Tetiana and Anastasiia in Sydney
Music helps Tetiana's daughter Anastasiia cope with the challenges of starting over in a new place. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
  • refugee

Refugees attune to new life as Ukraine war grinds on

Farid Farid February 24, 2024

Two years ago, Tetiana Pyshna clutched her daughter Anastasiia’s hands tight and jumped on a bus for a journey lasting 35 hours straight, joining the exodus of millions of Ukrainians escaping Russia’s invasion.

“Really I was in shock. I didn’t understand anything. I couldn’t do anything. I only took my child and went to an evacuation bus,” she told AAP.

The 36-year-old ran a small jewellery business in Kremenchuk, about 250km southeast of the capital Kiev, before settling in Australia as a humanitarian entrant in March 2022.

The industrial city has been a strategic target for Russian air strikes because of its crucial oil refinery, which has been hit multiple times.

The war has led to almost 30,000 civilian casualties including 10,000 killed since the invasion on February 24, 2022, according to the United Nations.

Ms Pyshna recounted how she made it to the Romanian border, crisscrossing through multiple checkpoints and relying on the kindness of strangers and volunteers to get her to Sydney where her sister lived.

“It’s a lot of kind people who helped everywhere and all the world who supported our country. It makes me cry,” she said.

Survivor’s guilt is something Ms Pyshna carries after finding a new, safe home in the leafy suburbs of northern Sydney.

“Every day we think about Ukraine and we worry about our family and all the people still there,” she said.

Her husband, father and all the men in her family were immediately conscripted when the war broke out, and barred from travelling abroad as part of the country’s mobilisation efforts to bolster its army.

“It’s hard because we don’t understand what’s happening in Ukraine to him (her husband) and he can’t understand what we have here. For two years we have been separated … it’s so hard for everyone,” Ms Pyshna said.

She is also worried for her father taking part in military operations.

“My father is fighting, he’s 57. I don’t know how he does it for two years fighting in the cold.”

Ukrainian refugees Tetiana and her daughter Anastasiia.
 Tetiana helps other recent arrivals from Ukraine in her new job at a refugee support service. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

But the fretting and worrying has not held her back from learning English and securing a job with a refugee support service, where she helps other recent arrivals from Ukraine.

Her teenage daughter goes to a high school where her musical talents are being nurtured.

Softly-spoken Anastasiia, 14, at first found it tough adjusting to her new surroundings.

“I felt really lonely because all my family members, all my friends they were all in Ukraine so it was really hard to settle in,” she said.

But the one constant has been her love of music, which began at the age of five. Playing the piano, guitar and flute have boosted her confidence.

“It’s helped me mentally because sometimes when I felt lonely or felt sad I just would sit and play classical music on the piano and feel the beauty that would touch my soul and I would forget about all the troubles I had,” Anastasiia said.

The biggest challenges facing Ukrainian refugees are gaining recognition of their qualifications and getting local experience, said Settlement Services International project officer Phillip Okwara, who met Ms Pyshna through its employment skills support program for asylum seekers.

“All newly arrived migrants, in particular humanitarian migrants and asylum seekers, for them to be fully integrated into the workforce and community need faith and time,” he said.

“The war is going now in its third year: on the one hand it causes a lot of distress in the (Ukrainian) community but on the other I can clearly see hope and I can clearly see the intentions of making Australia their new home.”

Ms Pyshna described the transition from a war zone to the safety of Sydney as an incremental process for her and her daughter, but one that could not have happened without crucial services supporting refugees.

“A lot of things look like a puzzle and you have small pieces that create a beautiful picture of a normal life for us,” she said.

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