From Ukraine to Holland by car, train and plane. Natalia Slepenko, 28, fled Kyiv with only her cat Celeste, leaving a life behind. On the journey, he finds a helping hand wherever he goes, but the plan is to return to his country as soon as possible.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was something Ukrainians worried about, but they didn’t think it would actually happen. At least it wasn’t Natalia, who slept restlessly in her Kyiv apartment, where she lived with the cat Celeste. At dawn when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, her mobile phone on silent, the Ukrainian young woman did not see the “20 calls” she had received from her family and friends. When he woke up to his cell phone vibrating, his father who lives in the same city told him, “Pick up your things at once and get out of there. [a guerra]”.
The first thing Natalia did was tape the windows to prevent them from breaking if there were explosions nearby. Then he sat at the entrance to the apartment where there are no windows to protect himself. I spent the night in the basement of the building with the neighbors. “It was a shock, and it just felt so surprising,” he told JN.
The next day, Friday, the young woman tried to go get her parents, but Ukrainian forces blew up the bridges to stop the Russian advance, leaving Natalia with no way to reach them. “My mom wanted me to be safe and I knew I would have to find a way to leave the country,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave Ukraine and didn’t know where to go or where to stay. But I took my cat into consideration, everyone who knew me knew she was my child and I was worried for her safety.”
On Saturday morning, after a night spent in her private bathroom, Natalia joined a group of Ukrainians to leave the country. After nearly three days on the road, they arrived in Romania.
Helping hand around every corner
Crossing the border, Natalia was “overwhelmed with the amount of generosity.” He continued, “There were many volunteers and translators helping the Ukrainians and Romanians talk to each other. There were people offering masks, tea, sweets, everything you can imagine.”
Gestures of solidarity doubled during the Ukrainian’s trip to Groningen in the Netherlands, where she was greeted by her friends. In Romania, a man took her to the train station and insisted on buying her tickets, which are now free for Ukrainians. “However,” he said, “that was very nice of him.”
Since he could not immediately buy a plane ticket to his final destination, the hotel he booked before leaving Ukraine offered him an extra night, food and even toys for Celeste. The Uber driver, who took her to a pet store to buy sand for the cat, also paid her all expenses. “I was completely amazed at the level of kindness.”
Natalia ran away but still wanted to do her part to help. In the Netherlands, I immediately began collaborating as a translator with an organization of psychologists who work with trauma in crisis and war situations and who provide webinars for Ukrainian psychologists in the field.
The plan is to go home
The young woman ran away alone, leaving behind a whole life. The friend remained in Kyiv to fight. Natalia confirmed to JN that he was not allowed to leave the country “but he didn’t want to, either.”
With parents, communication is more complicated. In the city they live in, there is no light, water, or electricity and it is difficult to contact them. “I was getting news about them from the neighbors, but they left, so there is no way to talk to them,” he explained.
“It’s unfair because this is upsetting, it’s costing people’s lives and everything they have. We’ve all lost something. It’s ridiculous,” he says. But Natalia is sure of one thing: she wants to return to Ukraine. “It’s hard to make plans because we don’t know how long the war will last. I really hope it won’t last long because I miss my home and the people there and I want to get back as soon as possible.”