Anna, Olena and Andrii

Ukrainian family finds refuge in Portimão after fleeing war


A Ukrainian family from the war-ravaged city of Kharkiv has found refuge in the Algarve after fleeing their country due to a war that few locals believed would actually happen.

Olena, 54, and her twin children Andrii and Anna, 16, have been taken in by Alexander Rublinetsky. Alexander was also born in Kharkiv and has lived abroad for more than 22 years, having moved to the Algarve where he settled in Portimão around two years ago.

Olena is now seeking further information on what steps her family needs to take to benefit from the asylum that has been promised by the Portuguese government, but for now she and her children are happy to have somewhere to sleep “without being scared to death of falling bombs and rockets”.

It’s been a harrowing week for Olena and her family, who were living perfectly normal lives before the Russian invasion.

As Olena explained to the Resident, “I lived in Kharkiv all my life, it was a bustling city with 1.5 million people. It had lots of young people, lots of universities and, even though it had its share of ups and downs, it was a happy place to live and raise my three children.

“Especially in the last 10 years, Ukraine, and Kharkiv, became much nicer and more open places to live. There were many high-tech businesses, the city became very clean and well-organised, and could be easily compared to other European cities,” said Olena, who graduated from Kharkiv university and worked as a biologist in the research institute dealing with ecological problems.

Life was peaceful and people “did not believe or wanted to believe that such a war was possible.

“Kharkiv is very close to the border with Russia and there were many cross-border family connections, with many people speaking both Ukrainian and Russian,” Olena said. “We should have been wiser after Putin stole Crimea from us in 2014, but it was hard to believe in all-out war,” she said.

However, everything changed on the morning of February 24 when the bombings began. Olena and her family were awoken at around 4am by Russian war planes flying over the city and launching bombs and rockets.

“We had only 10 minutes to grab our documents and basic necessities. There were six of us in the car – myself, my husband, our three children, and my eldest son’s wife. We were lucky to leave by car, because very soon after that the roads were blocked and leaving by car became practically impossible and very dangerous,” she said.

While Olena and two of her children may be safe in Portugal, they are still dealing with the heartbreak of having to leave family members behind.

“My husband and my eldest son stayed behind to protect the country. My son’s wife also stayed with him,” she said.

Olena’s parents, who are around 80 years old and in “poor health”, also stayed behind as they could not survive the trip.

“My brother, who does not have a family, stayed behind to take care of our parents. Unfortunately, now they cannot even descend from their ninth floor to the bomb shelter during the air raids because due to the attacks, the lifts do not work,” she said.

Although they began their escape as soon as the bombs began to fall, the journey was still incredibly perilous.

“It took us 26 hours of driving to get to the western border. There were traffic jams and long lines to buy gasoline, which was rationed, so we had to fill the car multiple times. It was also dangerous to drive on the major highways, so we had to use smaller roads. Quite often we heard explosions around us and saw columns of black smoke. It was very scary,” Olena said.

“We barely found a place to spend the night and the next day, we waited for almost seven hours to get through the checkpoint on the border between Ukraine and Slovakia,” said Olena, adding that she and her family are “very grateful to the volunteers in Slovakia for meeting us, providing food, a place to spend the night, and helping us to get on the train further west.”

But while they were technically safe from the war, they were at a loss as to where they should go.

“The only people we knew outside of Ukraine were our friends who lived in Portugal. We talked to them and they promised to help. They bought air tickets for us from Budapest to Lisbon, met us in Lisbon, and drove us to their home,” said Olena.

“We are currently staying in the living room of their small apartment in Portimão. And even though my son sleeps on the floor, it is so great to be able to sleep without being scared to death of falling bombs and rockets.”

As she pointed out, “sunny Algarve feels like a different planet when compared to Ukraine in the middle of war. There are no bombs and no Russian tanks!”

For now, Alex is trying to help Olena and her children (who do not speak Portuguese and speak very little English) to contact Portuguese authorities to figure out what steps need to be taken so that they can benefit from the asylum that the national government has promised Ukrainian refugees.

“We appreciate very much that the government of Portugal is going to help us. As I understand, there is a large Ukrainian community in Portugal, and the government already knows that Ukrainians are nice, peaceful people, and hard workers.

“We are still struggling to understand what steps we should take to get help and protection. But we started to get some contacts and hopefully we will sort it out in the coming days. It would be so helpful if an easy-to-understand checklist was published on some government website for Ukrainian refugees,” the refugee said.

What comes next for Olena and her family is still unknown, although they know a return to their home is growing increasingly unlikely.

“We don’t really know. Since Putin seems to be totally unhinged, the count of killed and wounded people grows every hour, and every day Kharkiv looks more and more like a pile of rubble, it is hard to believe it will be possible to return home any time soon. Yesterday (Monday), Russian invaders dropped cluster bombs on residential districts that have no industrial and no military targets, only apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals,” she lamented.

“For now, we will try to build a life in Portugal, find a job, get the kids back to school. Then we will see.”

In Portimão, where they are staying with Alex and his family, a demonstration was held on Tuesday to show support to Ukraine and the town’s Ukrainian community. Among those in attendance was Portimão Mayor Isilda Gomes.

Meanwhile, Alex hopes that the government’s promised help will come soon.

“I do hope that the Portuguese government will provide some help to them because children should go to school instead of spending nights on the floor in my living room.”