Spain offers ‘children of Chernobyl’ refuge from Ukraine war
When Igor Pavlosky decided to flee Ukraine with his youngest children after bombs began falling, his destination was clear — Spain.
Like thousands of other Ukrainian youths, several of his daughters had spent yearly holidays with host families in Spain since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Now these host families are helping to provide a safe haven from the war in Ukraine for these so-called “children of Chernobyl” and their parents.
Pavlosky, 46, says he only reluctantly took up the offer of help and left Kyiv at the end of February because he “had to protect” his children.
He piled into his car with his four youngest and drove across Europe to Gijon, northern Spain, where his daughters had spent holidays every summer.
“It was very trying, I will remember it my entire life,” he says of the days-long road trip.
One of the daughters, Anastasia, was already in Gijon, having moved there three years ago. So was his wife Olena and another daughter who were visiting Anastasia when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Pavlosky left behind his oldest son Xenia, 26, who was banned from leaving Ukraine, as well as two other daughters — Ana and Stanislava — who decided to stay with their boyfriends.
– ‘Strong relationship’ –
His daughter Massa, 17, says she dreams of a Ukraine where she can “walk in the streets without bombs raining down, without being afraid of dying.”
Her older sister Dasha, 19, says Russian soldiers “came and took over our homes, the places where we played with our friends”.
It has been easier for her and her siblings to adapt than her parents because they already spoke Spanish, she adds.
“We came on holidays here, we already imagined ourselves living here. Mom and dad don’t want to live here,” she says.
Massa notes that before the war started she could talk and play with her dad, “But now he doesn’t say what he feels anymore.”
After the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant, dozens of charities in Spain began staging yearly respite holidays for Ukrainian youths to give them a break from the lingering effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
“There is a very strong relationship with the Ukrainians,” says Jorge Gonzalez, the head of the Expoaccion charity which runs a homestay programme for Ukrainian children and who hosted Stanislava at his home for years.
He says he loves Stanislava as much as if she was his daughter and urged the Pavloskys to come to Gijon as soon as the war broke out.
– ‘Welcome here’ –
Expoaccion has provided clothes and food the Pavlosky family, who are living in a flat that has been temporarily lent to them.
Igor has found a job as a construction worker and the children are all in school.
Olena’s face brightens and Igor gives a rare smile when they realise their son Xenia is calling from back home.
The entire family gathers behind the small screen to catch a glimpse of him. They blow kisses at each other and flash V for “victory” signs.
“Sometimes you wake up and you want to believe this was all a nightmare,” says Olena.
Some 134,000 Ukrainians have moved to Spain since Russia’s invasion, according to Spanish government figures, part of an exodus of nearly six million people.
In the southern port of Algeciras, Victoria Bielova, 18, is showing her nine-month-old daughter how to clap. They fled to the city from Ukraine a few weeks ago.
Bielova had been coming to Spain every year since she was six and she said she received messages from every host family in the country as soon as bombs began raining down on Ukraine.
“They said ‘you are welcome here, come’,” she says.
– ‘Wait until war ends’ –
She hesitated at first but set off on March 15 with her daughter, leaving behind her husband.
After travelling by bus for three days she settled in with the couple who hosted her during her last homestay in Spain, Francisco Perez and Cecilia Valencia.
They set up a guest room for her and her daughter with nappies, a crib and toys and invited her to stay “as long as the war lasts”, says Bielova.
Her sister is staying with a former holiday host family in Algeciras as well while her cousins are in Seville.
Bielova calls her husband Andry two or three times a day. She says she tries “not to think too much” about the war because her daughter “understands everything”.
She says she plans to return to Kyiv later this month if it is calm there, following in the footsteps of her sister-in-law and her nephew who have already returned to Ukraine from Spain.
But Perez, who takes Victoria and her daughter to the park every day, would like them to stay.
“I tell her to wait a little longer until the war end,” he says.