Ukrainian-Syrian couple have their lives upended by outbreak of war
Katya is seeing war for the first time but her husband Youssef already has this bitter experience
The war in Ukraine has come as a huge shock. Katya, an educated professional who had a “good life” there, is suddenly learning what it means to be a refugee. Her husband Youssef already knows. In his life, this is the third time he has been forced to flee.
The couple are now in Budapest, contemplating an uncertain future, the last thing on earth they wanted for their daughters, Diana, 13, and Elina, seven months.
We meet in a café, near the Airbnb where they are temporarily staying. Diana is looking after Elina. Katya can spare a little time. “I am sorry,” she says, “normally we are very hospitable but everything is such a mess now. We are exhausted; the baby is sick.” Youssef quietly sips a coffee beside her.
When there was talk of the possible use of chemical weapons, I said ‘that’s it, let’s pack
Youssef, 39, was born into the Syrian community in Kuwait. He was only eight years old when the Gulf War forced his family to flee to Syria. There, in Homs, they had a nice house until a rocket base was built nearby. Youssef was 17 when in 1999 the family fled again, this time to Dubai.
Meanwhile Katya, now 35, was growing up in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. A good student, she graduated in the Economics of Enterprise from the prestigious National Technical University of Oil and Gas.
“But I didn’t want to stay at home; I wanted to see the world,” she says. “I had quite good English, enough to communicate, so I went to Dubai.”
There she took a job as a waitress. She had already met and fallen in love with Youssef online.
“When we met in person, he gave me the biggest bouquet of flowers,” she laughs. The couple married in Ukraine in 2009 and returned to live for a decade in Dubai.
“All the years of having to move left me with a deep desire for a stable life,” he says. “That’s why I loved Ukraine
Two years ago, with a second child on the way, they moved to Ukraine to be near Katya’s mother. They thought Ivano-Frankivsk would be a good, safe place to bring up their girls.
“I love my city,” says Katya. “It is near the mountains; it is near Lviv.”
On top of her usual freelance writing work, she got a role as an interpreter to OSCE observers, monitoring elections. Youssef, a computer engineer, was able to work from home, developing software for banks and other companies.
“We had a good life,” says Katya, “not partying and shopping all the time, but a normal life, with proper meals and some savings for holidays.”
All that changed on 24 February, when war broke out in Ukraine. The airport at Ivano-Frankivsk has been bombed, although the city remains intact.
“Friends had left long ago but we didn’t want to go,” says Katya.
“We weren’t expecting war. We didn’t believe it,” says Youssef. “But when there was talk of the possible use of chemical weapons, I said ‘that’s it, let’s pack’.”
“We didn’t want to wait until the situation got any worse; we didn’t want to run with our underwear in bags,” says Katya. So they made a more planned departure, going by car to the border at Chop and crossing into Hungary on 14 March.
In Hungary, they were helped by aid workers from UNHCR’s partner organisation Caritas. A local volunteer called Csongor drove them in his car to Budapest. “Csongor was a superhero for us,” says Katya.
Now Katya and Youssef are quickly running through their savings, paying tourist rates for their Airbnb in downtown Budapest. There is a chance they may get some cheaper accommodation in April.
I saw what happened to my parents in previous wars. I did not want it to happen to my children.
Their plans are all up in the air. It may be a long time before they can go home.
“Of course, as soon as possible, I want to return to Ukraine,” says Katya. “I love my homeland. Sure, there are many negative things but each negative thing – not enough garbage bins in Ivano-Frankivsk – I cherish them now.”
Youssef feels the same. “All the years of having to move left me with a deep desire for a stable life,” he says. “That’s why I loved Ukraine, because I thought it was a permanent home. There was no reason why I would get kicked out.” He was even on his way to getting Ukrainian citizenship.
Instead, the couple are sorting out the paperwork to stay safe in Hungary. “I have never been illegal in my life,” says Youssef. “Once you get in a legal hole, it becomes very difficult to get out.”
“This is our reality now,” says Youssef with resignation. “I saw what happened to my parents (in previous wars). I did not want it to happen to my children. All we can do now is try to make sure the kids are safe and watch to see how things turn out.”