The Ukrainian refugees who came to Ireland and went back home again

After two months among the ‘good people’ of Ballybrack in Dublin, the pull of family and homeplace became too strong for one family

Two weeks into the war in Ukraine, Daryna Fedorenko and her children fled to Ireland. But after two months living in the suburbs of Dublin, the pull of her family and homeplace became too strong, and she made the decision to return.

“People here are good. But I have not seen my husband in a long time, and Ukraine is my real home. I must go back,” Fedorenko said last week, as she packed her bags for the second time.

“I was scared to leave Ukraine. I did not want to go,” she said, although her husband, Vitali, who is a policeman, begged her to leave with their children Sasha (2) and Viktoria (12).

The couple lived in Irpin, a small city next to the capital city of Kyiv, where Russian troops initially focused their invasion.

Fedorenko and her children found safety in Ballybrack, on Dublin’s southside, where they moved in with Svenja and Colin Hayes and family on March 15th.

The Hayes had signed up to the Irish Red Cross appeal for hosts, but made contact with Fedorenko through a mutual friend.

Svenja Hayes said: “Yelena, our dog walker, has lived in Ireland for many years but she’s Ukrainian. She went home to get her mum out and I had messaged her to say good luck and that if she met anyone who needed a home, to send them our way.”

As it happened, that woman had gone to school with a friend of Fedorenko’s husband, and she organised flights for Fedorenko and her children from Poland to Shannon Airport.

“The flights to Dublin were sold out, so they arrived here at our house at 4am,” Hayes explained.

At first, it was “a bit of a squeeze” in the Hayes’ average-sized three-bedroom house, where children Grace (8) and Alice (6) had their own rooms. The youngest moved into her parents’ room to make space.

“Alice’s room has bunk beds. We let Daryna and Viktoria stay there and we put a baby bed in there too for Sasha. We put a mattress on the floor in our bedroom for Alice and moved all her things into our room.”

The house has two bathrooms, and the families took one each.

“I don’t think it’s for everyone to share their private space, but I could never say no to a mum. This could have happened anywhere in the world, and if it happened to us, it would be awful if someone closed the door on us.”

The two women quickly became fond of each other’s company and found they had a lot in common.

“We can roll our eyes at each other and just know what it means. We’re both wrecked at the end of the day and we both like to drink some wine together,” Hayes said.

It took a few days for the Ukrainian children to settle in and initially the aeroplanes which sometimes fly overhead in Ballybrack startled them.

But they soon adapted, with Viktoria joining the local school and making “loads of friends”.

A keen volleyball player in Ukraine, local team the Dalkey Devils welcomed her in and waived their yearly fee.

On both her first and last day at school in Dublin, her classmates gave her presents and cards.

For Sasha, who is still only a toddler, the move was “just like a big holiday”.

The day before the family arrived, Hayes told her own children: “If there are any toys you don’t want to share, put them away, because everything that’s out will be shared.”

“But in the end, they didn’t put anything away . . . They got on so well.”

The neighbours came by for pizza in the back garden to say goodbye to Fedorenko and her family.

“There are a lot of families on this road, and they have been lovely to her. I think being a young mum connected her with everyone. I think we all feel her pain, imagining being all alone in a foreign country where it’s not your language.”

Fedorenko feels she has “made family here” but ultimately her life is in Ukraine.

“I will grieve when I go home. People here are . . . Wow,” she said, holding her hand to her heart.

Sitting across the table from each other just two days before Fedorenko’s departure from Dublin, both she and Hayes begin to cry. “I will miss it,” Fedorenko said.

Fedorenko and her husband have been together since she was 16 years old, and this is the longest they have spent apart.

“It is a long time to be apart. Too long,” she said.

At first Fedorenko’s husband Vitali was sleeping in a bunker most nights, but recently he has been able to sleep in their apartment in Irpin.

The apartment had no electricity for a while but that has returned recently. Speaking to her husband on the phone most nights and understanding that normal life has now resumed somewhat made Fedorenko feel reassured in her decision to go home.

“I don’t know what Putin is planning. But I think he realised he could not take the whole of Ukraine. People stayed and they would not let him take it from us. Ukrainians are patriotic,” Fedorenko said.

“Big numbers are going home now. I will go and I hope it will be okay.”

Fedorenko is just one of tens of thousands who have made the decision to return to Ukraine and rebuild their lives despite the uncertainty of war.

The recent returnees include women with children and elderly people, compared with mostly men at the beginning of the Russian invasion.

For some, it was language barriers and difficulty finding work or accommodation abroad that led them to the decision to go home, while for Fedorenko it was an unbearable homesickness.

About 6 million people have left Ukraine for neighbouring countries since the war began on February 24th, while 8 million are estimated to be displaced inside the war-torn country.

But as the situation in some areas has begun to stabilise, a reverse-flow is occurring.

The UN says that as of May 19th, 1.8 million Ukrainians have returned.

An estimated 30,000-50,000 people are crossing the border back into Ukraine each day.

The figure reflects cross-border movements “which can be pendular and does not necessarily indicate sustainable returns as the situation across Ukraine remains highly volatile and unpredictable”, according to the UN.

It is not possible to gauge how many other Ukrainians have left Ireland as the temporary protection directive allows Ukrainians free movement. However, arrivals into the State have significantly dropped in recent weeks, according to figures provided by the Department of Justice.

In week five of war, the largest number of Ukrainians arrived in Ireland, at 4,249, compared with just over a thousand over each of the previous five weeks.

Svenja and Colin Hayes “worry about something happening” to Fedorenko and her family if the situation in Ukraine worsens, but they have already told them to “come back any time”.

Bombardment of the eastern Donbas region by Russian forces is intensifying but is currently largely focused there, while Kyiv and nearby areas such as Fedorenko’s hometown of Irpin have quietened.

“We were contacted by the Red Cross recently, but we said we wanted to wait. Hopefully, Daryna won’t have to return to Ireland but if she did it would be awful if we couldn’t take her in.”

“I’ll miss her, it’s been like having a sister in the house. Once everything has settled in Ukraine the plan is to go over for a holiday to visit them and we’d like to have them come over here again, next time with her husband. I don’t know how long that will be but at some point, it will be okay.”

The Hayes drove Fedorenko and her children to the airport on Wednesday, May 18th, where they had “a very emotional goodbye”.

They remained in contact “the whole time of their travels”, Svenja Hayes said.

At home in Ballybrack for the past few days it has felt “very quiet”.

“I’m just glad they got home safe. We won’t take in any other family for now until we know Daryna won’t have to come back.”

The journey home took Fedorenko and her children just over a day. After a 2½ hour flight to Krakow, followed by a lift from a friend to Poland’s border, and a drive home to Irpin with her husband, Fedorenko said she is tired but “glad to be home”.

“Everyone was glad to see us. I was really happy to see my husband, he missed us very much. It is very good that everything is quiet here. Now I look at the damaged buildings and I really hope this will not happen again.”

Still unsure of what the future might hold, Fedorenko said: “I hope everything will be fine. Thank you, Ireland, for the warm welcome.”

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