Ukraine (V): "I was living like I could die at any moment." An Interview with Senam, 39, a refugee from Kyiv.
I met Senam and his daughter in a hotel lobby in Krakow, Poland. While Kyiv is still home to most of their possessions, in some ways Kyiv has taken possession of them.
SENAM NYAMADI, 39, Kyiv (Ghana)
Prior to being here, where did you come from? Was it Kyiv?
“Yes, Kyiv is my hometown originally. We've lived there for the past ten years.”
With your wife and daughter?
Was your daughter born there?
“Yes. Her name is Evelynn and she's five years old.”
Are you Ukrainian too, by immigration?
“I’m just a permanent resident.”
[Senam answers a phone call from a stranger, offering him a free place to stay for the rest of the month.]
“People have been very good to us - we just got a free apartment.”
Really! For how long?
“He said we can stay until the end of April.”
That's incredible. Here in town?
Man, I'm so happy for you guys.
“That's what's been on my mind, because tomorrow we have to check out [of the hotel], and then we have nowhere to go.”
You met him on Facebook, right?
“No, on WhatsApp they kind of have a group and they're helping us, especially [those] with kids. So I just posted my profile there with my family and a lot of people started talking to me and one just said that I could stay with them.”
That's amazing - I'm happy for you guys.
Rewinding a bit, would you mind telling me how you got there? The process.
“When the war started, it was like a dream. I was in Kyiv, the main city. We woke up one day and heard huge explosions. I checked the window and people were in a rush, moving into their cars. I had no idea what was happening because I had no close friends there to ask what was going on.
So, I turned on the news and I saw Russia is attacking Ukraine and it was breaking news. At the time, my daughter and my wife were with my wife’s parents. I called and asked them if everything was okay and they said everything was okay. So I stayed home and tried to keep my calm, because either we had to move out immediately and leave the country at that point, or we would have to just remain calm and hope that everything will be okay soon.
That's what we were hoping for. So, I stayed there in Kyiv. The war started on the 24th of February and I stayed there until the 24th of March.”
“The bombardment got to me. I got used to it, which is kind of crazy. I could hear huge explosions, and airplanes flying around my window.
Funny enough, my wife didn't want to move out of Ukraine. That's the crazy story for me. It was really hard for me, personally, but I didn't want to leave without my family. That's why I stayed so long.
With all the things going on, I tried to convince them to go, and that if everything [went back to normal] that we would come back. It took me a whole month to convince her. Actually, she didn't want to come with me. So she said, you take the lead and we're going to meet up with you. I didn't want a huge fight, so I said okay.
When I left Ukraine, I didn't have any means of transportation. I needed to rent a taxi which cost me about 700 USD at the time, which was all the money I had. It's not as important as my life, so I paid the 700 and I moved out. I took as much as I could with me.
And then I needed to bring the little one, which cost me again another 700. It's kind of a business, you know, the drivers are taking advantage of the situation. They drove us from Kyiv straight to the Polish border. We crossed by foot. I came, then [my daughter] came two days after. Then we came straight here. Six days ago was when they arrived.”
You crossed through Medyka-Shehyni, or Krakovets?
I was just at Shehyni yesterday. The lines are still long. How long did it take you to cross the border, was it a long wait?
“For me, it took me like 30 minutes to cross because there were no people. But when my kid and wife were coming, it took them five hours to cross because they said a lot of people that day. We waited until midnight that night until they crossed.”
But they didn't live with you during that period of time [in Ukraine]?
“They lived with the grandparents.”
I imagine it's been very hard on everybody, especially your daughter, being woken up at night by the air raid sirens.
“Yeah, they had a basement actually, underneath the house. So, when the sirens go off and they need to hide, they go into the basement and wait until everything is clear and then come out again.
It kind of had an effect on my daughter. Here in Krakow we're close to the airport, so when she hears a train or a plane passing she goes Do we need to hide? Do we need to hide? I say no, come on, everything is okay here, it's safe here.
Her mom too was a little paranoid. When we’re sleeping at night and she hears the plane flying, she wakes up and then she realizes, oh, we’re in a safe place, and then goes back to sleep. So it had some effect on us. We're trying to recover, slowly.”
What's your plan now?
“Before this happened, I applied for a university program in Truro, in Canada.”
Oh - I've been there - well, I was there years ago. But yeah, I've been there. That's amazing.
“I was admitted, they sent me an admission letter. Then I needed to go to the embassy, and then this happened, so the embassy is now closed.”
Was it Dalhousie?
Dalhousie's a school with a campus in Truro.
“It was NSCC.”
NSCC, okay, I know it. Wow.
“I really wish I could move to Canada with my family and do my studies, but now everything has changed. We just don't know now. We just live day by day. We don't know what to do, what's going to happen. It's kind of hard.”
What were you going to take at NSCC?
Do you intend to stay in Europe now, or do you not really have a broad plan, just wherever you can find a home?
“Wherever I find a peaceful home for my family, I’m ready to go there.”
Do you want to go back to Kyiv?
“No, no, no. I think if we go back there, we won’t sleep, you know. The trauma is going to come back. It's going to take a while before this really erases from our memories - what we've seen and what we've lived through. It's kind of hard for us.”
Absolutely, I understand. How do you foresee this ending, this conflict and this crisis?
“I don't know, we just hope everything ends peacefully. And that the Russians leave the country and we all go back to our homes. That's all we want.”
Did you expect any of this to happen - did you expect that Kyiv could be attacked?
“No, no. It was like a dream, that it happened.”
[Senam stops to answer text messages]
Can I ask you what you need? What does your family personally need at this moment?
“What we really needed was a place to stay and we just had someone say we could live in this apartment until the end of April, so I hope by then we can actually come up with something.
Right now, we're financially kind of broken right now. We don't know what to do…people give us money. I have friends who just drive past and say Oh, you're in Krakow, so they give me a hundred zloty to buy food, and that's what's sustaining us.”
Have you been happy with the international response - in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere?
“Yes, they've been very helpful. There are a lot of programs so far. But I'm kind of disappointed in the Canadian embassy. I applied for the refugee quick immigration program. They responded to me, and then I made an appointment to submit my biometrics and everything. And since then, I don't know. I've never heard back from them.”
How long ago was that?
“One week ago I made the appointment. It was very hard to make that appointment, so I made it through an email that was successfully submitted. I had no response from them, so I emailed them again and they gave me an automated response.
So, I kind of lost hope in Canada and I'm looking anywhere now in Europe. I was considering my studies. If I go there, in Canada, I would make use of my studies.”
What were you doing in Kyiv?
“I was working in a telecommunications company.”
Did you meet your wife there?
Do you have anything else to say - for example, a statement to make or some other aspiration?
“All I can say is that I’ve never experienced this in my life. It's the first time I've experienced this, and I think it's going to take a toll on me for a very, very long time. My baby, she's young and will erase these memories as time goes on. But with me, I don't know. It's going to have a very big scar on my memory for a while.
I was living like I could die at any moment, you know. When the bombs were falling. I could hear the explosion, I could see the smoke. And I just prayed that I don't die today, you know. I lived by the day. And that really took a toll on me.
Escaping this war, I don't know, it changes…I cannot explain this. Mentally, I think I'm broken. Psychologically. It's really hard for me now. I just hope for the best, and for my family to be safe and my baby to be okay. That is all.”
I really hope that your daughter and everyone else will be okay as well. You say that she's young and will grow out of it, and I sincerely hope so. But I also hope she gets the treatment and the help she needs as well. You know, counsellors and teachers who understand.
“Yes. Thank you so much for listening to our story. I hope that people back home are going to consider our story and help us get to Canada.”
I hope so too. I can only hope. Here's all the zloty I have on me, I want you to take it and feed your family.
“Look, Evelynn, a present. We can buy ice cream again.”
Excerpts from this interview were featured in The Toronto Star.
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