A displaced woman from Ukraine, now a doctor of the OFII, a gripping testimony of a long journey

Arriving in France on 12 March, a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Victoria now works at the “Accueil Ukraine” centre at Porte de Versailles in Paris as a vaccination doctor.

Throughout her story, many tears were shed. Despite the sadness and pain she feels, Victoria was keen to tell the story of her escape from Ukraine from start to finish.

She does not speak French yet, and her English is a little too rough to convey nuance and detail. So she tells her story in Russian, accompanied by a volunteer translator from France Terre d’Asile, a Russian refugee who fled Moscow for Paris 33 years ago.

The two women met at the “Accueil Ukraine” centre at Porte de Versailles in Paris and have a strong bond, evident in the emotions they share during the back and forth of the translation.

Victoria was a gynaecologist for 35 years in Ukraine. She started her career in a maternity hospital before joining a gynaecological institute. She then became a professor in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast before joining a polyclinic in this region. She dreamt of being a musician, but her father decided otherwise. She now thanks him every day for his advice, because she really loves her job.

She was practising her profession in the small industrial town of Kryvyi Rih when the war started. On the morning of 24 February, the shock was immense for Victoria. As a Russian speaker with family in Russia, she never imagined that this could happen, despite the news that went along those lines in the previous weeks. When she begins her story, tears come to her eyes as she cannot believe that these two closely related peoples could be at war.

Her daughter called her on the morning of 24 February. She told her to leave immediately. Victoria lives with her senile mother. How could she possibly escape in these conditions? A few hours later, the bombing begins. The incessant trips back and forth to the cellar for protection quickly become unbearable for a very old person. In the city, medicines disappear from the pharmacies and there are rumours circulating as to the approach of the Russian army. So Victoria finally makes the decision to leave. Before that, she gathers all the warm clothes and things that might be useful to Ukrainian volunteers going to fight.

The journey begins with five people in a car: Victoria, her mother, and three other members of her in-laws. In the early morning, they all set off for the Polish border, 1000 kilometres away. The road is tiring and is punctuated by alarms and bombs. The exiles deviate from the main route because it is bombed. This forces them to take small roads in the heart of the Ukrainian winter. Victoria loses control of her car on an icy bend and it crashes into a ditch at the side of the road.

Fortunately, everyone comes out of it unscathed.  But the car can no longer be used. Victoria’s family is therefore picked up by other people fleeing the war and taken to the nearest town. Victoria will often repeat in the course of her story that the war, while terrible, has made her realise that there are more good people than bad ones. When the accident happened, the whole column of cars stopped to help them.

The only way to flee the country is now by train. The stations are crowded but the people are surprisingly calm. After several hours of waiting, Victoria’s relatives finally boarded a train, which was so crowded that it was impossible to go to the toilet or even to move around. Only children are seated on the seats to avoid being crushed. The journey will take 17 hours of worry and fear. No information filters through, the phones have no signal, and every stop could mean that the Russians have caught up with them.

Finally, they arrive in Lviv, near the Polish border. Here again Victoria describes a sea of people who all help each other and take care of the weakest in a calm and non-panicked way. To get to neighbouring Poland, you have to take the bus. Eventually, Victoria and her family arrive at a refugee camp where many Polish volunteers have come to help them. Once again, Victoria is full of praise for the kindness of all these people.

The “Accueil Ukraine” centre at Porte de Versailles as the number of visitors decreases

In Poland, the pressure eases a little, the wound left by the abandonment of their home is still present, but seeing so many people helping them, seeing her own mother – who is so old – keep going despite the difficulties of the road, all this gives Victoria and her fellow sufferers a little hope.

She also becomes aware of the misery of the people. Even though she has worked in the medical field, she has never seen so many people in need. She will always have the image of a young woman, empty-eyed, motionless, with a newborn baby in her arms, as if trapped in a nightmare, like an allegory of despair.

Victoria then spends 10 days in Warsaw with her mother, who is starting to lose her mind. They then fly to the Paris region where Victoria’s daughter has been living for almost three years.  She is welcomed at the Issy-les-Moulineaux prefecture at a single-desk contact point for Ukrainian asylum seekers and, like her compatriots, she benefits from the Temporary Protection and a small income similar to the asylum seeker’s allowance. However, she cannot get the war out of her mind and wants to make herself useful at all costs to help the exiles who continue to arrive. So she leaves her telephone number and a few days later the OFII calls her back.

This is how Victoria started working at the reception centre for displaced Ukrainians at Porte de Versailles in Paris. In theory, her job is to encourage the vaccination of Ukrainian newcomers. In practice, she also offers a listening ear and advices for the disoriented displaced persons. She also helps decipher medical records, including some abbreviations that are obscure to the uninitiated, especially if they do not speak Russian or Ukrainian. She has become an essential part of the reception centre, both because of her gentle, sensitive and listening nature, and because of her ability to encourage vaccination. Since her arrival, according to the OFII medical service, twice as many Ukrainians have been vaccinated at Porte de Versailles.

A deep sadness and incomprehension still pervades her, but now there is room for hope. She sees how hard-working and resourceful young Ukrainians are. Some speak English and even French. And for those who seem lost, she tells them her story and puts them on the “right track”. She tells them that they have to learn French, look for a job, integrate into society. In this way, when the war is over, they can all return to Ukraine to rebuild the country and make it more beautiful than ever before. The exiles feel guilty at first, they consider themselves traitors who have fled their homeland, leaving the men to fight. Every day, there are videos circulating listing all the fathers, brothers and sons fallen in battle. Victoria tells everyone she meets that they have to survive, even away from home, in order to go back and rebuild.

Victoria never stops thanking France, the OFII, and two of its doctors who have given her a chance to help her compatriots. She loves the people she works with, like Françoise, a vaccination doctor who was present during the interview, or the translator of her story, with whom she has forged a powerful bond.

“To see Paris and die”. This Ukrainian saying no longer makes much sense to those who are here. They are all thinking of their homes back in the East. Yet, as a sign that hope is returning and that life goes on, three months after arriving, Victoria is thinking of visiting the Orsay Museum.