Small abandoned villages in Spain’s depopulated regions have become home to mothers and children fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Svetlana peers over the balcony of her new home onto the empty square in Aguilafuente, a village of barely 600 inhabitants in the depths of Castilla y León.
The once-thriving heartland of Spain is now scattered with deserted and slowly emptying villages, spread across sweeping, arable plains.
“Jesus has brought me to paradise,” Svetlana says just as her younger son Miroslav, 7, bursts into tears for the fifth time in the space of an hour. But it's better than the bunker. That was the family’s home back in March, in Sarata, Ukraine after the war broke out.
During those dark days, while they were sheltering from bombs, Svetlana lost her voice. She suffers from asthma and the fear affected her vocal cords. Eventually, she accepted a neighbour's offer to drive her and her children to the border with Moldova.
From there, the family caught a train to Romania, where they managed to bag three of the 100,000 free plane tickets donated by Wizz Air.
Svetlana had dreamed of living in Spain since she first clicked her heels in a pair of flamenco shoes as a 10-year-old.
Now, instead of a dancer, she is one of the 135,000 that have come to the country since February as refugees.
The Catholic NGO, Messengers of Peace introduced her to policewoman Cristina Olalla, whose family housed her and, together with locals, provided her and her sons with food and clothes.
The boys now go to the village school, boosting its student body to 38. On Sundays, they go to mass and join locals for an aperitivo at the bar in the square.
But it's been a difficult adjustment as they speak no Spanish and the boys struggle to fit in. “It’s not a change they chose and they’re still resistant to it,” said the boys' teacher, María Jesús Garrido.
But Svetlana loves the tiny community that came to her rescue. “The people here are happy,” she said. “In Ukraine, they are sad. We are going to stay.”
Some in Spain are now hoping that by welcoming new immigrants to the country, they can help bring more life to the depopulated regions, whose thinning-out has been a major source of concern for years.
Miguel García, president of the Depopulation and Demographic Challenge Commission within Spain’s Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP), goes further. He says the new arrivals are pivotal for the survival of these villages, known as "empty Spain".
“The immigrant population, including the Ukrainian refugee groups, are essential to keeping the villages alive,” he tells Euronews. “We must be able to facilitate and promote opportunities for this population.
"But it is also essential to address the lack of affordable housing in the villages, which is currently the main problem. What good is broadband if you don’t have a roof over your head?”
Despite the lack of housing, many Ukrainians have been accommodated in properties owned by the Church, by the council, or by city dwellers, who repeatedly say the Ukrainian arrivals "could easily be us".
'We miss the city'
Five kilometres down the road from Svetlana, two young professional mothers are less upbeat about their new home.
“It’s surreal, crazy,” says Tonia, looking as though she has been transported by a time machine to the village of Aldea Real, another island in a vast expanse of farmland. “We miss the city.”
Tonia and Iryna have come with their children – three between them – and one set of parents-in-law. They chose Spain because they reckoned it would be cheap, and indeed, the church has provided free lodging.
The father-in-law has planted lettuce and tomatoes. Someone lent him a bike and he can now be seen riding it around Aldea Real’s empty streets.
Tonia is an editor from Kyiv and Iryna is a financial analyst from nearby Irpin, where a battle raged for a month between February 27 and March 28 as part of Russia’s bid to surround the capital.
While the Ukrainians have recaptured Irpin, the building in front of Iryna’s home has been reduced to rubble. The windows of her own house are broken. But she is desperate to get back, as is Tonia.
“All the hugs and kissing here is too much. We don’t do that with strangers,” Tonia says.
They also miss their husbands. “We won’t be here to eat the lettuce,” Iryna said. “The girls need to be at their own school in September.”
'It's great to have them'
Many of the Ukrainian refugees coming to Spain are mothers with young children who have visibly brought life to some of these backwater towns, filling the schools and parks anew.
In the Galician province of Ourense, home to one of Europe’s oldest populations, more than 50 Ukrainian refugees have gone some way to reducing the average age in two villages and one country town.
Bussed in from the Ukrainian border by six Spanish friends who set up SOS Ternopil Galitzia, they have been housed in empty flats and converted public buildings in San Xoán de Río, Manzaneda and A Pobra de Trives.
Manuel, 97, shuffles across the main street in San Xoán de Río. “It’s great to have them,” he says, adding: “It could have been us.”
Manuel was 10 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, a time when people were still fighting over rural Spain.
The mayor of San Xoán de de Río, José Miguel Pérez, says 10% of the village’s 500 inhabitants are over 90.Now, there are nine children in their midst again.
Pérez is pleased and hopes that some of the refugees will stay in Spain, though he acknowledges that most will leave when it is safe to do so.
Another woman named Svetlana is among those who aim to return when the time is right. She has brought her three-year-old son, Ivan, with her to Galicia but left her 19-year-old daughter and parents behind in Kyiv.
Her cousin will remain here in the village with his wife and kids. He is a mechanic by trade and found work in the vicinity.
Svetlana has also started a job, working shifts in a nursing home – seven days straight, then two days off, then another eight. She is surprised and wants to bring it to the mayor’s attention without seeming ungrateful. But he shrugs. “It’s a private place. That’s how it is."
Back in Aldea Real, Iryna and Tonia have been in touch with their husbands. “They said it is too early to come back,” Iryna said. “Maybe by the end of the summer.”
It turns out they might be here for the lettuce after all.