ukraine. A rocket fired at Kyiv hit Babi Yar, where during the Second World War the Jews of Kyiv and nearby settlements were shot. Many Jews in Kyiv can say that some of their ancestors and relatives died there.
The rabbis of Ukraine issued a harsh condemnation of Russia, and many Jews felt as if their ancestors had been killed a second time. And this time not by the Nazis, but by those who fought the Nazis during the war. Pain and grief. The wound, which had been failing to heal, began to bleed again.
After that, there were several more rocket attacks, killing people. The constant shelling, the air alarms, you feel your house shaking from the explosions, your heart goes into your mouth, and you don’t know if a new day will come for you. It was like one never-ending day – a constant 24 February.
My rabbi knew I was still in Kyiv, and on the night of 4 March I got a message from him: “Tomorrow afternoon there will be an evacuation bus and you have to be on it.” Those were the words that finally convinced me that the war would not end soon, that our lives were in danger. And yet the next day was Shabbat night. We had to leave before the Sabbath itself, without a moment’s hesitation. But how? We keep Shabbat. As a community leader, our rabbi saved our lives, it was Pikuach nefesh. Preserving human life trumps any requirement of Jewish law. “Imagine it’s Tuesday,” he said, “and save your lives.”
We left Kyiv on an evacuation bus and headed for the border of Moldova and then on to Romania. The road was difficult and long. It took more than 30 hours. We had been in Romania for about two weeks when I learned about the British government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. It was becoming clear that we would not be able to return home as soon as we had planned, so we started looking for a sponsor. And we were very lucky, because on Purim night a miracle happened.
A wonderful woman, a Jewish woman from London, whom I call my angel, responded to my request.
She offered us an apartment where we could live, where there was a kosher kitchen and all the conditions for an observant Jew.
We filled out the visa application in the first hours of the programme opening. The wait seemed endless – I checked my email every five minutes. But we were lucky and within nine days we landed in London. We are now safe and getting settled in.
I’m also looking for a job. I’m a translator and I speak five languages, and I want to be useful and regain my former independence.
We met the local Jewish community, which is very friendly and willing to help and support us in everything. We go to the synagogue, where the rabbi reads a prayer to end the war in Ukraine.
We are not at home, but we are not among strangers.