A Russian couple who were planning to open a hostel in the centre of Portimão have turned the building into a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Yana Pshenichnikova-Semenets, 41, and Anatoly Semenets, 44, purchased a building at the Praça da República square in Portimão (commonly known as Alameda) several months ago with the goal of opening a hostel.
But their plans shifted with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and the building was turned into emergency accommodation for Ukrainian families.
The couple are already providing refuge to around 20 people – more than half of them children – and plan on welcoming up to 60 at the three-storey, 26-room building.
The local community, including several Ukrainians living in the Algarve, have helped refurbish the building and furnish it, while donations of food, clothes and other essential items have been pouring in – so much so that Yana says she is willing to offer some of the items to those in need.
Portimão Council is helping cover basic expenses (water, electricity and gas) and the couple are being assisted by lawyer Tânia Fernandes when it comes to legal matters and helping refugees get their paperwork in order. They are also working closely with Capela, an association that supports migrants from Eastern Europe.
While they know they risk being dubbed “enemies of Russia” for aiding Ukrainians, Yana and Anatoly say they could not stand by without doing something to help.
“We knew something bad would happen”
Speaking to the Resident, Yana said they decided to leave Russia in 2014 after the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
“We realised that something bad would happen, but we never thought it would be war. We thought life would get worse and worse in Russia, similar to living in North Korea,” said Yana.
Before the invasion of Crimea, Yana and Anatoly lived a “happy life” in a small town around 100 kilometres away from Moscow where they had “family and lots of friends”. However, their fears about what life could soon become after what happened in Crimea prompted them to move quickly.
“I was born in Uzbekistan and moved to Russia when I was 14, so I know how difficult it is to move when you’re not a child but still not quite an adult. So, when the situation in Crimea happened, I realised that we should move as soon as possible because it would be good for our children (aged five and two at the time) to move when they are still very small,” Yana said.
Their initial plan was to move to Israel where Anatoly’s mother and sister live, but they wanted to find a “safer and calmer” country where their children could be raised peacefully and free from the dangers of war.
“We had acquaintances in the Algarve from the same town we lived in in Russia, so my husband travelled here and stayed in Albufeira for one week to see what it was like,” said Yana.
From hostel to haven for refugees
The couple moved here in March 2015, although Anatoly – a lawyer back in Russia – continued to travel back and forth between the two countries due to work.
However, this all changed when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Both Yana and Anatoly were “horrified” when they learned about the invasion, and quickly decided to change their plans from opening a hostel to opening a haven for Ukrainian refugees arriving in the Algarve.
But while Yana said she feels like the war is “also our fault as Russian citizens”, she also stressed that the conflict has also spelled personal tragedy for herself and her husband.
“One of my childhood friends from Uzbekistan died defending Kyiv. I have friends from university who are living in Ukraine, and my husband has cousins there whom he has been unable to contact. This is a tragedy for us for two reasons – we feel responsible, and we have people close to us being directly affected,” Yana said.
Yana knows other Russian people in Portugal who moved here after Russia’s invasion of Crimea because they also felt that “something would happen in Russia”.
“We were born during the Soviet Union, we remember what it was like, so we wanted our kids to avoid this ‘world’. That’s why we came here and lots of friends whom I’ve met here came for the same reason,” she told us.
While Yana said she cannot make any forecasts, she and her husband plan to keep the hostel open as a refuge for at least six months and say they will keep it open for even longer if needed.
The couple are overwhelmed by the generosity of the local community, with people donating everything from food and clothes to bedsheets.
While they have almost everything they need for now, Yana said the one thing still missing is medicine.
“We have a lot of children, and this is a very stressful situation for them. Lots of them complain of stomach aches for example,” she told us.
Meanwhile, some people have offered help in the form of job opportunities or language lessons, with two teachers due to visit the hostel soon to offer English and Portuguese lessons.
The couple are also installing a heating system in the building and are accepting donations to cover the cost.
If you like to help, contact Yana to find out about their latest needs – call 911 055 371