Two women in fluorescent-coloured anoraks stand out in the crowd of refugees crossing the border from Ukraine to Slovakia. Antonina Kunchenko, 62, and Natasha Titova, 59, are sisters who have fled fighting in eastern Ukraine. They arrive on a spring morning in Slovakia without a clue what to do next.
Widowed before the war, the sisters left grown-up children and grandchildren behind.
The first thing Antonina does is phone one of her sons back in Ukraine, after which she breaks down in tears. Natasha says: “My home was destroyed. There is nothing to return to. We do not know where we are going to go.”
At the border, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its NGO partners are on hand to offer information that will help the refugees orient themselves. “Our task is to help them find their feet as quickly as possible,” says Tala Budziszewski, a UNHCR staffer on assignment as part of the emergency response.
"There is nothing to return to."
Antonina and Natasha are soon supplied with information. One UNHCR leaflet warns in Ukrainian of possible scams. “All humanitarian aid is free,” it stresses. Volunteers guide them to a free minibus.
A man in uniform – one of a detachment of Slovak firemen helping at the border – pushes the sisters’ luggage in a supermarket trolley to the bus. The driver is a local who normally takes tourists on excursions.
“So many people from all walks of life are helping. The response of Slovak society has been outstanding,” says Jovica Zarić, team leader for UNHCR’s operation in eastern Slovakia.
The bus takes Antonina and Natasha from the border village of Vyšné Nemecké to the nearby town of Michalovce. On the way, the sisters start to relive their terrible ordeal.
They come from Severodonetsk in Lugansk oblast. They spent a month in a cellar sheltering from shelling before heeding the call of their governor to evacuate. “This was my building. I had just renovated my flat,” says Natasha, showing a photo of a blackened apartment block.
“Our beautiful city,” says Antonina, “the Sadko swimming pool, the Prokofiev music school…” She tails off. The sisters’ lives have been shattered.
They worked hard all their lives – Antonina in a chemical plant, Natasha as a supermarket manager – and were looking forward to a comfortable retirement. Instead, they set out on a three-day journey across Ukraine to safety.
In Uzhhorod in western Ukraine, where they stayed a couple of nights with kind strangers, they acquired their vibrant outfits in a secondhand shop – pink jacket for Natasha, orange anorak and lime green fleece for Antonina.
“We had worn black all these days,” says Antonina. “We decided it was time to be bright and positive.”
The Slovak minibus delivers them to Michalovce, where a sports hall has been turned into a registration centre for refugees. The sisters eye rows of camp beds with army blankets; outside are tents with staff and volunteers offering psychological support, on-the-spot chipping for pets, Slovak SIM cards. All the services are free.
They go to the first desk and come out looking bewildered. “Another booklet,” says Natasha. “To be honest, we are feeling mild panic. I am afraid we’re going to be homeless.” They do not know where they will sleep tonight.
They need a pause to think and something to eat. They take out sandwiches they have brought from Ukraine, the bread thick and comfortingly familiar. Hot tea from the Slovak food tent adds cheer. UNHCR staff are on hand to help them weigh their options, following the agency’s Accountability to Affected People (AAP) policy, which means working together with refugees and empowering them to make their own informed decisions.
The big question is whether they should apply for temporary protection in Slovakia. “If we do, can we go back to Ukraine when its safe again?” The answer is yes.
Antonina has fond memories of a holiday in Prague. “If we apply here, can we apply later in the Czech Republic?” They learn they can only have temporary protection in one EU country. Committing themselves to Slovakia will open up possibilities for accommodation and support here straight away.
And what do the sisters want to do? “Work,” says Natasha. “We have no money. At our age and speaking only Russian, our chances may not be great but we are willing to do anything. My sister’s good at sewing.”
“Perhaps we could work in tourism?” says Antonina.
She is the dreamer. Natasha is organised and practical. “We have different temperaments but we never fall out,” says Natasha. “Thank goodness we have each other,” says Antonina.
After eating the last crumbs of their Ukrainian sandwiches, they come to a decision.
“So are we going to go from country to country?” Antonina asks.
“No,” says Natasha, “let’s stay here.”
"Thank goodness we have each other."
The sisters go to the hall where Slovak police are taking applications. The process takes under an hour. By teatime, the sisters have temporary protected status and somewhere to go. They have been accepted in a shelter in the city of Prešov, another hour’s ride away.
They are among 65,000 Ukrainian refugees who have applied for protection in Slovakia, while 257,000 have travelled onwards to other destinations.
With evening falling, they arrive at a school, converted by the regional authorities with help from Ukrainian students at Prešov University, into a hostel for refugees. They are shown into a dormitory, with bunk beds but nice clean duvets. “It’s quiet,” says Antonina, looking down into the yard.
Natasha starts to unpack; their slippers come out first.
“We will explore the town over the Easter weekend,” says Antonina. “And then,” says Natasha, “we will start to look for work.”