‘War changed everything’: Anguish as war forces Ukrainian families to spend Christmas apart

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By Lauren Chadwick, Alessio Dell'Anna, & Estelle Nilsson-Julien
A Santa Claus Christmas decoration hangs from a tree branch outside a bunker at a frontline position outside Popasna, the Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 16, 2022
A Santa Claus Christmas decoration hangs from a tree branch outside a bunker at a frontline position outside Popasna, the Luhansk region, in eastern Ukraine, Feb. 16, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

With Russia's war still raging, countless Ukrainian families are facing the pain of spending this festive period apart. 

That is particularly the case for the millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homeland this year and left behind loved ones. 

Anna Polukhina, a 37-year-old from Mariupol, is one of them.

Living at a refugee centre in Milan, she told Euronews it is difficult to celebrate Christmas when her family back home is living in a war zone. She said her mother’s house had been destroyed in the conflict. 

“Family is something that's very important," she said. "It's everything. But the war changed everything. I may not have a chance to speak to family and all my relatives there,” she said, adding that it's hard to reach them in Mariupol, which is occupied by Russian forces.

“It's very difficult. I want to hear my mother, to speak to her,” she added. 

The refugee centre is doing its best to lift her spirits. They will have a special festive party and Polukhina will make traditional Ukrainian dishes with her flatmates.

My family and friends in Ukraine say that for Christmas, they don't want much, just if there is no bombing.
Diana Dymytrova

“They've put up two Christmas trees... it's really beautiful," she said. "There may be surprises for us, for the children. They've written letters to Santa Claus, maybe there'll be presents for all of us."

Elizabeth Pulvas, a Ukrainian refugee in Bucharest, is in a similar position to Anna. This will also be the first year the 23-year-old Ukrainian won't be able to spend Christmas with her family, who are in Kyiv.

“It is quite hard to understand that there is no possibility for all of us to unite in one place,” said Pulvas.

For the holidays last year, she had a big Christmas dinner in January with her friends where she cooked 12 dishes to celebrate the holiday. Fewer than two months later, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, forcing Elizabeth to flee to Romania. 

“Everyone was telling me, Oh, you're crazy. Why are you cooking all these dishes? I thought, no, I want to do this,” she said, adding that now they appreciate the celebrations they had a year ago.

Elizabeth Pulvas
Elizabeth with her grandmother in Ukraine.Elizabeth Pulvas

Celebrating in a war zone

"The main thing is not that I’m not with my family, it’s that there are a lot of people who will celebrate this holiday in a war zone," Elizabeth said.

She thinks about her 87-year-old grandmother who has dealt with blackouts due to Russian missile strikes.

“No water, no heat for an 87-year-old woman is a big disaster. And not one of them will have a real Christmas,” she said.

"(In Ukraine) they do not have any Christmas mood, even though the government is trying to do at least something, to bring up the mood for people," she added.

No water, no heat for an 87-year-old woman is a big disaster. And not one of them will have a real Christmas.
Elizabeth Pulvas

In several cities across Ukraine, there are festive decorations to try to help raise spirits amid the war.

In Kharkiv, a Christmas tree was put up in an underground metro station, while in Kyiv, the mayor said Russians would not steal Christmas.

A large menorah also was displayed for Hannukah this year in the centre of Kyiv, with lights on it shining in a city that has suffered from blackouts due to the Russian attacks on infrastructure.

"My family and friends in Ukraine say that for Christmas, they don't want much, just if there is no bombing, it would be great. If there's electricity and heating, it would be the best gift for them," said 28-year-old Diana Dymytrova, who is from the Ukrainian region of Odesa.

She left Ukraine by herself and now lives in France and says it's difficult since she worries a lot about her family.

Credit: Yuliia Matalinets
Yuliia Matalinets and her hosts, Catriona and Patrick Alexander, pose in front of their Christmas tree.Credit: Yuliia Matalinets

Trying to make the most of the holidays

Yuliia Matalinets, a 32-year-old Ukrainian from Odesa, who left the country two months ago, said she was looking forward to celebrating with her host family in the United Kingdom.

"It's my very first time celebrating Christmas, unfortunately, far away from my family, but fortunately with very good people," said Yuliia.

"I am far away from home and obviously miss my family, but I feel like maybe it's too early to say, but I found some kind of my second family," she said.

Yuliia said she was looking forward to learning the UK's festive traditions and then celebrating on 7 January, which is when Ukrainians traditionally mark Christmas. 

She also hopes that she'll be able to have a video call with her parents but says sometimes it's difficult due to the blackouts.