Home in My Heart

I had to flee two Russian invasions, but I keep Ukraine close

by Arina Limarieva


When I was 5, I had lived my whole life in Luhansk, Ukraine. Then, in April 2014, Russia  invaded Luhansk and another nearby region, Donetsk. Russia declared them independent states and renamed them Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.  

These name changes are part of how the Russian government tries to erase the Ukrainian identities of people who live there. These “countries” are not recognized by the rest of the world or the United Nations, but Russia’s military enforces its land grabs, and Ukrainians suffer. I feel my personal identity as a Ukrainian threatened, and I try to keep my country alive however I can.

After the invasion, my family moved to the capital, Kyiv, and tried to find a better life. My dad listened to political podcasts and interviews, but my parents didn’t talk to me about the political situation much. I knew there was a war and that Russia took our land, and that the countries hated each other.  

It took years for my family to fully adjust to our new lives. School helped: In Kyiv, I went to one school with the same kids, every class, 1st grade through 7th grade. We didn’t even know how close we’d gotten. In 6th grade, another kid from Luhansk joined our class, and we exchanged sad glances.

Every summer I’d go to camps for aikido (a Japanese martial art). My favorite was outside Kyiv, in a forest by a lake. Our dorm had balconies we jumped off of. The last night of camp was prank night. On my last summer in Ukraine, on prank night my best friend and I put toothpaste on some sleeping kids’ arms and cheeks, then snuck out of the dorm. We laughed and ran to the beach and watched the sunrise. 

Then, on February 24, 2022, less than eight years after seizing Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea, Russia launched an even bigger invasion. It attacked Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa, Dnipro, Kryvyi Rih, Mariupol, Zaporizhzia, Kherson, Zhytomyr, Khmelnytskyi, Poltava, Sumy, Vinnytsia, Chernihiv, and other cities and towns all across Ukraine.

I have forgotten most of the events of 2014. Perhaps my child brain deemed it traumatic and blocked those memories. This time I was 12, and I remember it all more than I would like to. 

Rumors of war had been circling us like snakes. My neighbors often lit fireworks, though, so when I heard loud bangs at 5 am, I went back to sleep. An hour later, my mother woke me up and said, “Wake up, the war started.” Those words were like freezing water over my body. 

I heard the sound of bombs from my apartment. Out my window, I saw people rushing with suitcases to their cars. 

I had practiced packing my things a few days before, so I went ahead and packed for real. My dad asked me to help him carry our bags to the car, and the sounds outside became terrifyingly loud. Huge swishes, then deafening blasts when bombs flew into buildings. I was shaken to my core. 

My mother said, “Wake up, the war started.” Those words were like freezing water over my body.

My dad drove the two of us to the gas station, about seven minutes away, and waited in the line of cars for 20 minutes. My grandmother, mother, and one-year-old sister were at home finishing packing. I texted my classmates, who I was supposed to see two hours later in English class. 

As my dad and I sat in a traffic jam, I got a message from one of the tougher guys in class. “I am going to miss all of you and I hope one day we will see each other again,” We were friends, but I didn’t think I’d ever see him so vulnerable. It was the first time that many guys in my class admitted they had feelings. We all texted that we were afraid and were going to miss each other. It didn’t feel real. 

Chasing Safety

After my dad and I picked up the rest of our family, we drove southeast along the Dnipro river for about two hours, arriving at a village near Cherkasy, where my great-uncle lived. There, we lived for about two weeks, eight people in very close proximity. Because it was a small village, it felt safer. There were not a lot of alerts and sirens. 

My friends who had stayed in Kyiv, meanwhile, constantly were woken by bombs and went to bomb shelters. They described their daily lives to me on the phone in voices laced with anxiety.

Early one evening at my great-uncle’s place, as the sun began to set, our phones blared a bomb warning. The serene atmosphere crumbled. We quickly got into the car and drove 30 minutes to my great-uncle’s wife’s parents. They had a basement we could shelter in.

That evening was the first time I prayed in years (I grew up Christian but I never really resonated with it). I didn’t know who might die that night. That’s when my parents decided to leave the country. 

On March 6th, 2022, we stopped at a hotel for a night on our way to the Hungarian border. The five of us dragged in our suitcases. Me and my grandma shared one room, while my parents and younger sister shared another. 

It was my 13th birthday. Everybody was on edge and too exhausted to talk, so we got room service food in our rooms, ate, and went to rest for the night. My family got me my favorite chocolate cake, but my euphoria at being 13 lasted about three minutes. Then the grief and sorrow and fear came back. 

We stayed in a hotel in Hungary for three days. My dad could not get the right documents to leave the country, so he returned to Kyiv while the rest of us drove to Slovakia. Next to the road were beautiful fields full of flowers, but stress plagued our minds. 

We arrived in Slovakia on March 13th and stayed with a Slovak friend of my dad’s and two other families of refugees, also from Kyiv. We were there long enough for the other two refugee kids and me to go to school there. I learned Slovak and even made friends. But I worried about my dad.

Three months into our stay, he joined us in Slovakia. In only three months, new wrinkles had grown around his eyes. But his hug was still as warm and big as ever. The four of us stayed in my dad’s friend’s apartment for another three days. We then got the word that we could all emigrate to the U.S. 

I was somewhat ecstatic to see America as I knew it from the movies, a bright city with lights shining on me as I dance. I did not think that it would be permanent. 

In June, 2022, we flew to New York. We first lived with a family friend in Long Island, New York. I started 8th grade in a middle school there. Because Ukrainian kids start studying English in 1st grade, I did not require ESL classes.  

My accent set me apart though. All the kids in the school had known each other since kindergarten. I didn’t fit in and only made three friends. I might have made more friends if I didn’t focus on school so much, but reading a book during lunch gave me more comfort than random kids asking me how to cuss in my native language. 

I have gone to three educational facilities in the last two years, a stark contrast to the one school in Kyiv that I attended for seven years. Two of them were middle schools, and now I’m in 9th grade at a high school in Queens.

This Isn’t Home

I get tired of talking about Ukraine to Americans. Whenever I mention my nationality, a beloved part of my life, I get the same questions. “Is the war still going on?” “Have you heard anything about it stopping?” “Did anyone you know die?” (Yes. No. Nobody close, thankfully.) 

And while I answer annoying questions and mourn that I might never live in my home country again, the Ukrainians’ suffering has become “dated,” no longer a hot topic in the news. 

As I start my third year away from home, I constantly look for media coverage about Ukraine. My Spotify playlist of Ukrainian songs is up to 13 hours and 19 minutes. I text my loved ones, and I think about them, especially late at night. I hate that my only access to them is through a screen. I yearn to be back in the school I attended for seven years, singing along to our makeshift karaokes as our teacher walks in and tells us to quiet down. I yearn to be back at my old dojo doing aikido with my friends. 

But I don’t like feeling sad or like a victim. I have friends here, and I found people to do aikido with. I am finishing up 9th grade now, in a school that gives college credit during junior and senior year. So I will be halfway through my college credits when I graduate high school in three years. This intense academic load helps to distract me from my sorrow, but the sorrow sometimes spills over. 

I walked into my guidance counselor’s office recently. I have been feeling overwhelmed in class and wanted to let my emotions out. When I closed the door of his office, I suddenly collapsed on the chair and started sobbing. I was so tired of everything in my life. 

My guidance counselor said supportive things and let me cry for five minutes. Then he started using calming-down techniques. 

“What is your happy place?” he asked. “Whenever I am stressed I like to think about my happy place. Walking on the beach, or just being out in nature. What’s yours?”

I took a few deep breaths and realized that my happy place is the aikido summer camp where my best friend and I watched that forbidden sunrise. The tears fell anew. 

As I cried, I tried to make sense of a happy place I might never get to go back to. I tried thinking instead of people as my happy place, but the people I imagined comforting me were also from Ukraine, like my friend from camp. And anyone still there might be killed.  

I started to see a therapist four years ago back in Ukraine, and I still “see” her on Skype once a week. She can get me to talk about my feelings, and we have tough conversations about the fact that I can’t control my life. 

My parents are getting ready to buy a home in the U.S.; they do not expect to return to Ukraine. All my high school classes seem to be about wars. I’ve been crying a lot. The news about the war looks bad, and it seems likely I won’t be able to go back in the next few years. I’m trying to be realistic and still have faith that my home will be safe.

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