War Transformed Our Family

The war in Ukraine has been devastating, but it’s also brought my parents and me closer.

by V. T.

Credit: Branimir Todorovic

Growing up, everyone in my family was afraid of my mom. When she got angry, she would turn into a tiger. She’d scream loudly, and her voice turned throaty and scary. Sometimes, she even hit my younger sister and me. 

Dad would also avoid mom when she wasn’t in a good mood. When I heard Mama yelling at my sister, I immediately started doing my homework and dad started making dinner. We knew that after my sister, Dad and I would be Mom’s next prey.

There were times when my mom’s wrath engulfed me. If her yelling got too loud, Dad would come and protect me. He’d give Mom and me an herbal remedy that’s supposed to make people feel calm and sleepy, hug me, pet my head to calm me down and say that everything would be alright. 

When I was in the 4th grade, I asked my dad to help me solve a math problem. The more time he spent solving it, the more confused and tired he looked. Finally, he looked around, returned my notes and whispered: ”Google it. But don’t tell your mom that I told you to do so.”

After I was officially allowed to cheat, life became brighter. Until one day my mom checked my homework. I swallowed a lump in my throat and tried to tame my shaking hands. 

“How did you manage to solve a problem using a method you have not learned about yet?” she asked. 

I started crying. “Dad told me to cheat,” I replied through my trembling voice. I peeked at her face. After seeing her furious expression, I knew my dad was in trouble.

Mom screamed at Dad. She cursed at us and told us how we were worthless. She accused us of making her angry on purpose. 

Although I was terrified of my mom during these rages, she wasn’t all bad. She enrolled me in a variety of classes: singing, dancing, art, foreign language learning. She would drive me back and forth even when she was tired from her job at the hospital. We often took vacations together as a family when I was younger. We only “traveled” to the lake nearby, but my parents tried to fill my childhood with fun memories.

No Place to Hide

I hit puberty when I was 9 and my teachers began making nasty comments about my appearance. 

“Look at her everybody! Doesn’t she look pathetic? Look at these fat ass thighs! She can’t even fit in the costumes we have,” said my dance teacher.

My peers started bullying me as well.

I told my mom about the bullying, but she never took any action. Instead, she said I deserved hearing such things. Not only that, she encouraged teachers to use physical violence in order to make me “work harder.” My mom grew up in the Soviet Union, where teachers were much stricter and regularly used corporal violence to discipline kids. But when I was growing up, most people frowned on it. 

My mom screamed at me often. After some time, Dad joined her too. He stopped being my protector. I felt like I had been standing behind a tall concrete wall, but now this wall had crumbled. The little girl inside me felt betrayed. 

The relationship between my parents and me became worse. I remember telling my parents things like, “I wish I was an orphan,” and “I wish I had different parents.”  

School, classes, home, friends: there was no place to hide from being bullied and abused. I began eating my stress and got big. My depression grew more each year. By age 14, I cried every single day before going to bed. I did not see a point in doing anything I did. I was falling into an abyss. The depression made me think about suicide. I begged my mom to let me go to a psychologist but all she said was “Stop fucking around.”

I stopped feeling anything toward the people who hurt me. No anger, no sadness, no happiness, no pity. Nothing. 

Then the war came. Everything was about to change.

Then the war came. Everything was about to change.

The Turning Point

On February 24th, 2022, war stopped being something I only heard about in history class. It became my reality. 

At first, it seemed like an ordinary school day morning. I opened and rubbed my eyes, mentally preparing to get out of bed. 

A second later I heard the news. “No. It can’t be,” I thought while sprinting into the kitchen. I looked at the TV screen. Blood and dead bodies. My stomach tied into a knot. I realized that we were trapped in a nightmare. 

We lived in the northern part of Ukraine, near the border with Belarus, and the Russians were bombing the capital Kyiv. In the evening, my parents took my sister and me to our family friends’ place because they had a bomb shelter at home. There was not enough space for everybody, so my mom and dad had to return home, even though they feared they would die under the rubble. 

My parents and I thought we would never see each other again.

I hate that day. I especially hate the time when we thought we were saying goodbye to each other for the last time. We hugged while we were on our knees.

When death is breathing down your neck, one of the first emotions you feel is regret. My parents apologized to me and said, “We are so sorry for everything we have done.” I thought I might never see them again, and I did not want to be upset or angry toward them. I know it wasn’t my fault but I apologized for the mean words I had said to them. 

When death is breathing down your neck, one of the first emotions you feel is regret.

My mom’s friend pressed her hand over her mouth, trying not to cry while looking at us. But tears streamed out of her eyes. 

My parents pulled me aside and instructed me on what to do in case of their death. They said that despite everything, we must stay strong. They said that I have to replace both of them to my younger sister if they die. I felt the huge weight of the responsibility I had to carry on my shoulders. I didn’t feel ready, but that day I became a child who was also supposed to be a mom and dad to another child.

The war took away so much from me but it also did something else: It broke the lock on one of the rooms I stored my feelings in. My parents’ actions had hurt me so much but I found myself still wanting to love them and see the best in them. 

The next day, my parents sent my younger sister and me to Poland for our safety. The sound of sirens rang inside my head around the clock. I remember locking myself in the bathroom, crying, because I felt scared I would never see my relatives again. 

After six months, we went back home for a period. I had changed since the war started. I had to be both mother and father to my younger sister, which made me more responsible and independent. My parents were not the same either. They seemed to respect the autonomy of my sister and me. 

Life back in Ukraine was challenging. It was impossible to focus on school. I remember feeling the ground shake when a bomb hit somewhere and seeing the entire building shake too. I saw broken glass and remnants of bombs on the streets, which terrified me. 

Two months after we returned to Ukraine, the Russians struck power plants. At one point, we had no electricity, water, food or heat at home.

During those days, my sister and I would spend time with my parents on their bed and talk. We spoke about everything from politics to the most embarrassing moments of our lives. 

They would rush my sister and me to the bomb shelter any time they heard a siren. I was happy because I finally had parents who seemed to love and care for me. My mom’s rages seemed to have stopped, or at least they didn’t rear their head any more.

Feeling Safe, Feeling Better

As the attacks became more frequent and the cold Ukrainian winter got closer, it became clear that our lives were under threat. My parents decided to send us to live with a foster family in the U.S. We arrived in Virginia on December 11, 2022.

Living with my foster family has helped a lot. They are very nice and have shown me that members of a family must respect each other. 

I was severely depressed before the war started, but thanks to the support of my foster parents, I am now on medication, which helps. It feels new to not have all these “deeps” and I no longer experience suicidal thoughts.

It also helps to feel like my parents love me. Since the war started, they have apologized and told us how much they love us many times. My younger self would never have imagined this. It feels like the dream I was always praying for finally came true. If I was able to go back in time and tell my younger self how drastically things will change, she would just cry. 

Though I feel love for my parents, I’m still upset about my mom’s lack of sympathy and refusal to get help for me when I was depressed. It’s hard to understand how a mother can ignore direct requests from her kid that she needs professional help. 

I know I am holding on to these feelings because I often think about it and feel a heavy pressure on my chest. When I think about her screaming and her anger, I try to understand. But I cannot forget and forgive her completely. 

But I cannot forget and forgive her completely.

Still, I try to be hopeful about the future. 

Things are already different now. My sister and I have weekly calls with my parents. They are genuinely curious about how our days went and ask us about small details. 

I thought that war would take my parents away, but it actually did the opposite. It brought me a new definition of the word “family.” Family is not about tears and loneliness anymore, it’s about appreciation and warmth from loved ones.

I always wanted to move out of Ukraine. It feels strange now because I desperately want to return to the places I thought I hated.

Though my sister and I are across the ocean from them, we hug our parents through the camera at the end of every video call. We hug our devices and pretend that we are hugging each other.

“The phone is so warm that it seems like I feel the warmth of your cheek through the screen,” said my mom during one call, sweeping the tears off her face. “Mom, come on.” I replied, pretending to be embarrassed. But I was trying not to burst into tears myself.

V.T. is a teenage Ukrainian refugee, whose life has changed dramatically.

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