Day 7 - Svitlana is a Ukrainian psychologist. "The war is a test of love, a test of being human."
Updated: May 1
We met Svitlana Zots on our visit to the refugee foundation house to make a video with Tanya ( the American singer who was compelled to jump on a flight to Krakow to help the cause).
While our meeting with Svitlana was very short - it was over a feast of dumplings with kids running around - I was impressed by her sunny disposition and positive energy.
It turns out Svitlana - while a Ukrainian refugee herself, was volunteering at the foundation house as a psychologist. For that reason I felt she might have a unique perspective on the difficult circumstances.
Tea with Svitlana / Photo by Rita Ansone
When did you arrive in Krakow?
I arrived in Krakow on the 28th of February by the evacuation train from Lviv. The journey took me 3 days because of the long queues on the border.
There were more than 3000 people trying to get on to the train even though the capacity was much less. It was a chaotic scene. A lot of people were scared and many were angry battling to get on to the train. People just wanted to survive.
What do you remember about the days before you left Ukraine?
On the 24th of February I woke up to the sound of explosions. I was really shocked. I couldn't believe what was happening. People in Ukraine were not prepared for it. Nobody really expected the war to happen. I was really scared. My family was really scared. Over night our lives and reality changed. The next day people were in panic buying food, trying to get cash from banks and buying petrol.
In my area that I lived in Odessa there was not much shelter to find. Because of this I had to leave my city. I decided to come to Krakow because I had a friend here. But I still have family in Odessa.
Photos by Rita Ansone
Tell me a bit more about your family.
My mother is staying in a village outside Odessa. She is there with the wife of my elder brother and their kids. One of the kids is disabled so my mother is helping all she can right now. My father has had 5 heart attacks in the past and so now has to walk with a stick. But incredibly he is still working. He is staying in a completely different village which is closer to Moldova. I like to think that both these villages are safe right now. I hope so.
Are you worried about them?
Yes, sure. Last week Odessa was bombed. My parents decided to go to Odessa for Easter, but on the Easter Eve one of the civilian houses was bombed. And yesterday the bridge out of the city was bombed too. I hope it’s not a beginning of an invasion.
What was Odessa like to grow up in?
Odessa was amazing to grow up in! At weekends we went to the seaside and had picnics. We have a really beautiful theatre, we have museums, catacombs, universities and markets. It’s called a “capital of humour” and “the pearl of the Black Sea.” I really miss it, and from time to time I think about going back to see my family.
How do you stay positive?
I have some tips. I stay positive by staying connected to our traditional food such as borsch. Borsch is connecting people! It is a truly magical dish. I also know it's important to talk and so I chat to people a lot and try to meet new interesting people in Krakow. I also do art therapy and paint my emotions I try to meditate and pray. Helping others helps me. You need to try to catch moments of happiness in each day. You need to believe in hope and love. We need to lean on our inner power of spirit and life values in difficult times.
Photos by Rita Ansone
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always liked talking to people. I was always really talkative. Even when I was 2 and a half! When I was 7 my dream was to become a teacher. And when I was 13 my dream was to become a psychologist. My family were not too excited about this so I studied economics. But after university I knew it was not for me. I got another degree, and became an English teacher. I really loved it. And 5 years ago I started studying psychology. I got certified. I started my own private practice. So I guess you can say that my dreams from my childhood became true.
How did you get involved with the foundation house?
When I arrived in Krakow I realised I would need to get a job as the war was not going to stop soon. I knew I needed to feel like a real person again and put my energy inside to good use. I found a group of local psychologists which really helped. Then I volunteered at a refugee centre. They wanted someone to help the people emotionally. There are 200 refugees in the house - so we need a team of psychologists. When people come they have fear. They are in a new country. They don't know what their future is. They can be in a very difficult emotional state.
What do you think is the overall mood of the people?
It depends. Some people who are usually very strong and active need a few days to get used to their new surroundings. They need to establish a new life. They want to try have a normal life. They want to start cooking, working... to do something useful.
But some people have a lot of fear. They can't find a job, they can't find accommodation. Especially the women with kids. They are without their husbands. They are here, but their hearts and minds are in Ukraine. Many of them were dependent on their husbands. They are alone now. It's very hard for them. They need new habits to become independent.
Some people really believe the war will be over soon. They want to go back home.
The children are often very young, they don't understand the war. They need love and attention as their mothers are overwhelmed by the stress and changes happening in their lives. Many of them have had very long trips to Poland which were traumatic.
What is amazing to me is some of the older kids - they want to be volunteers too. They try to help us. They want to do something useful. Last week some of the kids tried to organise a sale of children's artworks to raise money for Ukraine. I have to say the kids are amazing. Some of the kids are already going to Polish schools. And some have already learned Polish and they have only been here for one month!
What more support do people need?
We always need more support. We need more psychologists and therapists. The people that are here to stay need constant support. Also we need medicine. Many people after the long trip have stomach issues, fevers and coughs. But we need all the other basics too. Shampoos, socks... and right now I notice we don't have enough Ukrainian books for the children that can't speak Polish. We also need laptops for the kids that need to finish their studies.
Photo by Rita Ansone
This whole experience must be an interesting test for your abilities...
The war is a test for everyone. It is a test of love. It is a test of being human.
How do you see this all coming to an end?
I see different possibilities The war could be finished this year. Or it could continue for several years. There could be a world war Whatever happens we need to stay strong and believe in a better future.
Do you want to go home?
I do. I miss my city so much. I just want to walk by the seaside.
Follow Svitlana on Instagram
- Stephen O'Regan