Nataliia Vladimirova fled her home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion, on 24 February, with her four-year-old daughter Oleksandra and mother-in-law. They are amongst the thousands of Ukrainian refugees with temporary protection status in Portugal. She shares her heart-wrenching story of family separation and loss, with UN News.

Ms. Vladimirova is an accountant and former teacher in Kharkiv University. Along with her daughter and mother-in-law, she arrived in Lisbon on a humanitarian flight organized by the Portuguese government on March 14th. 

With the help of volunteers, they found a local family willing to share their apartment whilst they seek official refugee status. More than 22,700 other Ukrainians, and third country citizens formerly living in Ukraine, have been given temporary protection status in Portugal.

Ms. Vladimirova spoke to UN News on March 24, one month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I’m from Kharkiv, which is now a very dangerous city. It’s the epicentre of this war. Today is an emotional day for me, because it’s been a month since I left home. I can still picture our apartment, and all of the belongings that we had to leave behind.

Before the war started, I suggested that we should leave the country, but my husband said “no, it’s ok, this is the 21st century, how is war possible?”. But, just in case, I prepared our documents. Then, on the 24th of February, my husband woke me up and said “it’s beginning!”.

When we left the city, we didn’t leave Ukraine right away, because we thought that we would be able to return home after a few days.

We ended up moving between many Ukrainian cities, where many people helped us. Our first stop was Dnipro, where one of my husband’s co-workers let us stay in his apartment. But we heard sirens after the first day, and decided to move on.

My husband was told that he was not allowed to leave the country, and he asked me to leave without him. I said that I loved him, and couldn’t leave him. This was in Kryvyi Rih, and he’s still there. 

Relying on the comfort of strangers

But I had to leave. I told him that he should get his mother to leave Kharkiv and join us in Kryvyi Rih, and then we planned to get out of the country, Oleksandra, my mother-in-law and me.

Before arriving in Portugal, we drove to the Ukrainian border and crossed into Romania. We didn’t know anyone there, and we asked the Red Cross for help. They found us a place to stay for the night.

Then we drove to Bucharest, where a humanitarian flight was arranged, to take us, and the other Ukrainian refugees, to Portugal.

We have been helped by so many volunteers along the way. In Romania, they would make breakfast for us, without asking for anything in return. In Portugal, volunteers met us at the airport and helped us to find an apartment.

Our host in Lisbon, Maria, is so beautiful and kind. She has explained all about Portugal, and what I should do to find a school for my daughter, and how to go about getting a job. Her friends have also helped, by giving us clothes.

Although she is only four, my daughter knows that there is a terrible war happening back home, that there is shooting. She asks her grandmother why her grandfather is not here. She says that he should come to Portugal because Kharkiv is too dangerous.

My biggest fear is that I will never see my husband again.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length