Refugees escaping Mariupol arrive in Dublin: ‘We will never return’

Refugees from destroyed Ukrainian city who have fled to Ireland describe their grief

For many civilians trapped in the hell that Mariupol has become, the only way out has been through the country that destroyed their city and their homes. With access to the rest of Ukraine blocked, they were forced to flee through Russian occupied territory and then through Russia itself.

Russia has been processing refugees ostensibly as a humanitarian gesture, but in reality to filter out those who it believes can help the Ukrainian war effort.

The shortest distance by road and rail between Mariupol and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is 2,500km. The 31 exhausted Ukrainian refugees who arrived into Dublin in the early hours of Sunday morning have travelled that distance and sometimes more.

They were helped by an organisation called Rubikus which is staffed by volunteers in Russia who are risking their own safety to help Ukrainians escape.

When they got to the border with Estonia, the Russians refused to allow the 31 refugees travel on to Tallinn until they proved they were going on somewhere else. Only when they produced proof they were boarding a Ryanair flight to Dublin were they allowed proceed through to Tallinn train station.

The Irish leg of the journey was managed by Tom McEnaney and translator Margarita Kalinichenko on behalf of Flights for Freedom, an organisation set up by travel entrepreneur Paul Norton to provide flights for Ukrainian refugees to Ireland at cost price. It will be organising all future flights of these refugees.

Oleg and Olena Slobodyanyk say they will never return to Mariupol. The Russians destroyed their home and they retreated to a basement. When they emerged to fetch snow to melt for drinking water, their son Grigory (19) was killed by a Russian missile strike and Ms Slobodyanyk was badly injured.

Her mother Svetlana, daughter Buryan and granddaughter Julia left for Ireland two weeks ago.

Yet Oleg and Olena would not leave Mariupol until they had a chance to bury their son in a Christian cemetery. He would have been 20 this Friday and was looking forward to starting a job in a factory where his father worked.

“He had not seen life. It’s very hard and painful to remember it, the heart wears and hurts, and this wound remains forever in our memory and in the heart,” Ms Slobodyanyk says.

The group of 31 refugees includes Maya Suhovei (86) who is travelling with her son Vladimir. She was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, the daughter of a Soviet air force pilot who fought in the second World War. Mariupol is a Russian-speaking city and many residents have family connections to Russia. She says it is hardest to take that her own nephew is in the army of the self-declared People's Republic of Donetsk and is fighting with the Russians.

The youngest of the refugees is one-year-old Vladimir Priadkin who is travelling to Ireland with his father Vasily, mother Ira and brother Sasha (10).

Mr Priadkin was a safety engineer in a nuclear power plant in Kharkiv before the family moved to his wife's home city of Mariupol six years ago. Their first-floor apartment was destroyed by a Russian missile. He went out to fetch water and could not return because of military activity. He was detained by Russian troops who took all his money off him. The family were eventually reunited in Russia.

Many of the new arrivals know little or anything about Ireland, but anywhere is better than Mariupol. The feedback from other Ukrainian refugees living in Ireland has been good and there are few good alternatives.

Mr McEnaney is now hoping to set up a network of Irish volunteers based in Estonia to bring more refugees who have been filtered through Russia. It costs €250 per refugee as Flights for Freedom has deals on flights and, he says, volunteers based in Estonia and Ireland will do the rest.

All Ukrainian refugees have been traumatised by their experiences, but he believes the ones who were trapped in Mariupol and could only escape through Russia are a special case.

“The challenge now, of course, is to get them to safety, and to raise the money to bring out another group,” he said.