Mykola and Mariia: Young Ukrainians in Czechia open up

Mykola Pashkov and Mariia Kostenko

Czechia took in roughly half a million Ukrainians following Russia’s full-scale invasion of their country two years ago. Many of these refugees have been young people, and to find out something about this generation’s lives here – and their outlooks for the future – I invited two 20-year-olds, Mariia Kostenko and Mykola Pashkov, into our studios.

Mykola Pashkov and Mariia Kostenko | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International

What were the circumstances of you coming to Czechia? Did you come alone, or with others? Why Czechia?

Mariia (from Orichiv, Zaporizhzhska Oblast, south-eastern Ukraine): “I came here with my mom. I don’t actually remember all the war, all the situations, because, you know, for me it’s like in a fog.

“I remember the extremely long queues in the shops. I remember all the air raids. I remember that we sat without any electricity or water for two weeks.

“Then one day a bombshell fell very close to my grandmother’s place and in that moment my mum realised that we couldn’t just sit and do nothing. She took all the things that we had and we moved to the western part of Ukraine, at the start.

“Actually we didn’t have any goal. We didn’t know where we would go. We just went somewhere to a safe place.

“And she called her friend who lived here, and her friend said we should come to her place. So we came to Plzeň. I lived in Plzeň, like, a year and a half, and my mom still lives there.”

Mykola (from Melitopol, Zaporizhzhska Oblast, south-eastern Ukraine): “I used to be a student in Kharkiv and when the war started I decided to move after a week to my hometown, an occupied city, Melitopol, in the southeast of Ukraine.

“Then I realised I had no more patience to be there, because of the soldiers, the military, there. And I decided to move from there to the Czech Republic.

“I had a friend who was working in a factory, also in Plzeň, so I went there and I was working there for a month or something. And then I moved to Prague.”


Can I ask, have you had family members or friends who have been severely affected by the war?

Mariia: “All of us are affected by the war. My father and brother live in Orichiv. It’s my hometown. It’s a very small town and right now it’s in the red zone. And it’s bombed all the time. I was actually living there when it was bombed for 12 hours a day.

“All my friends just left Ukraine after the war started.”

“But I don’t have friends who are soldiers or something. Just my family, who have been affected by the war.”

Mykola: “All my friends just left Ukraine after the war started. My father and the majority of my family are staying in the occupied city of Melitopol. And my mother and my little brother escaped to the city of Zaporizhzhia. I have nobody who is in the war or something.”

What were your beginnings like in Czechia? When you first arrived, how did you find getting used to living here?

Mykola: “When I arrived the first guy who I met was my friend. And the second was my employer. We were texting on WhatsApp and we agreed that I would work there. So we met and first we went to the store, where he bought me work clothes. On the second day I opened my visa here – and on the third I started to work in the factory.

“I was without any knowledge of the Czech language and without any official document to prove that I’m a worker.”

People In Need Hope for Ukraine Gift Certificate | Source: People In Need

Mariia: “I came to Plzeň with my mom. I didn’t know what I had to do – I had no ideas. My mom has to help my brother and father, because they stayed in Ukraine, in Orichiv, and they can’t work at the moment.

“So my mom went to this warehouse and she’s worked there for a year and a half. It’s very hard work for her, because she’s already 50 this year.

“I went to a People in Need volunteer centre and I worked there for like a year and a half, because it was the only act I knew how to do to help people.”

Mariia, is it the case that you are still a student at university in Ukraine, but online?

Mariia: “Yes, I study at a university in Ukraine, online. It’s actually very difficult at this moment, because you have air raids. And it’s impossible to work here at the same time as studying in Ukraine, because we have a schedule but because of air raids we always postpone our lectures.

“It’s so hard at this time, because you can’t just sit home and study normally. Lectures are postponed and they have to be at weekends or some other way, and it never works as it should.”

Mykola, you are a Youth Outreach Consultant with UNICEF. What kind of help do young Ukrainians who come here to Czechia typically need?

Mykola: “When I started to work, the main part of my job was to make young Ukrainian refugees who were under 18 aware that they have to prolong their visa. Because it was not possible, if they have no parents here and if they no official guardian here. So we try to let them know how to find a guardian, how to make everything official so they won’t lose the chance to prolong their visa.

“After that we started to provide what we call Co-Creation Sessions, where we try to get to know more about the challenges and needs youth are facing here in the Czech Republic.

“I have interviewed about 200 Ukrainian refugees already, and the main challenge now that they are facing is access to education.”


What about their mental state? I can’t imagine being forced to leave my country because of war, especially not as a teenager. What state are these kids in when they arrive here, typically?

Mykola: “Actually, that’s the second biggest problem they are facing. It’s really horrible. And I can’t imagine what some of them have seen in Ukraine.

“I can’t imagine what some young people have seen in Ukraine.”

“Moving here is really hard, because you can’t just start to socialise immediately. You need some time. You need some work with a psychiatrist or psychologist. That’s the situation.”

Even though you are physically here in Czechia, do you find that you are mentally always in Ukraine also? I presume with social media you are very close to what’s happening in your country all the time.

Mariia: “Yes, that’s true. Actually from the moment I came here I’ve worked with more than 10 psychologists from People in Need and other organisations and I just don’t have any idea how to manage it.

“You can’t predict what will happen in the war, and your parents become children in this position. My parents were entrepreneurs, they built all of their lives – and now all that their work has been ruined by bombs. They don’t have any chance, like, to make it back.

“My mother and my father don’t know how to live life normally. I’m just in my 20s, yes, and I don’t even know how to live my own life normally in Ukraine. And I don’t know how to do it here either – I have no idea.

“So mentally it’s so hard. It’s so hard because you don’t know how to get through the whole situation, because you have never faced it before and your whole environment is something you have never faced.

“So of course when you sit here and read the news all the time you feel super mentally overwhelmed by everything.

“I’m super grateful for all the psychological help we have had.”

“I’m super grateful for all the psychological help we have had, because I don’t know how I would handle things without it.”

Mykola: “It’s true. My thoughts and my soul are there. Every morning I read the news and if there are air raids at night or bombshells or drones flying over Zaporizhzhia I always call my mum and ask her. But she’s a strong woman and she always says that everything is fine – no worries.”

Do you sometimes think that she isn’t telling you the truth?

Mykola: “Yes, probably.”

You’ve both been here for a couple of years already. How welcoming were Czechs when you first arrived?

Mariia: “Actually it was very welcoming. I’m so grateful for the people around me, because I was so scared. My mom didn’t know any word in English; I know just some English and that’s all that I knew.

“When we came here volunteers helped us so much. That’s what made me want to be a volunteer as well.

“I constantly work and speak with Czech people. I moved to Prague by myself and I speak with Czech people around me a lot. It’s incredible.

Czech textbooks | Photo: Czech Centre Kyiv

“I’m really grateful to them, because if I don’t understand something in Czech they translate it into English – but make me speak with them in Czech. It’s very good for integration.

“And actually I have been at a lot of events that Czech youths did for us. It’s incredible – they do this by themselves. There was one Erasmus project where young Czechs made us Ukrainians speak about our problems – we spoke with Czech people about them and how we face them.

“I’m very grateful for this opportunity to understand the Czech mentality.”

Mykola: “The people of the Czech Republic have been very kind to us. There have been many NGOs that helped us. An organisation helping refugees provided me with accommodation; I lived in a hotel for refugees.

“When I moved to Prague I realised that there are really many ways to get support from the Czech Republic.”

Have you found any change among Czech people in your two years? Are they in any way less welcoming than they were before?

Mykola: “I can’t say that.”

I hear sometimes about acts of aggression against Ukrainian people by Czechs. Have you or your friends been the victims of any kinds of acts of aggression at all?

Mariia: “Actually, I haven’t. I haven’t had this situation in my life. Maybe I’ve heard some stories about I have never faced it in my own life and I don’t believe rumours. So I don’t.”

“We have to understand the number of people who came here. It’s not possible to avoid any conflicts or arguments.”

Mykola: “Even if something like that is happening, we have to understand the number of people who came here. It was about 500,000 in the beginning and now it’s 300,000. It’s not possible to avoid any conflicts or arguments.”

Obviously a lot of Russians live here in Czechia. Considering the terrible things that the Russians are doing to your people, how do you feel when you meet Russians, for example on the street or on public transport?

Mykola: “I’m currently studying International Relations at university and I’ve been working with UNICEF for enough time to understand that everyone has their own thoughts about the war.

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you are from, I just want you to be a kind person and to understand the situation, the circumstances you are in now.”

Mariia: “Yes, it’s more important what they are doing at this moment. Because when I worked at People in Need we had a couple of people from Russia and Belarus who were actually doing something to help Ukraine.”

Two years is a long time. It’s a big part of your lives to date. How do you manage, if you do manage, to keep your spirits up, to keep positive in some way, after two years?

Mykola: “I was lucky to be accepted to UNICEF. Honestly, I can’t imagine now working at a warehouse or a factory, these really monotonous jobs where you are just with your own thoughts all the time.

“For me the best way to stop thinking about the war, about what is happening in Ukraine, has been just to talk to as many people as possible, to socialise.”

Mariia: “Yes, for me as well. I absolutely agree with this. Because it’s so hard. I work as a barista at the moment and working and thinking about the future helps a lot, but you still come home, you still open the news, you still look at what’s happening in Ukraine. And it’s really hard to stay thinking about your family.

“But I think about my family from the perspective that I can do something at this moment so that I can help them in future. Like, I want to study here as well and I’m preparing for exams – after my job, after my volunteering, I come home and try to prepare myself for the university exams.

“I motivate myself with the thought that I can help my family after this somehow.”

“I motivate myself with the thought that I can help my family after this somehow. Because my mother works in a warehouse and that is killing her so much. So I have to do something for my future so my family aren’t overwhelmed by this.”

Unfortunately there is no end of the war in sight. How do you guys look to the future? Or do you look to the future, do you make plans? How do you think about the future even?

Mariia: “I don’t have an actual place to go back to. My town was bombed so many times I think we don’t have any normal building in the whole town.

“I don’t have an actual place to go back to.”

“My family were entrepreneurs their whole lives, so we don’t have anything that we had before. But I think about the idea that I can go to university. Education is literally the most important idea in my life. Because all I know is that I have to study, because it helps me, it’s some stability in life.

“I’m preparing myself for exams – I want to study here in PR and marketing so much. I want to a good job as well, to help my family. I help my family with the barista job, but I’m thinking about my future as a normal person.”

Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

Mykola: “I had big plans when I moved to Kharkhiv to study there. And then the war happened and I stopped building such plans for my future life.

“I also realise that first of all I have to finish my education. And I realise that there is no place for me to go back to, because my city is occupied and it’s a question of dignity. I just can’t go there.”

All I can say in conclusion is that you guys are extremely brave and I think I can speak for all listeners in saying that we wish you very well and we wish victory for your country. Good luck.

Mykola: “Thank you.”

Mariia: “Thank you.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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