Irish man crosses Ukrainian border: ‘We realised we’re refugees now’

‘People I don’t know picked us up and drove us to their home,’ says Limerick native

Looking back across the border of Ukraine after reaching Slovakia, Irish man Noel Francis (not full name) felt grief for everything he was leaving behind from his five years living and working in Lviv.

The Limerick native formed close friendships with Ukrainian people throughout his time there, and worked in a children's home, a job he initially intended to stay in for just a few months or a year, but came to love.

“We were living a normal life up until just a few days ago. Nobody thought anything would happen or at least not this quickly,” he said.

“It just happened overnight. On Wednesday, I was preparing some school work and by Thursday night I was gone.”

Two of the boys from the home were 18 and the rules had changed overnight that men over 18 couldn't leave. They were turned back at the border

Noel, who asked that his surname not be used, tried to bring three teenage boys from the children’s home he worked at over the border to Slovakia with him.

After driving for hours and a distance of more than 700km, Noel and the teenagers reached the border, where a queue of about 400 cars had formed.

“One of the boys in the car said to me ‘We’re refugees now’. We kind of laughed at how bizarre that concept was but then we realised that actually, that is true, we are refugees,” he said.

“The queue wasn’t even moving. We waited five hours in the car and it didn’t budge, so we left the car ... and we went on foot.”

Most people fleeing to Ukraine’s neighbouring countries are women and children, as all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are being told to stay and fight.

“Two of the boys from the home were 18 and the rules had changed overnight that men over 18 couldn’t leave. They were turned back at the border,” he said.

One of the boys, who is 14, managed to get out with him.

The atmosphere at the border was “subdued” and people were there to greet refugees with food and water, he said.

We're going to stay in Kosice and hope at some stage the rest of the children will be able to come through

Noel and the 14-year-old boy were met by “a friend of a friend” who said they could help.

“People I don’t even know and never met before picked us up from the border and drove us for three hours to their home. They’re putting us up and have told us their home is our home for as long as we need. They’ve been great,” he said.

“We’re going to stay in Kosice and hope at some stage the rest of the children will be able to come through. We want to return if things calm down, but that doesn’t look likely.”

Noel was in contact with his father and brother back in Ireland "the whole time, and especially in the last week" to inform them of his plans if the situation in Ukraine escalated.

“My plans initially were to wait and see how it goes. I told them as soon as danger reached Kyiv or Lviv I’d leave. But none of us expected it, it just happened overnight.”

“There are a lot of people I left behind. Some of the older boys from the home are talking of fighting. It’s difficult to see how life can change like this in the space of a week,” he said.