Mama Maria, among the first Ukrainian refugees in the Netherlands, hopes to go home
One of the first Ukrainian people to seek refuge in the Netherlands feels as though her life is filled with a crushing uncertainty ever since her native land was invaded by Russian military forces last Thursday. The woman, who asked NL Times to call her by the pseudonym “Mama Maria,” described her shock after learning that her country had been invaded by Russia while she was visiting Belarus, the difficult process of leaving as the war closed in, and small moments of kindness from strangers on her way.
Maria arrived safely at her daughter’s home in Purmerend, just north of Amsterdam, over the weekend. Since then, she has been trying to pass the time by knitting clothing for soldiers in Ukraine, and learning English, but she remains deeply concerned for the wellbeing of her family and her friends.
Maria was visiting Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and had a ticket to return to her home in Cherkasy, on 25 February. The city is about 200 kilometers southeast of Kyiv along the Dnieper River. “Before I had to leave in the evening before, I checked on the bus. On the evening of the 24th when I went to the bus station, I was told that the borders were closed and there was a war between Ukraine and Russia. In my head, there was the thought that I needed to decide urgently where to go,” she told NL Times through her daughter, who also acted as a translator during the interview.
According to her daughter, Maria did not know that the war was imminent as there was a problem accessing the internet where she had been staying in Minsk. “I decided to go to a different city that was closer to the Ukrainian border. It was already evening so to ensure I was not left out in the cold overnight, I booked a hotel in that city close to the border. Luckily for me, they had internet,” she said. “I called my children; my son was still in Ukraine, and my daughter was in the Netherlands.”
The phone call was difficult, both for Maria and her two terrified children. She felt a sense of urgency to flee Belarus which no longer seemed safe. “I must give thanks to my children; I was worried for them but they were worried for me even more. They bought me a bus ticket from Minsk to Vilnius in Lithuania then a plane ticket from Vilnius to Amsterdam.” Maria was certain of her decision, but nonetheless distraught. “I just think I was decisive at that moment, I didn’t think about myself. I wanted to get out of that country and be with one of my children.”
The atmosphere in Minsk became more hostile once Russia pushed into Ukraine from several different fronts. “When the war was declared, the relationship between people changed. However, when I got to Lithuania the relationship was different and people helped me. At duty-free in Lithuania, my card wouldn’t work so I was given a water bottle for free.”
Since arriving in the Netherlands, Maria feels a bit more at ease, but is still completely wracked with worry. Her son is currently trapped in Ukraine. Holding back tears, Maria explained, “He cannot leave but he is also not a fighter, so he is helping other people enter the bomb shelter. He and his friend are guarding the bomb shelter and the streets to see if there are saboteurs and warn people.”
She stopped to regain her composure, then added, “He does not have any weapons.” Other family members are also stuck in different cities. Her daughter’s best friend is from Kyiv, but is now in hiding in an unknown location. “I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that this is really happening.”
Despite the turmoil, and the long journey from Minsk to Noord-Holland, Maria was able to find some comfort in knowing that the people she encountered in her daughter’s adoptive country were willing to help out wherever possible. “People are very friendly and hospitable and the atmosphere is very warm. In the airport, people did not speak my language, but they still helped.”
Maria’s daughter was out of the country when her mother arrived, so a friend picked her up at Schiphol. Upon arrival at her daughter’s home, she was inundated with offers of food, blankets, and clothes from neighbors. Someone in Hoofddorp, near the airport, even offered up a bed if Maria or her daughter needed another one for the apartment in Purmerend.
Ultimately, Maria wants to go back home but she’s committed to helping the war effort from the Netherlands while it is still unsafe for her to return. “She can knit and sew”, said her daughter. “The day after she arrived we went to the kringloop and bought materials. She wants to help, she is knitting socks to send to soldiers. She is also learning English on Duolingo. I am keeping her busy in any way that I can.”
As the interview drew to a close, Maria became emotional reflecting on the shock of the situation she finds herself in. “I actually planned on visiting my daughter in the Netherlands later in Spring. Never would I have imagined that I would visit the Netherlands not as a tourist, but as a person fleeing war in such gruesome circumstances,” she said.
“However, I am so grateful to people for being so warm and welcoming to me.”