Meet Ilona, a Mother, Doctor, and Ukrainian Refugee

05 March 2024|Chloe Gunther

Ilona and her two children participate in program at JRS Poland.

This story first appeared in JRS INSIDER, a monthly newsletter including stories of impact across JRS global.

At four in the morning on February 24th, 2022, Ilona woke to her neighbors ringing her doorbell.  She looked out the window of the flat she shared with her husband and two young children. Smoke and rockets covered Kyiv. “We lived on the 14th floor,” Ilona said, “you could see and hear everything.”

“Panic broke outside the window and chaos filled the streets,” Ilona said. Her husband, an anesthetist, was on call at the nearby hospital while she was home.

In the two years since, over six million people in Ukraine have fled their homes. JRS Poland has responded with emergency protection, housing support, mental health and psychosocial support, and Polish language courses. This response is a part of JRS Europe’s larger plan and commitment to accompany refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Ilona’s husband rushed home and they prepared to leave. “We packed two suitcases with us. In one we took medicine, a stethoscope, an otoscope, and documents. In the other, we packed everything we could for the kids – clothes, toys, and nappies.”

Ilona discussed the historical context and significance of this moment. “[The violence and conflict are] not new; this has been going on since the seizure of Crimea in 2014, and further back in the USSR,” she explained.

“It was inconceivable to us that such wild, strange things could occur, yet they happened,” she said, “but the history of [Ukraine] shows why there is war in our country now.”

Before the war, they were a young, happy family of four. “I was working as a general practitioner and a masseuse. We had everything you could want – children, stability, a job, a flat, and a car.”

After the invasion, they fled to western Ukraine. “There was only one open road to Khmelnytskyi…it was so long, slow, and scary.” But before they crossed the border to Poland, she and her husband decided he would return to Kyiv and help as much as he could.

“My mother took us across the border. From there, we were transported by a gentleman volunteer,” Ilona said. She is still looking for this man to thank him for his kindness and helping her and her children find safety.

“There was panic and depression about what to do for the next three months,” Ilona said. They waited near the Polish border, unsure of their next step. At first, she believed they would be able to return home quickly.

There were alarms, rockets, and explosions every night...I decided then that we couldn’t stay in Ukraine. We couldn’t live under such stress.

Ilona did not think they would be away from Kyiv long enough to start a new job or find long-term housing elsewhere. “I did not want to start anything because I thought I would be right back.”

They visited Ukraine once in September 2022, but when she heard how bad the winter would be, she took the children back to Poland. In May 2023, they returned to Ukraine once more. She said they went to finally decide if they could live back home or needed to resettle in Poland.

“There were alarms, rockets, and explosions every night,” Ilona said. “My children were crying; they did not even want to go from their room to the bathroom. I started experiencing fear and panic attacks. I decided then that we couldn’t stay in Ukraine. We couldn’t live under such stress.”

She and her children returned to Poland again with the intention of remaining. Her husband had a military exemption and worked at the hospital in Kyiv for over a year. Eventually, he would reunite with his family.

Upon their return, a family in Poland welcomed Ilona and her children into their home. Ilona said this initial generosity and accompaniment was integral in supporting her mental health. The family was Catholic and knew about Jesuit Refugee Service. “When we could no longer continue living with them, they told JRS about us,” Ilona said.

JRS supported Ilona and her family by providing housing and Polish language classes. “We couldn’t find a flat because a large deposit was required and landlords weren’t willing either because we had children, so we got refused everywhere,” Ilona explained.

“It was invaluable that we didn’t have to think about livelihoods…which were unattainable for us at that time…but we could focus on being able to start working again as doctors in Poland, find a kindergarten for the children and start all over again.”

On September 2nd, 2023, Ilona passed her Polish medical exam and received a license to practice medicine there for five years. When asked what inspires her most to persevere, she answered: “My family. Children and family. That’s it.”

“Gain strength and try to start all over again. Don’t be afraid of difficulties,” Ilona said when asked what message she would like to share with other refugees.

“I have changed. That Ilona, before February 24, 2022, is no longer here. I was always cheerful, and when I set myself a goal, I always did and achieved it,” she said. “And now there are entirely different feelings around it, a different path. It’s all more complicated. For the children, I am ready to do and work more.”

If you are looking for ways to support refugees fleeing Ukraine, JRS has several resources to pray for, advocate on behalf of, and donate to our colleagues in Europe who are providing  lifesaving, accompaniment programs.