How a woman took 40 children out of Lysychansk under fire

Author of the article: Anna Argirova

After 36 days in the basement, life in Lysychansk became unbearable. Then the social worker decided to organize an evacuation for four families raising orphans.

“Sometimes I think I’m short of air. My air. The air of my city, my district. I miss my parents who stayed there, they are elderly. I miss my house, I miss my dogs. I sometimes ask Dad to “give the phone to the dogs” so I can talk to them. I really want to come back home,” Anzhelika Stolyarova says.

A native of Lysychansk, she was forced to leave her home after 36 days in the basement.

In Lysychansk, she took care of family-type orphanages, which are families that adopt up to ten orphans into their families. When the war began, Angelica continued to remotely care for the families she created. Each family stayed in their basement, Angelica was in her own, but they were constantly in touch.

One day the life in the basement became unbearable, the war left only one choice to rescue – immediate evacuation. Angelika was leaving Lysychansk under shelling together with the families she took care of during the recent years. She told her story to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation.

One hundred children who did not get to the boarding school

Great desire to give love and family to the child. Probably, this is the main reason why I have been working in the children’s service in Lysychansk for 11 years. I worry about the fate of every child I work with. I want this child to find his/her family and come out into the world as a mature person. No wonder I remember the fate of every child who I dealt with for the past 11 years. I have not lost sight of any child. And you know, it’s such a joy when they call me, congratulate me to my birthday every year, even though they are adults and have their own lives. Yes, perhaps this great love gives me so much strength.

For the last three years I have been creating families (family-type orphanages – ed.), I used to supervise them and still continue working at the center of social and psychological rehabilitation, I work with children who find themselves in difficult life circumstances.

When I started working with family-type orphanages, there were only four of them in Lysychansk. What is it anyway? This is a family that raises ten children. There is a family that has one son and has raised 9 children. This form of upbringing is much better than a boarding school, for example, because the child has a mother and father. They teach the child to wash, cook, clean. When the child goes out into the big world, she/he is more adapted to independent living. Besides, when children grow up, such families continue to take care of them, real family ties are formed, and the children themselves want to take care of their parents in the future.

In addition, these are children who have gone through certain sufferings, so they need to be provided with conditions in which they can recover. For example, one family has a boy who first hid under beds and tables. Because in the first years of his life he slept in an old closet, his back was cut off at the neck and cigarette burns on his body. Now he is in the first grade, and the new family helps him get out of this state of numbness and fear, psychologists work with him. Children are surrounded by care, they are demonstrated that it is possible to live better.

Within the last three years, we have created six more families, ten in total. These are one hundred children who did not get into the boarding school and now live with their families. In 2022, we planned to create three more such families who were ready to adopt children. And if it weren’t for the war, there would be 13 such families in Lysychansk. But now our ten families are scattered all over Ukraine: in Odessa, Lviv, Volyn regions and even abroad.

36 days in the basement

After February 24, we spent 36 days in the basement.  Each family lived in their own basement, but we kept in touch.  I called moms or dads several times a day to find out what their situation was.  For example, on the first day in one of the families the shell exploded in the yard, in another – a fragment of a rocket damaged the house. I had to understand what was happening to each family.  Even during the fighting, I could not leave my family.  Couldn’t I started these families and then left them?  Work is my second family.

The children ate and lived in basements.  From the first days of the invasion, we did not have enough water.  We had to melt the snow, it was just snowing…

The children were given a limited amount of water, as the situation was very tense.  Sometimes gas disappeared, but utilities were constantly working to restore it.  There were areas in the city where there was no light, there were generators.

In the past, I made sure if the children lived in good conditions, I kept some control over the families: if  the children were dressed, not hungry, whether they underwent regular medical examinations.  So during the fighting, I could not close my eyes and sit quietly.  My job has changed a bit: now I ask my moms and dads if they have anything to eat and coordinate the volunteers with their families so that they can get what they need.

Do you know how moms organized games?  It was scary to go up from the basement to the house, so my mothers tore the pillow and invited the children to play with feathers.  The children had to do something.  We tried to read, write, draw, and we had feathers for games.  To distract them from these scary sounds.

Later, they began to distinguish the sounds when they shot at us and when they shoot from our side.  And when you hear this shrill sound, you already know that they are shooting at us.

The children were very scared.

Let’s leave

I did not want to leave for a long time, I probably hoped that everything would be as in 2014, although even then we were sitting in the basement, but somehow it ended quickly, simply in a week.  And one of the mothers said: ” Let’s leave.”

I contacted the regional service for children.  They helped us organize the evacuation.  We had 30-40 minutes to pack.  And I don’t know if I would have survived if this mother hadn’t motivated me to evacuate.  We were standing with her in the yard when the shelling started, the wreckage flew near us.  She pushed me into the house, and the wreckage fell very close.  The wreckage fell  where we were standing. This happened while we were packing.  Another family left their home in 2-3 minutes, as their whole street was on fire.

We left under fire.  And in the end, it was the families who pushed me to evacuate.  I left with two families, talked to four others on the train.

The children did not show fear during the immediate threat, but the deep-left stress had its consequences on the train ;  they were very happy with the water, the group started shouting “water” when they saw it on the train.  Because of the children’s nerves, they had problems with incontinence, one boy stuttered.  There had been nothing like it before.

As we were approaching Lviv and preparing the children to dress and put on their shoes, they began to look out the train windows and look at everything around them.  And one of them shouted: “Look, the coat of arms of Ukraine”, and his mother corrected him: “This is not a coat of arms, this is a flag.” 

And the children, still young, they are 6-7 years old, began to sing the Ukrainian national anthem in a choir.  They put their hand on their heart. 

The attendants was shocked that children from eastern Ukraine knew the anthem.  “Well done,” she told them.

We started explaining to the children that we were entering Lviv then. This the west of Ukraine, and we came from Eastern Ukraine.  And this is temporary.  They welcomed their new home with joy and delight.

Illustration: Marysa Rudska
When will we go home?

The children are very comfortable in Lviv, but at the same time they often ask: “When will we go home”?  A house is a house. There is your air , there is our land there.  I want to go back, although the people here are wonderful.

We, the people of the East, have often been told that they didn’t welcome us in western Ukraine, that they didn’t understand us there.  I’m Russian-speaking, but people have shown us incredible support here. I try to communicate in Ukrainian.

It is quiet here, there is a place to sleep, we are fed here and not shot. There are such children, Van’ka, for example, he stopped talking during the bombing, he is five years old.  Ten days later, he gradually began to speak, although he stuttered.

There are many volunteers in Lviv, besides the Voices of Children Foundation organizes many events for children, helps with food and clothing.  Our children are protected here.  We have not been forgotten, we really appreciate this support.

Lviv is also our Motherland, Ukraine.  But I was born and raised in Lysychansk, I know every corner there.  I miss home a lot.  

We will definitely be back together.  Sometimes I hear from families: “And if we have nowhere to go…” And I reassure everyone: “We will return home when the situation becomes serene. Even if there are no our houses.  Everything will be fine.  We will rebuild, we need peace.  We just need peace.