I Fled Ukraine—Here’s Why I’ll Definitely Go Back

Ukraine will always be my home—and no Russian invasion will change that.

When Westerners think about Ukraine, they might conjure images of the Ukraine-Russia war or wonder how to help Ukraine right now. They also might think of boxing or the soccer manager Andriy Shevchenko. I, on the other hand, think “my dear home,” as I imagine Kyiv’s beautiful embankments, friendly people, and great food. 

I fled my hometown, Kyiv, early on February 24, when my boyfriend and I woke up to the news that Ukraine was being bombed. He is British, so he didn’t have the dilemma many Ukrainians faced in those early days: whether to leave Ukraine at the first sign of trouble or wait it out. “We need to get out,” he told me. “Right now,” he insisted when I tried to take my time.

Forty hours of border crossing later, we were in Poland, unshowered and hungry. We hadn’t had any food or water for 23 hours. We were bursting for the toilet, too, as the Ukrainian side of the border didn’t have any bathroom facilities. Although people in many countries have kindly opened their arms to Ukrainian refugees, it took several days and some bureaucratic nightmares before we finally made it to my boyfriend’s home in the U.K. 

Life in Ukraine

Maria Romanenko standing near an outdoor sculpture in UkraineCourtesy Maria Romanenko

I’ve been thinking a lot about the traces of Ukraine that I’ve had in my life since February 24—seeing an overpass in Krakow just like the one on the way to my home in Kyiv, or hearing a taxi driver in Warsaw speak Ukrainian to his phone conversation partner. These are the things that make me tear up as I near day 30 spent away from home.

I also think back to my neighborhood, Podil, which is both so hipstery and historically Jewish that it has not one but two hummus bars within walking distance. I’ve been to one, but I still haven’t made it to the other.

I think about Trukhaniv Island—an island in the middle of Kyiv within a 15-minute reach from my doorstep—where I go running. It’s a beautiful green area with very few cars; many runners, cyclists, and walkers enjoy exercising there on weekends.

I think about my evenings spent walking on Sahaidachnoho Street, a semi-pedestrian street in the middle of Podil. I’ve loved that street ever since I went to school just five minutes away. When I got older, I made sure to only rent apartments near it.

Rumors of war 

Maria Romanenko in UkraineCourtesy Maria Romanenko

Kyiv is a walkable city, and I’ve always enjoyed walking to places there instead of taking the popular underground train system. My last nighttime walk in Kyiv was on February 12. I had some meetings with friends and fellow journalists that evening that finished after 1 a.m. The metro was closed, so I walked home, which took a good 40 minutes. For me, it wasn’t just about getting some fresh air. Talks of Russia’s “imminent invasion” were in full swing. Walking alone that night felt like a personal reassurance that Kyiv was still safe.

Earlier that same day was the last time I saw my mom and my brother. They both live in my neighborhood. My brother has a dog and spontaneously asked me if I wanted to join them for a walk. We ended up walking by the river port, then popping into a supermarket to buy some chicken breasts. We then went up to my apartment because my family wanted me to teach them how to make curry. After cooking, we all sat down to eat. This will serve as a warm memory of the last pre-war family gathering for me. But I’m confident there will be many post-war memories in a free Ukraine. 

Returning to Ukraine

Maria Romanenko in UkraineCourtesy Maria Romanenko

I am planning to go back to Ukraine at the nearest safe opportunity. I fled the war because my boyfriend wanted to be in the U.K., and I wanted to be with him. I did not flee because I wanted to start a new life.

Russia invaded Ukraine several times between 1917 and 1922 to force Ukraine to join the Soviet Union. Russia then invaded Ukraine in 2014 and ended up annexing Crimea. Before the 20th century, Ukraine was constantly defending itself against Russia in a bid to preserve its independence, language, and culture.

Ukrainian culture predates Russian culture. Kyiv has been there since the fifth century, and the Ukrainian nation and culture developed around it with its own trade and skills.

Why Putin thought that he could destroy this heritage, built over centuries, is beyond anyone’s understanding. Ukraine—led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, and with Ukrainian female soldiers at the front lines—will prevail. And we are already showing that. I know I will see my family again in a free, safe Ukraine.

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Maria Romanenko
Maria Romanenko is a Ukrainian-born British-educated writer with an interest in psychology. She has written for Ukrainian newspapers and news sites as well as for mainstream American news outlets. When her hometown is not bombed by Russia, she resides in Kyiv.