"Every day when I see joy in my son's eyes, it lifts me up"
Photographer Olena and her son fled Ukraine in March 2022. Here, she tells their story in her own words and photographs
Last updated 8 August 2023
Since the escalation of conflict in Ukraine nearly a year ago, millions of lives have been changed dramatically.
More than 10 million people have fled Ukraine, with a further six million internally displaced. It is estimated that over 17 million people need humanitarian support.
Olena, a 45-year-old mother-of-one from Kyiv, left her home in February 2022.
Accompanied by her 10-year-old son Ivan and her mother-in-law, she travelled first to western Ukraine, before arriving in Poland in March.
You might remember Olena’s story from a blog published last spring, which you can read here.
Olena was one of the first recipients of a cash card, part of a cash assistance programme rolled out by the Polish Red Cross.
Olena has worked as a photographer, specialising in family portraits, for years. She left Ukraine without her camera, but has since been reunited with it thanks to her husband, who sent it on from Ukraine, where he has remained.
We commissioned Olena to take a series of portraits as she and Ivan settled into their new life in Poland.
You can hear from Olena in her own words by clicking on the audio clips throughout this story.
"I took just one pair of jeans, just one of everything"
When Olena left Kyiv, she took very few belongings.
“It was so weird, and almost every second person tells the same story,” says Olena.
“When I look at my suitcase, I question what I was thinking when I packed it. I took just one pair of jeans, one sweater, one pair of shoes, just one of everything.”
The only other item she packed was a portable hard drive, which she packed for sentimental reasons rather than practical.
“It has one terabyte of photos of my son from the beginning of his life,” says Olena. “That was very important to me, I thought ‘No, I cannot lose this.’”
Support from the Polish Red Cross
Since the family’s arrival in Poland, they have been supported by the Red Cross.
“We got food and products like shampoo and other toiletries,” says Olena. “It was very pleasant to know that someone cares about us and wants to help, and I felt gratitude for it – and it’s actually helpful for us because for now, I’m without work.”
Just like any other mother, Olena’s number one priority is her son.
“It’s been hard for him, because his friends are spread out across the world now and not close to him, so he feels a little bit lonely,” says Olena. “We try to compensate for that but of course it is hard for him. He is learning online – I’ve decided not to break that process for him.”
Cash distribution is one of many ways humanitarian aid can be delivered to people in crisis.
Instead of delivering items like blankets and food, a set amount of money is given to people, who can then use it to buy essential goods.
This is the first time cash distribution has been used by the Polish Red Cross, and similar programmes are being established in many countries neighbouring Ukraine, as well as within Ukraine itself.
“I think we will go and buy something for my son,” said Olena when she first received her cash card. “We didn't take anything from his childhood when we fled our home. Lego is his favourite.”
Since then, Olena has bought her train-obsessed son a new train set.
She also used the card to buy food that she and Ivan can cook together.
The Red Cross's work in Ukraine and bordering countries
The Red Cross has more than 100,000 volunteers and 48 national societies involved in the operation in Ukraine. So far, we have reached…
- 5 million people with emergency relief
- 914,000 with health assistance
- 10.3 million people, who have benefited from improved access to water
- 367,000 people with mental health and psychosocial support
Around £90 million in emergency financial assistance has been distributed to around 911,000 people.
How the Red Cross is helping people affected by the conflict in Ukraine
How the Polish Red Cross is supporting Ukrainian people like Olena, Jana and Anna with cash assistance
Head of Psychosocial and Mental Health at the British Red Cross, Dr Sarah Davidson, shares her advice for hosts supporting Ukrainian refugees.
The Red Cross has never needed you more
Whether it’s Ukraine, Afghanistan, or here in the UK, there has never been a more important time for the British Red Cross – and every member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – to be there for people in crisis.DONATE NOW