Life In War

A teenage girl and a little boy with luggage at a train station in Ukraine
Olena Morozova

“Mum, Take Us Away From Here" — One Ukrainian Mother Documents Life As A Refugee

“I feel sleepy all the time during the day and at night I wake up and can't sleep, instead I start to read news from Ukraine like a maniac.”

by Olena Morozova

Olena Morozova, a photographer and mother of three (Aleksandr, 16, Maria, 12, and Tymur, 7) fled with her children from their home in Kyiv, Ukraine at the start of the war. They are currently refugees in Poland. Morozova’s ex-husband, the children’s father, is also in Poland; her partner Andriy remains in Ukraine. Here, she shares a look into her family’s life as refugees, and her work as an artist — as told to Karni Arieli of the Eye Mama Project.

When the war started in Ukraine, I had to take my three children and move to Poland. The sudden outbreak of war had a big impact on me and my family, especially the children. Explosions in neighboring streets, howling sirens, military fighter planes flying low over our house, the need to hide in the bathroom during the air raid, to sit in the evening without light, to tape windows shut, to pack our most precious possessions and evacuate on trains, leaving our comfortable home and beloved city Kyiv, separating from our dear friends and relatives, worrying about our parents and grandmothers left behind in Kiev, finding yourself in a foreign country without a livelihood, constantly monitoring the news and hoping for a miracle.

We are in Poland now. I can't work at the moment, but I’ve started a new photographic project dedicated to protesting against Putin's dictatorial regime, to protest against the war in Ukraine and Russia's military aggression. It feels impossible to keep creating, always moving with three children, but I’m improvising the best I can.

From Morozovam’s series, “Phantom of War.”

I've traveled a lot during all my life; I’ve traveled half the globe, but I’ve never ever in any country had the desire to stay there and live. I've always been happy to come back home to my native Kyiv, to Ukraine. And even when at the end of 2021 everyone was saying that Ukraine might be invaded and there would be war, I didn't believe in it and never made a single attempt to go elsewhere.

Even when I heard the explosions at 5 a.m. on the 23rd of February, and realized that the war was starting, I remained completely calm and my heartbeat did not beat faster. I did not even move away from my work and I continued to work calmly on the computer. And an hour later, I calmly watched the panic from the window, as all the neighbors were leaving, the queues at the petrol stations in front of my window, I calmly drank my tea and thought that I was definitely staying; there was no fear in me. The children and I never went out to the shelter, we were at home, playing the piano, playing board games, cooking goodies.

After a couple of days, my daughter came up to me and said, “Mum, I want to go away, take us away from here.”

Aleksandr, Tymur, Maria; evacuation from Kyiv to Lviv, Lviv train station.
A roadblock, Lviv-Bruhovichi.
Tymur and Maria, evacuation from Kyiv to Lviv, Lviv train station.

I didn’t want to rush off, run away, pack things, but I managed to brace myself and pack three huge bags and a lot of rucksacks.

Now, the experience of evacuating on trains: We were running with these bags from one platform to another, from one carriage to another, until we finally crammed into the train to Chernivtsi through Lviv.

Evacuation train from Lviv to Helm.
Olena Morozova, evacuation train from Lviv to Helm.
Tymur, 7, sleeps beneath a table on the evacuation train from Lviv to Helm.

Tymur, my youngest, was crying and yelling, bags fell out of my hands, we were pushed apart, but we made it. The train carriage was overcrowded with people, standing, sitting, lying in the aisles, the heat was like in a bathhouse.

Morozova’s youngest son Tymur during their evacuation from Lviv.
Maria and Aleksandr rest on the train from Lviv to Helm.

In Lviv, thank God we have reliable friends. They met, sheltered, fed, and helped us get on a train to Helm the next day.

The kids are safe and I already miss home and plan to return soon.

I feel, myself, like an exile, everything is alien, not my own. I am constantly cold, I often have headaches — the headache is so severe that I have to take pills, this has never happened before, I am generally against pills. I feel sleepy all the time during the day and at night I wake up and can't sleep, instead I start to read news from Ukraine like a maniac.

It's all awful.

Aleksandr in his makeshift bed, Poland.
Sleeping arrangements in Poland.

We are moving all the time, from a friend's house to a flat on the outskirts of a small Polish town; from a flat to a room at the art center in Lodz; now I’m looking for a flat again, and going to see if we can move into normal conditions to live with the kids.

In the art center I met other women from Ukraine — the conversation is mostly about the war and getting help for refugees.

Morozova speaks with her father in Ukraine via video call.
Tymur, 7.

My mother and grandma stayed at home in Kiev; they didn't want to leave their homes and I understand them. My dad is in the village near Kyiv, he is too weak to move somewhere. My partner went to Kyiv at my request to pick up some things from the flat and to check on my dad, bring him some groceries.

After four weeks of war, I was able to see my dad for the first time through a video call. I couldn't hold back the tears. He looks so miserable and lonely. There is no family around him at all.

I miss home… I dream of walking into my apartment at 22nd floor, seeing the beautiful view of my favorite city Kyiv and river Dnieper from my window, lying down in my bed, covering myself with my blanket, dissolving into a pleasant sleep and waking up again in my cozy bed. I think about it and tears start to flow from my eyes, and then my head hurts again, and so on to infinity. When will this terrible ordeal end?

My youngest son keeps saying that he wants to kill Putin and that he hates the Russian army. He’s watching war videos on the internet, asking when we will be back home.

Putin and Barbie doll parts, from Morozova’s current work in progress.

My new Polish friends say that my daughter looks very sad. These words make me sadder and I want to cry.

Despite all the horror and gloom, there are also pleasant moments, new acquaintances, the kindness of complete strangers, impressions of beautiful historical places.

War is such a scary word that I have only known about before from films, books, stories from my grandmothers, or the news, but I never thought I would find myself a participant in this terrible tragedy. Why do we need this experience? What conclusions should we draw?

Selects from Morozova’s pre-war project, “Granny”

Created before the war started, Granny is dedicated to the study of dementia, the mental disorder found in her beloved grandmother. “I want to share my experience of communication with such a person,” Morozovam writes. “... I had a desire to photograph my granny in the very moments she was talking about her visions. My aim is to convey my grandmother’s mental state, her real life and imaginary memories of the past, to recreate her visions. I wanted to support my grandmother, so she didn’t feel like an old crazy woman. Thanks to our mutual collaborative creativity, I did it. I want to tell other people who have relatives with similar age-related disorders: older people need your attention, your understanding and support.”

Morozovam’s Granny is still in Ukraine.


See more of Olena’s work at Support Ukranian refugees via Choose Love; find other ways to help families and children in Ukraine here.

Special contributing editor: Karni Arieli of the Eye Mama Project.