A UKRAINIAN family – mum and two kids – is now in New Norfolk after fleeing the war that engulfed their home just weeks ago.
Theirs is a story of luck, of planning and – mostly – of enormous courage.
For Olesia Serdiukov, the war in her home country of Ukraine began in 2014.
Every moment since has been about getting a visa – any visa – to get out.
She prepared, made sure Dmytro and Marco had the essentials they’d need for their escape, squirreled away her modest income as a bookkeeper, and filled out the interminable forms for an Australian visa.
On February 23, 2022, just hours before the first Russian shells began to smash into their home city of Kiev, a temporary residence visa was finally approved for the Serdiukovs.
It was a stroke of enormous luck.
Some 150,000 Russian forces were already amassed at the Ukrainian border, and the first rocket attacks had begun.
On the 12th floor of their apartment building in the southern section of Kiev, Dmytro, 17, and his sister Marco, 9, strapped on their backpacks at their mother’s urging, and took to the streets.
First it was to catch a bus that would take them to the metro, and then to the train station in Kiev.
It could be any train that went west, towards Poland or Hungary; it didn’t matter which, as long as they could reach safety.
“My plan,” she says now, “was anywhere, anywhere at all.”
Olesia had begun thinking about this escape when Marco was little more than a newborn.
In the Donbas, a crescent-shaped region encompassing eastern Ukraine, local discontent had been twisted by Russia into a political and military campaign against the Kiev government.
Forces aligned with the Russians took control.
The then 36-year old began to fear for her country and for her family.
She put her mind to what she could do to protect her family, first applying for a visa to Canada, and when that was rejected after three long years, Australia.
By the time of flight came, they’d packed clothes and sleeping bags and essential documents.
Olesia converted her savings into US dollars for the journey ahead.
At the railway station, there were people from everywhere, all trying to get onto trains.
“We were being blocked by security personnel, checking passports. People were on edge, so even though we mix Russian and Ukrainian in normal speech, at a time like this any Russian language would be considered suspicious,” recalls Dmytro.
Olesia pressed forward, her children close behind.
“I have children,” she said. Again, louder: “I have children.” It wasn’t much, but it was all she had. And somehow, it worked. They made their way onto a crowded train.
The destination: Lviv, 60 kilometres from the Polish border, and relative safety.
Her husband would be staying behind; no longer in Kiev but in a village close to the border. Although he, too, has a visa, he’s unable to leave, in large part because of a serious leg injury from a fall.
They talk often, she says, and she’s confident he will survive . That’s the best she can do right now.
Olesia managed to stretch their meagre rations, mostly a local brand of macaroni, by using the only thing that was plentiful, hot water.
“We were in our sleeping bags in the corridors. There was so little room, people were stepping over us to get to toilets,” adds her son. “It was nearly impossible to get any rest at all.”
Did he worry about his sister?
“We weren’t worried, no, because we knew for a long time what we were going to do. We were prepared. And my sister is mentally strong, really impressive.”
The train was just kilometres, almost striking distance of the border, when it was stopped in the middle of the night. “We were ordered to turn off all lights, to close the windows, to remain silent. We sat in the dark for 30 or 40 minutes,” says Dmytro.
“The only light were the infrared beams of some security system on the train corridors, while outside we could just see high powered torches from our own security forces, examining the train.
“The tension was enormous. We could hear rockets off in the distance, and we were whispering, putting our ears to the carriage walls, trying to hear anything at all. Several times, a baby would start to cry. Every minute felt like an hour.
When the train started to move again, it was an enormous sense of relief.”
Another lucky break drove their crossing into Poland some hours later. It was a 60 kilometre journey; Olesia didn’t think twice before handing over $US100 for the trip. The relief when the three of them crossed into Poland was palpable. “ I cried when we got over the border,” says Olesia. “There were people there, welcoming us with hot food, blankets, and clothing. They were so generous, opened their hearts to us.”
Even then, the Serdiukov’s ordeal was far from over. Dmytro needed to get the third of his vaccinations before he’d be allowed to fly to Australia, and that would entail a three-week wait. His mother meanwhile, hit social media, sending off multiple messages.
“I’m from Ukraine, she wrote “I have a visa but need help with accommodation in Australia.”
Unable to find an inexpensive hotel with laundry facilities while they waited in Warsaw, Olesia approached a taxi driver, explaining their need. The driver made a call out to friends, and shortly after the Serdiukovs were on their way to the home of Kasia and Martin, and their three preschoolers.
“Again, we had luck on our side,” says Olesia. Dmytro busied himself at the kids’ school, playing impromptu concerts on the piano. The responses to his mother’s social media callout, when they came, were few and far between. But two of them offered accommodation; both were from Tasmania.
They had boarded an Emirates flight to Dubai, and then the long leg to Sydney. Touching down however, left no time to celebrate or even catch a breath.
The final leg to Launceston left from the domestic terminal, a bus and a sweaty run away.
“The woman at the counter realised that we were not regular passengers, and with her colleagues took care of our bags, even called the plane, asking for a few extra minutes to get us aboard,” Olesia said.
“And then cabin crew were there, with smiles and water.”
It was March 22, 2022.
Among the responses Olesia received was one from a New Norfolk woman, Penelope Ann and her partner, David Lander.
The message was simple: Yes, we can accommodate you.
Penelope followed through by driving to Launceston to pick up the family and their few worldly goods. Today, the Serdiukov family has begun to relax. The innumerable buses, trains, taxis, cars and planes that drove their escape over four fraught weeks are becoming a blur, fading behind them.
Olesia knows her way around the New Norfolk market and is bringing back food for them to cook in a just-renovated kitchen. There have been boxes of clothes arrive, seven to date.
In the afternoon sunshine, Dmytro looks around thoughtfully. “I want to work, so I’m looking for a regular Windows-type computer, keen to get back into making films, maybe some graphics work.”
He has sound engineering qualifications, plays a decent piano, and has about three years of conversational Japanese under his belt, so is confident about his resume.
Meanwhile, his mum, Olesia is an accountant, and looking for some bookkeeping work.
First though, in her mind, is a reliable, inexpensive car. Olesia doesn’t need to say it aloud, but it’s clear she’s already planning the next phase of her life. And transport is top of that list.