A connection resistant to displacement, battling loneliness during times of war

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Photo: Margarita Ivanova

Anzhelika Holdobina photographed in Ukraine before the war.

By Margarita Ivanova

It was late February during my study abroad program in The Netherlands when I first heard about Russia’s potential attack on Ukraine. The talk of an invasion was simply a rumor until Thursday, Feb. 24. When the news came, no one really knew what to do. 

There were many students around me squirming around in fear and ignorance even though we were living in The Netherlands—one of the most disconnected countries in Europe from the war. 

The fear didn’t last long though, as spring break came around a few weeks later. We had the privilege of trading our thoughts of war for our travels to Italy, which was going to be our living fantasy for the next week. Spending money like it was a game of monopoly, we first hit Venice, and after three days of gondola rides, it soon came time to frolic away to Florence.

It was Thursday, March 8—International Women’s Day—and every restaurant in Venice was handing out bundles of yellow flowers. The day felt like magic; every woman seemed to share a glow of solidarity, feeling acknowledged in a special way.

As my friends and I stood up to depart the train back from Florence, I saw her: a woman with a hopeless expression, two bags in hand, and a foreigners confusion that matched mine. I can’t really put the feeling into words, but it led me to give her my flowers. 

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“Are you Russian?” she asked me in Russian.

As a Bulgarian, I was familiar with the Slavic-rooted language, and found a way to communicate through gestures and an understanding of every other word. 

She told me she was a Ukrainian refugee who needed help; she didn’t know where she was going, she didn’t have money, and she was meeting someone somewhere, with a passport deprived of destination. Her name: Anzhelika Holdobina. As we both got off from the next stop, I told her I was a journalist and she quickly gave me her phone number before charging off to her next train.

Her presence led me to realize the reality of the refugee crisis. I was no longer distantly watching news interpretations of asylum seekers from a disconnected part of the world. Our technological exchange would soon foster a connection that allowed me to skim the surface of life for refugees. Staying in touch with Holdobina, as well as another family, has not only heightened my awareness and satisfied my curiosity, but it has given them the hope and tenderness of a stranger. Communication gives them the reminder that they are loved and appreciated.

Holdobina and I have been in contact on Viber and WhatsApp ever since our exchange, and I received permission from Anzhelika to share bits of our correspondence throughout the past six months.

As we have maintained contact, I have been able to follow her journey as she attempts to rebuild her life in Italy. Her story is more than just a political slogan for perseverance, but an example that the statistics and headlines we consume affect real people in heartbreaking ways. 

March 8, 2022 :  “Hi Anzhelika, are you doing okay?”

March 9, 2022:  “Hi Margarita, housing is not very good, money too, and I need a job, and a family that would take me to live with them, or a single woman. Please help.”

After receiving this, I started a GoFundMe, but I was back in the Netherlands. There wasn’t much I could physically do to help.

Holdobina had just returned from a three-day journey that bridged through Poland, Austria, to Italy, parting with her husband and son in Kyiv, who were fighting in the war.

March 13, 2022

Her loneliness changed course when she found a short-term sense of peace in a room with a grandmother and four small grandchildren who were also in Florence running from the war.

Although there are many organizations and volunteers providing humanitarian aid, Evgeniya Volkova, a Bulgarian-Ukrainian real estate agent part of a non-profit seeking to integrate refugees into family housing, says the process is not an easy one. 

“It’s really great when we see families hosting refugees, but the reality is that the other 90% of refugees who don’t get so lucky run the risk of being homeless,” she said. “This fear and lack of comfort makes them very depressed.”

During our conversation, Holdobina talked about a comfortable sense of food security, but said finding work was already extremely difficult.

March 14, 2022:

“Hi Anzhelika, how is your family back home? How are you staying in touch with them?”

“I can keep in touch with my family through the internet. But it is really difficult thinking about their position versus mine. They are fighting in a war and I am here with silence and beauty.”

 “Have you had any luck finding a job?”

“I am trying to get a job, but since I don’t know the language, they won’t take me anywhere, and I want some kind of work at least.”

Volkova highlighted the difficulty in job integration also outside of the language barrier, saying that many doctors and highly-ranked professionals are being cornered into working low-wage jobs that don’t align with their strengths.

March 25, 2022: 

“Hi Anzhelika, The Go Fund Me donations went through, we raised over $300!”

“Oh thank you Margarita for your help. I do need the money, I don’t work yet. They help feed us here, but besides food we also need personal items. Hopefully we will be going home to Ukraine soon.”

To the average person, $300 doesn’t seem like much, but at the time, it doubled Italy’s approved monthly payment of €300 to Ukrainian arrivals.

April 22, 2022:  “How is everything Anzhelika?”

“Hello Margarita, life goes on. We are resting, waiting for good news.”

I told her that the money was wired, and she thanked me, but the hope of work for her was seemingly slimming down.

“We are still waiting for working documents, so we are not working yet, but we are being helped by humanitarian aid. I don’t know when the documents will be ready, for now we are patiently waiting.”

“Thank you Margarita for being so attentive and kind.”

I couldn’t understand why she was thanking me. It felt like I was doing less than the bare minimum at this point, feeling very privileged each time I reached out.

May 20, 2022:  “Do you think you will get to go home soon?”

She was now living in Empoli, Italy. She feared the thought of going home, and said it would be too dangerous, though her current situation remained precarious.

“I want to stay here, I am learning the language, the state helps with the purchase of products, but no they still haven’t told us about our living situation.”

August 19, 2022: 

“Hi Anzhelika, How are you? It has been a while. Have you received your working papers? How is your living space? Are things more comfortable?”

“Hi Margarita, Life goes on. I am learning a language in an online school. It’s vacation time in Italy, and everyone is on vacation. I am not working yet. We are waiting for the papers. Maybe in Autumn something will change. How are you? Where are you? You have an interesting life, you travel.”

I filled her in on my life and my family, and then asked about her loved ones back in Ukraine. I talked about some of my dreams, and sent her some prayers.

“Good evening Margarita,

My husband and son and I talk on the phone, and sometimes by video link, but of course this is not the same as a living connection. I really want to hug them, but only God knows how soon it will happen. Thank you for your concern and prayers. It really helps to live and hope for the best.”

“And your living situation? Are you with the same people?”

“Hi Margarita, yes, we still live together with the grandmother and the three grandchildren from Ivano Frankivsk. We are also helped by the state of Italy. And everything is good with my adult children, if you can say so. These are not easy times for Ukraine. You are a smart woman. You will do great things, and I wish you strength, health, and well being. May all of your dreams come true.”

Present day: 

The refugee crisis continues, with hopes of going home continuously waning for those who are displaced.

During times of conflict and war, we tend to hyperfocus on the policy, the resources, and the military, to the point where we leave behind some of the most basic principles of empathy and human connection. Although many of us are disconnected from those experiencing the effects of the war in Ukraine, technology has a set of arms that extend beyond the reach of our experiences. 

By taking advantage of this communication, we can share love to the individuals running from war, and fighting the battle of loneliness that exists within working to maintain a sense of direction. It becomes repetitive to share or display solidarity without application.

Show refugees they aren’t alone, not just by donating and keeping up with the war, but by sharing a sense of presence through kind words and listening, just as you would if it was your family.