A chance encounter over pizza in Sri Lanka led us to find asylum in Dublin

Ukrainian couple Eugene and Anna were on holidays far from home when war broke out

On February 24th, 2022, at about 5am Kyiv time, I went for my first hike: my wife, Anna, and I climbed Little Adam’s Peak, near Ella, a small town in a mountainous part of Sri Lanka.

We flew to this sunny island on January 30th to spend the next two months away from the cold. During February we changed locations four times: we practised yoga, sunbathed and swam in Tangalle, ran along the vast beach with calm waves in Mirissa, and surfed in Weligama.

We were well prepared to climb, and once we were at the top the majestic landscapes of Sri Lanka’s heart opened in front of us: the picturesque peak of Ella Rock, the sacred Ravana Falls and the broad valleys around the town. Breathing the pure cypress air, I felt peace and bliss.

When we got back to our house, having come down from the summit in a state of deep calmness, the phone was ringing. My mother had called me.


“Good morning, Mom. How are you?”

"Son, the war has begun. Russia has attacked us. They are firing rockets. Please don't worry. We will try to survive."

Mom spoke in a trembling voice.

Anna and I got married just seven months before the war started – the sweet memory of celebrating with all our close relatives and friends warms our hearts. We wanted to have children and made plans for the future. I enjoyed a rapidly developing career managing the Ukrainian ice-hockey league, while Anna got her international yoga certificate and almost finished her first project, a yoga diary. We lived a wonderful peaceful life and did everything for a better future.

Nobody believed the war could start. Everyone hoped this nightmare would not affect us. But already, on February 26th, Russian troops fired rockets from a BM-21 Grad (or Hailstorm) launcher on civil houses in Chernihiv, about 75km from the Russian border. My 57-year-old father, Yuri, an engineer in a construction company, could not join the Territorial Defence for health reasons. At the same time, he was too young to cross the border legally. So he helped other men to set up anti-tank barricades and inspected basements to see if they could become bomb shelters.

My 52-year-old mother, Lyudmila, and 30-year-old sister, Olga, who are social workers, cooked food for the armed forces of Ukraine in their free time in one of the schools in Chernihiv. One day, a few hours after they returned home, the school was destroyed by a Russian missile. Many people died.

For many weeks Chernihiv remained the human shield for the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv – a crucial objective in the early stages of the Russian invasion. Russian troops bombed Chernihiv day and night. As a result, 70 per cent of the city’s communications were ruined. There was no electricity, gas, water, heating or connection. I couldn’t contact my parents, and when they had the opportunity to catch the signal they sent photos of how they cooked the rare leftover food on a fire in the street. All this time my parents tried to go to work and share food with those in need.

Every night the Russian army dropped giant, 500kg bombs on residential areas of the city. My grandmother, 74-year-old Galina, partially lost her memory because of shell shock from the bombing. When I spoke to her on Messenger, she couldn’t remember where I was, but she was worried about whether my wife and I were safe.

At that moment the world seemed to freeze for me. It just stopped.

My family was under fire, unable to cook food, keep warm or find refuge in a bomb shelter, which was not large enough for everyone in the city

All the sounds in my head reverberated like trembling crystals. My family was under fire, unable to cook food, keep warm or find refuge in a bomb shelter, which was not large enough for everyone in the city. During this time I dealt with panic attacks by doing more and more hiking with my wife: climbing Ella Rock, hiking Rawana Fall, conquering Small Rawana Fall, twice Nine Arch Bridge and once again Little Adam’s Peak. Regular activities, ups and downs, and changing landscapes helped me handle stress.

Finally, three weeks after the start of the war, my parents managed to escape from the city, and after 26 hours on the road they were in relative safety, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. I felt great relief. At the same time I started to sleep normally again and have fewer panic attacks.

After two weeks in the mountainous town of Ella we returned to the coast, and the suburbs of the city of Galle. Sri Lanka did not provide asylum for Ukrainians. We needed to move and take care of our future. We didn’t have a plan. We only knew it was too dangerous to go back to Ukraine.

As soon as she found out we were from Ukraine, Zoë offered for us to come to Ireland and live in her house. Anna and I had tears in our eyes

One day we were sitting in the park in Galle, and my wife leaned her head on my shoulder in complete despair at the uncertainty ahead. We wondered if it would be even a little bit comfortable to stay somewhere in a gym converted into an asylum for displaced people. Uncertainty tormented from the inside out. Anna asked me what we should do next. I didn’t have an answer to this question. I know it’s hard to believe, but just an hour later we met the woman with the biggest heart I have ever seen: Zoë Quinn, from Ireland.

We met Zoë in the company of her partner, Mark, in one of the small restaurants in Galle, where we went to eat pizza. The global rise in gas prices meant there was an energy crisis in Sri Lanka. The unpredictable daily power cut happened when the four of us were in a small room of the pizzeria. It was boiling without the air conditioners. I joked about hoping Zoë and Mark’s pizza wasn’t too spicy. We made small talk before Zoë asked where we were from. As soon as she found out we were from Ukraine she offered for us to come to Ireland and live in her house. Just a few minutes after we met. Anna and I had tears in our eyes. Zoë even asked if we had relatives who needed protection.

At that moment Anna’s older sister, Nina, who has two children, her five-year-old daughter, Arina, and her seven-year-old son, Lev, was also looking for accommodation. They left the suburbs of Kyiv on February 24th for the Transcarpathian region as soon as the shelling began. When it became clear that the war was dragging on, Nina crossed the Hungarian border with her two children while her 38-year-old husband, Oleksiy, joined the Ukrainian armed forces.

When Zoë heard that in addition to my wife and me, Anna’s sister and her two children also needed housing, she said that she would gladly accept our entire family in her house. Being a wonderful mother of four cheerful children, she emphasised that Anna’s niece and nephew would have more fun in the company and invited us, strangers, to her home.

On March 30th my wife and I flew to Budapest to help Nina cope with the stress and prepare her children for moving to an English-speaking country. It’s tough when the whole family is scattered across the world and you don’t know when you can see each other next time. Anna and her sister were hugging and crying without saying a word for a long time.

I will not hide that I breathed a sigh of relief on April 5th, when we landed at Dublin Airport. We quickly passed through passport control, where the immigration officer asked us if we were looking for temporary asylum. The contrast between arriving in Dublin and Budapest was enormous. At Dublin Airport we were able to secure the first documents that allowed us to count on support from the Government. Despite the late evening, the registration took us no more than an hour. After that we went to Zoë’s house, which became our fortress.

When we arrived we were stunned by her friendliness and hospitality.

Zoë prepared new pyjamas, bathrobes, towels and small gifts for everyone. Her children made drawings with welcoming words and Ukrainian flags. We also found many motivational books, notebooks and cards in our rooms. But the best motivation to move forward towards a better future was Zoë. She is a talented personal trainer and a record-breaking runner. Running six days a week and doing a lot of individual and group workouts every day, she energises everyone around her with positive energy.

To show respect for Ireland’s people and be more deeply imbued with the national culture from the first week of my stay in the country, I joined Gaelic football at the Beann Eadair GAA Club. Local regulars welcomed me into their team with warmth and helped me to feel the atmosphere of an essential part of Irish sports culture.

Also, I joined one of Ireland’s oldest athletics clubs, Raheny Shamrock Athletic Club, where I met a group of local athletes. Their level of training is impressive and motivates me to strive for the best. All of the Irish people I met are open to communication, warm-hearted and always find words of support for the people of Ukraine. By the way, training in the sports clubs is free for Ukrainians.

My wife, her sister and I volunteer at Dobra Hata Howth, where 10 Ukrainian teenagers under 17 years old have found a new home. They came from Ukraine, alone without their adults. Some were forced to leave their parents; some lost their parents. The Russian military killed them.

I try to give young people psychological support and help define the essentials of those teenagers who do not speak English. If possible, I give them a friendly shoulder when they need it. I admit it can be challenging to find the right words of support when teenagers tell stories about how they left the territories occupied by Russia.

Care and respect from the people of Ireland accompany our family throughout our entire stay in the country. Every time we see all these Ukrainian flags, we are reminded that we are welcome guests. Our nephews, Lev and Arina, have already joined St Fintan’s School, where caring teachers and friendly kids met them. Parents of classmates sent Nina dozens of messages with words of support and offers of help. This is important. We feel how sincere the Irish people are when they tell us: “You are very welcome here!”