Ukraine (III): An Interview With Nona, 68, a Survivor From Kyiv
"Ukraine will never forgive Russians for their crimes. Their army is savage. I would say that they are like animals, but it would be too nice to call them that. Animals are not acting so horrible."
Nona and I met in Warsaw in April shortly after I had returned from the Ukrainian border. She had recently fled bombardment in Kyiv with her daughter and had been taken in by Agatha, a Polish mother of two, who served as an interpreter for our exchange.
A: AGATHA, 39, Warsaw
N: NONA, 68, Kyiv
A: “Nona was afraid you would be filming or something.”
Oh, no, no filming.
A: “She thought she would have to put on some makeup. She was really stressed about it."
N: “My name is Nadia Fesenko, but everyone calls me Nona. I'm 68 years old and my city is Kyiv, the capital. I’m here with my daughter, Masha. She is 45.”
Which day did you flee Kyiv?
N: “We left Kyiv on the 7th of March and came to Wroclaw on March 8th. We took a train from Kyiv to Lviv, then a friend gave us a free ride until we reached the border, then we took two more buses. One bus to Przemysl and then another from Przemysl to Wroclaw. We came through the Shehyni border crossing point.
We were lucky because we were driven by car as far as we could, right up to the border. Our Ukrainian customs and Polish customs took us only two hours to cross by foot.”
A: “Which is amazing, really. I knew some people, who were at my house, who took like two days to cross the border.”
N: “As we passed the Polish border, the first thing we saw on the other side was hot coffee, tea, food, and they also gave us some clothes…everyone was helping. We stayed there and cried because we thought, It's safe here. We didn't hear bombs falling or gunshots anymore.
Also, Masha met a person from Kosovo [at the refugee camp] who was in the military in the past, but, in Poland, he was a press photographer. We had a little conversation with him there. He told us that he would go to Ukraine to fight for us, but he has work to do right now. Also, he said that he went through a similar situation in Kosovo, and that he knows what it's like when you're being bombed.
He was going there to fight?
A: “Yes. We have some Ukrainian people here in Warsaw, but who are going back to fight in Ukraine too.”
N: “After a while, we took the bus to Przemysl.”
Sorry, to where?
Oh, right, I was just there, near Medyka. It's the Tesco center.
A: “Yes, you've probably heard because it's one of the most famous cities in Poland now. It's the first stop, Przemysl.”
N: “In Przemysl, we waited a little longer. Maybe four hours. Because they had to form a group of people to fill the bus. From there, we went to Wroclaw because Masha has a friend living there named Ulia.
Then, on March 17th, we came to Warsaw to apply at the Canadian embassy, because my son, who lives in Canada, started to prepare documents for us, so we can come to Canada as refugees. The first rumors were that Canada would let us come for half a year and they will help us with an apartment, some money for food, and most importantly, medical insurance. So we went to the embassy in Warsaw to get fingerprints, photos, and all the documentation we needed to get to Canada.
Then my son, Vova, from Vladimir, wrote to us that decisions about refugees are being taken by provincial governments. He is in the province of Ontario, and he told us that his province decided to give only work permit visas with a simplified procedure. So, Canada is not accepting us as a refugee. Instead, Poland is giving opportunities to stay and some social guarantees. If we go to Canada, we’ll need medical insurance which can't be paid for by my son. I'm not very young, and Masha has certain medical conditions too.
That's why I'm a bit mad at Trudeau. I always was telling my son that they have such a nice prime minister. Now I'm saying that he is not that good. Because when Syrians were running from the war, Canada gave a limit of 10,000 Syrian refugees. And Canada, as a country with a big Ukrainian diaspora, can't do it, not only for me, but for all Ukrainians! That’s something that all countries are doing now, including the US and the EU! But Trudeau, in his colorful socks, doesn't want to!”
So you originally wanted to go to Canada, correct?
A: “Nona wanted to go, but now she's a little bit afraid. Now she's saying she wants to go back to Kyiv.”
N: “They changed the communications from Canada. I don't want to go to work there at my age. Because Canada changed their mind. Well, at least, we don't know the official communication, only what's being said in Poland, which is that we can only come for work. And I’m afraid we’ll have to pay for it.
We also have a situation with my daughter, Masha, since she's in the hospital. Masha got a nervous breakdown. She became like this because of the shouting. Now she is in a hospital.
When we were in Kyiv, the sirens were going and there were shootings. We were hiding in a bathtub because it was the safest place that my son found on Google. Because of all these shootings, and the traveling, and being exhausted…we left Kyiv with just two bags, you know…for all these reasons, Masha had a mental breakdown. She's in a psychiatric hospital right now recovering.
I want to say that Polish people are helping a lot. I will talk later about Agatha specifically, but now I want to talk about the hospital. All doctors and hospital staff are very good. They are nice to us, they are giving us all prescribed medications and meals. And Masha has started to feel better. And she would like Canada to know how Poland treats Ukrainians. Everything is free for us here, and you need no money. When in Canada, we would have to pay for everything, but my son can’t. He's not that wealthy, and he has his wife and son too.”
So, Nona and Masha came here together, but they were separated once she went to the hospital. Where is she now, Masha? Here in Warsaw?
A: “Yes, in Warsaw hospital.”
N: “We are visiting Masha in a hospital every three days because she has a sweet tooth. She also smokes, as do I. We are visiting her to bring everything for her—such as sweets, cigarettes, coffee, fruit. Little normal stuff you take for a person in the hospital. We are bringing her everything she’s asking for. We’ll go tomorrow too.
We've had a lot of help from volunteers who bring clothes for me and Masha, including everything such as jackets, shoes, even socks.
Now, about Agatha. That's God who sent these people to us, Agatha and her husband. They have three children, and, despite that, they gave us shelter, and welcomed us as part of their family.”
A: “Nona, don't cry!”
N: “We all feel like relatives to one another. Agatha’s mom and dad, and Pavel’s mom and dad, they are treating us like other family members, without distinction. We were crying when we were welcomed like that.
N: “I talk with Agatha’s mother-in-law. Even though she doesn't speak Russian, we go for walks. They gave us clothes. Because we had only the clothes we were wearing while running from Kyiv. We didn't even have a suitcase; we came with only two small bags.
And I want Agatha and Pavel’s names to be in the article to let people in Canada know how good Polish people are, and how Trudeau doesn't want us there. Trudeau is not doing good for Ukrainians!”
A: “Everyone in my neighborhood—because we live in small houses, not an apartment, like here, but a home with a garden—all the neighbors came with clothes and everything. They brought whatever they had. Like washed clothes, nothing was very used. So Nona could choose what she would like to wear. And also the color in her hair, I made it for her.”
N: “Agatha colored my hair and took me out to get a haircut.”
A: “My friend Kalina is also hosting another Ukrainian, a woman named Anya who is a hairdresser. When Nona first came here, she was like, Oh my God, I look like a mop! But, you know, it's typical woman stuff. No matter their age or nationality, they just want to look nice because it makes one feel better. So, I think it was the fourth day when we went to this hairdresser and we spoke with her since she was also from Kyiv. A few days later, I bought some coloring, and I did the coloring at home. Then Nona was like, I look like myself, not like a refugee without anything.”
N: “Please send us this article, so I can show my son.”
I’m very interested in Masha's story right now. How did this happen? Was she feeling very anxious as she was leaving Ukraine, and she needed to go to a hospital once she arrived?
A: “Yes. I think the breaking point was when they came to Warsaw. At first, they were in Wroclaw where they had a friend. But once they came here to Warsaw, there were a lot of people. Like you cannot imagine what happens there. And to find a volunteer or someone to help, and find where to go, and where to find the embassy. I think that was a breaking point for her, really. Like a bomb with a delayed explosion.”
N: “We thought that we’ll come to Warsaw to wait and get all the documents needed and then will go to Toronto, but then Trudeau said, Go after the Russian warship.
Trudeau is not welcoming Ukrainians, but the provinces of Canada are. The provinces are taking people in and the federal government is waiving the visa requirement for three years. You know, you have in Germany and Scandinavian countries, you can come to them and they will give you everything, like in Poland, but Canada changed their mind.”
Okay, so Nona's plan is to return home to Ukraine?
N: “I wanted to go to Canada but given Masha’s status a little bit and the situation regarding Ukrainian refugees in Canada, things are different. We are not taking refugee status because we are not going to live here, we will go home to our native city. I’m not applying for an identification number here in Poland, because there would be some obstructions to going back to Ukraine.
I don't want to stay in Poland forever. I’m still waiting. I’m sure that in two weeks’ time, by about the end of April, I will go home. That's when they will get rid of Putin, and I will go home. Because I left my cat there. I will show you photos of my cat, so Canadians can know how great Ukrainian cats are.
There is this little dog that was left alone in an apartment by people who left the city. Our volunteers got him out, and yesterday I sent some money to them for dog food, because there's a money shortage. That's how we are helping.”
A: “Nona's friend is taking care of the cat right now.”
[Nona takes a phone call from Masha]
Okay, I'd like to hear some thoughts from Nona about how she feels about her country, Zelensky, etcetera.
N: “I see that Russian fascists are being banished from Ukraine. They are leaving small towns near Kyiv. And I hope that Ukraine will be free, and that Putin will die soon. What he is doing is unbelievable. Worse than Hitler.
Ukraine will be a great country. It develops in a European direction. Ukraine wants to be a part of a modern Europe. Now Ukraine is protecting the whole of Europe by fighting Putin's army. Because Putin primarily hates Ukraine, then Poland, and then all the Baltic countries. He wants all countries that were under Soviet Union occupation, and to establish a new Soviet Union.
He wants our country, but Ukraine will never submit. We will never let them in! That's why everyone is helping us. All European countries. And our nation was born.”
[Nona answers another phone call from Masha]
A: “What Trzaskowski [Mayor of Warsaw] is saying now, which is true, is that everything is being done by Polish people. Not by the Polish government. There has been over one month of war in Ukraine, but the Polish government said, Yes, okay, we will give you money. But come on, that's not everything! We have problems, like at my kids’ school. We have, I think, ten new students in the first grade class. They are seven years old. They are ten Ukrainian kids. The teacher doesn't know Russian or Ukrainian, and she's like, Okay…I have to do my lessons in Polish, so what am I supposed to do with the Ukrainian kids? Why is there no government resolution for education for Ukrainian kids?
When they're small children, maybe it's okay. But in Poland, we have an exam for 18 and 19-year-olds when they finish high school, which is called the Matura. It's written for maths, biology, etcetera, but also in Polish language. Imagine Ukrainian students writing the Polish Matura, based on Polish books they've never read?
Like, it's great that you're giving us some money, but there are still some issues. The government is saying, for example, that you need an identification number to go to the doctor. That's not true. You have your passport, and that's all you need to go to the doctor anywhere in Poland and they will help you. If you have a stamp on your passport that proves that you entered Poland after the war started, you will get your care for free. But no one talks about it!
The government said, We will give you 40 zloty [~12 CAD] per day per refugee, but only when the refugee will leave. So, if you have a refugee in your home for three months, you will get money for them after three months. During these three months…?
I feel the same way. Like, where is the state in all of this? It's always ordinary people. It's inspiring, I love to see it, but there's also a responsibility for the international community to step in and act, yet they're absent. Completely absent, and it's ordinary people that have to fill that void.
A: “You know, what we're saying in Poland is that we're doing what no one did for us in 1939, during the Second World War. No one really did this for us. We're showing the world that it can be done. We know how it is to have war, and we know how it is to have Russians in your country.
When the war started, on the second night, I lay down in my bed, and for half of the night I was like, Maybe you can take someone into your home? For all the night, I was having this discussion with myself. Like, why not? I was trying to find the argument, Why not? In the morning, I asked my husband: Pavel, tell me, why not? And he didn't find a reason!
So I said, okay, we will take our son's room, and he will live with his sister in one room, and we will make his room a guest room for people in need. We didn't even really search, because in the first two weeks I was getting two or three calls per day from my friends who were like, I'm coming from Medyka and I have this many people, can you take them for the night? And I was like, Yes, and they coming to my place and taking a bath and washing their clothes.”
Remind me how you two met again, was it through a group?
A: “A volunteer from a Baptist church that is helping Ukrainians called me. Because I registered in I don't know how many things.”
[Nona sits down to rejoin the conversation, then takes another phone call right away from Masha]
I hope she's okay.
A: “It's just psychological. I mean, she's talking psychiatric medication which, in hospitals, is never pleasant. Especially here in Poland, it's the weekend, so there are only nurses in the hospitals. Maybe one doctor. And due to Covid, you can't visit…”
Really? Oh man, that's terrible. I hope she gets out soon.
A: “We go to her and there's this glass door. And we're talking with a phone.”
Aw, poor Masha.
A: “So, Nona, she was saying that Ukraine is a brave nation, but everyone is fighting as they can. And she cannot understand why Russians are doing what they're doing. Like, why bomb the theatre in Mariupol? There were kids. Kids! She’s like, I don't understand. And they come to some farms and they kill all the sheep. What's the point?
Every day she's checking the news. Listening to the news. Checking what's going on. She's also calling her friends who stayed in Kyiv. They don't live in the centre of Kyiv, but like a little town just nearby. I heard her talking, and her friend said that they get used to it. The sirens, the bombings.
The first few weeks, it was like, We’ve got to hide, we've got to hide! Now it's like, Oh, something's coming? No? Well okay then. You know, the brain has to function somehow. If you are living a month in Kyiv, with daily sirens and daily shootings, you have to turn off some emotion.
But for Masha, it didn't help that she found out yesterday that her friend in Ukraine, who has a twin sister…this twin sister's husband went to the market for cigarettes or milk or something, and he didn't come back. He was shot as he came out of the shop. On a normal day.”
[Nona sits back down to join us]
N: “He was coming out of a shop and a missile fell and killed him with shrapnel. It was in Kyiv.”
And they knew each other, Nona and this man?
A: “Yeah. Living in Ukraine is like that right now...”
Putin says that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. Most Ukrainians I speak to say that it's a lie. What does Nona think about it?
A: “We hate Russians.”
N: “One nation? So, he's killing his brothers and sisters? By the way, I'm talking precisely about Russian citizens when I speak of 'Russians’, not [ethnic] Russians. Because I am Russian myself, even though I'm Ukrainian and come from Kyiv. My mother is Russian. I have Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish roots.”
A: “Nona, from her family tree, is Russian. She comes from the Kievan Rus’. You have natives in America, and they’re all different tribes, right? It's like here in this part of Europe. We're all a part of this big Kievan Rus’.”
Like Slavs, we might say. You're all Slavs.
A: “Yeah, Slavic folk. Here we have Rus’ and Russians, similar words. She's Rus’, but not Russian. She's Slavic, but not Russian.”
[Agatha takes another phone call from Masha]
I won't take up too much more of Nona’s time. I’m sure she's a busy lady.
A: “Something must have happened. Well, if you want to ask Nona about Russians we will hear a lot of, well, not presentable words.”
I want to hear her thoughts about Ukraine, and less so about Russia.
A: “Can you type it into a translator app for Nona? I’ve never learned Russian, or Ukrainian. I've only learned through context. Nona speaks Russian and Ukrainian.”
Which are you speaking right now [with her]?
A: “Me, Ukrainian. My mom and Nona are speaking Russian.”
Ah, okay. I didn't know that.
[Conversation continues on nuances of our respective languages]
[Nona sits back down with us, and I show her my question on the translator app]
N: “That’s my homeland. I love it. I was born there. I’m fifth generation Ukrainian. How can you not love your country? If you were born in Canada, perhaps you love it.
I love our fields, the beauty of our nature, our people, our poetry, our songs, and our Bandera. Putin says that Bandera is a bandit and a killer, but the real killer is Putin. He is a cannibal!
But Stepan Bandera is a very contentious and controversial person. Some people say good things about him, other people say bad things. But the Ukrainian people consider him a hero. I never read a lot about him, because if he was as bad as some people are saying then I don’t want to know about it.”
What do you think about Volodymyr Zelensky?
N: “When war started, Biden offered him to escape to the US because an attempt on his life took place in Kyiv. But as one French author said, Zelensky has such big balls of steel that he cannot be lifted by any helicopter.
Zelensky said that he never will leave his people and his country. He sleeps only four hours per night, and even grew a beard because he doesn't have time to shave. Also, he looks exhausted. His wife and children are there too. He has two kids, a daughter named Oleksandra and a son named Kirill, and a wife named Lena. They are all in Kyiv. His wife is helping people as a volunteer.
Everyone is helping now. A lot of people became volunteers. I heard about a young kid, only eleven years old, who came by foot from some village nine kilometers away in the oblast to help as a volunteer. Those are our kids!”
Is there anything else that Nona needs? Is there something that the state or the community hasn't been able to provide her with?
N: “Nothing more! We were welcomed as only family can welcome. We are living with our family here, our Polish family.
The main thing is to put an end to all this war. Stop people’s suffering, stop the killings, and stop bombing our homes and our maternity hospitals. We will never forgive Putin for Mariupol, this asshole, where they were killing unborn babies. They destroyed the hospital! They destroyed a theater!”
A: “Mariupol now looks exactly like Warsaw looked in 1944 during the Second World War. Based on that, we, the Polish people, are telling the Ukrainian people, We know. We will rebuild it with you because we know it can be rebuilt. Warsaw was nothing, and now look!”
N: “There's supposed to be a new Marshall Plan. All the money of the Russian bastards, which has been frozen by European states, must be spent for rebuilding Ukraine. Because all of this money was stolen by Putin. He stole not $10 nor $100. He stole billions! He and his billionaire oligarchs. This money has to go to Ukraine.”
A: “This is not a Russian army. Because soldiers have rules, they have some pride. Soldiers don't do things like killing children. These are not soldiers that Putin sent to Ukraine. They steal, they rape, and they brought syphilis to Ukraine, which wasn't there before.
Ukrainians don't call them Putin's soldiers or Putin's army. There's no such thing in Ukraine from the Ukrainian point of view. This is important to them, that this isn't an army. They're something like barbarians or savages. This is important to Nona, that they aren't seen as soldiers.”
N: “Ukraine will never forgive Russians for their crimes. Their army is savage. I would say that they are like animals, but it would be too nice to call them that. Animals are not acting so horrible. They are inhumane. Also, Ukrainians will never forgive Russian citizens for their support of this war. More than 70% of them are in support of the murders which are going on in Ukraine.
Only Putin can stop this war. Because people can't protest in Russia. If you say something in support of Ukraine, you can get 10 years in prison. Despite that, some of them are talking about what's going on, and I'm thankful for it. I want you to write their names:
These people are telling the truth. They are outside Russia, that's why they are alive. But inside, for saying that there is war in Ukraine, you can get between 10 and 15 years in prison.
That's how it looks in Putin’s democracy. Everything is closed. The media is closed. They are not protesting! All the world is supporting Ukraine, but not Russians, because they have terrible propaganda.
Thank you so much for listening to me. Now you have to hug me.”
Excerpts of this interview were featured in the Toronto Star.
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Interesting interview. However, You need to explain that health insurance is governed by the provinces. So if Nona can’t get health insurance in Ontario that is on Doug Ford, the Ontario premier, not Trudeau.
The provinces control health and education, historically to the present. The Federal government controls immigration and citizenship.