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  • Writer's pictureMaddie Franz

Ukrainian Refugee Shares Story With John Felice Rome Center

Transcribed by Maddie Franz

With the rapid onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions were displaced from their homes. The world watched in horror as women and children flocked to the border, leaving their husbands, fathers, and brothers behind to fight the invasion of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

One of these refugees is Olga Pyl. She is a Ukrainian native who came to Italy several years ago and has since learned Italian and English.

Olga found herself back in Ukraine with her sister from the end of January to February. After a month of tension, war broke out on February 24th, triggering the mass exodus into Europe. Olga helped her sister, nephew, and neighbor to the border of Ukraine and into Italy.

Just three weeks later, Olga came to share her firsthand experience with the American students at the John Felice Rome Center on March 16th. Below is a transcript of her presentation made with the intention to share Olga’s story to as many people as possible. Changes have been made for clarity and brevity, but Olga’s sentence structure has been preserved.


Olga glances at her notes as she continues her speech. The dim, yellow lighting reflects the somber mood of the panel.

Olga Pyl begins by giving a short explanation on how and why the invasion of Ukraine by Russia began.

Olga: Many cities, in the beginning, [had] many problems with water, food, and other things. Today we assist [against the occupation], the invasion of Ukraine because he [Putin] explained… that he would like to save his people - Russian people who live in Donetsk and Luhansk because all of them who live [these regions] speak Russian. But also, they are Ukrainian.

This invasion is a big humanitarian crisis, because my personal experience - I go to Ukraine only for one month at the end of January for my personal problem. And I don’t believe that something happen like this. In this case, it was unexpected - the war.

When I arrived, the tension was very high. But we lived our life every day. Then, 24 February, I woke up with the call of my cousin, and she [said] that the invasion was beginning at 5 a.m. But I don’t believe her, I don’t expect that [this can happen]. I begin to look for the news, to have [reliable] information. And I see that that was the truth.

When I looked in the window, I saw [people stood in line] near the pharmacy. People stayed there to buy some medicine because they don’t know… what was expected tomorrow. And when we finished the day, it was finished all flour, water… We also have these sirens to prepare for the raid if they bombarded us. [The sirens went off] every day and every night twice a night. For that week, [nobody slept] in my small town. I live in Lviv.

Olga points out Lviv on a projected map of Ukraine.

Olga Pyl addresses a full lecture room of students, professors, and staff. The audience pays close attention to her speech. Photos courtesy of Simone Marcolongo.

Olga: In my city it never happened nothing… many people were [anxious]. Many people buy what they can buy. I enter in the shop and I saw that one person yell, “Now give me all you have.”

When people have the fear, and you don’t know if you can find something tomorrow or maybe another day… all the people was very worried. All the administration was closed… you can’t [do any] administrative work.

I also would like to go… help our army, like the volunteers. But in that case I had my sister and my neighbor, who had a five-year-old. She begin to cry and say, “Don’t go there.” And I need to, I decided to remain there and help to cross to the border.

To cross the border was very difficult because the gas was scarce. The gas finished in two days… Last chance we had was the train. And [we left] from Lviv but it was very difficult because there was really many people in the station. People sleep on the station, on the floor, maybe for three or four days to wait the train. In this case also people take their bags to take some… personal things.

"[The sirens went off] every day and every night twice a night. For that week, [nobody slept] in my small town."

I and my sister was fortunate in this case because we crossed in two hours the border. We found volunteers that… they bring us to the border and we crossed. And I never see so much people in my life because I [have] never really seen a war beginning… with the full mobilization of the country the men can’t leave the country, only the women and [people] with children. And I saw many women with children very small - one month, six months - and they can’t take the baby carriage. They take in arm and need to wait maybe three hours, maybe four, we don’t know.

[At the border], the volunteers to find some [welcome] to help us to continue our journey. Our journey continued for two days. After that, when we arrived Poland and we finished this situation, [we stayed] in Poland for one night.

In this case, I was [housed with] one family [that] was very kind to us. Imagine that you are in another country, one person say, “You need to sleep, you can [come to] my house.” You never see this person. It was a very new experience for me. “Are you hungry?” - they give me everything what I need. “Would you like to do the shower?” - anything.

This was a family with two children, one boy and one girl. And sat there one day, and the mother go to take the brother to school. She left me with her daughter [who had not met me before]. You don’t know what kind of person, you don’t know what I came to do. It was really… she really trust me [with her] daughter that I see first time in my life. They [were] very kind.

[They also] helped me to take a ticket for the bus to Italy… I also asked where to buy some food for the journey, and she buy it all for me, [from their] money. I never meet [this kind of a person]. But not only she do this things, all Pole people take the people home to stay with the family and small children.

He [Putin] destroyed all infrastructure in the country… He destroyed all roadways, all bridges, [it prevented] the person who cross the river. Because in Ukraine the clime is not very kind. We have maybe 0 [degrees Celsius], maybe under 0, depends on the day. But in winter we are very cold. And in this case people need to cross to escape the fear.

Also we are fortunate because many countries would like help us and they open their borders. Near… Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and they help us.

A map of Ukraine is projected behind Olga. She periodically points out her hometown, disputed territories, and invaded cities.

Many people prepared to go underground in the capital, Kyiv, many people living underground. In my city it is small and we don’t have [as many bombs], but in a big city like Malynsk, Odessa, the people are [afraid] there.I saw also there was the many small children staying underground for weeks, and can’t eat there.

[Any promise that] Putin made, he didn’t keep any promise that he said. In this case I am [proud] of my country because in this case we have cooperation for all people… we take our land for us. In this case, we all wait that the war finish quickly because many people die in the beginning and continue to die.

"[Nobody] expected that this thing happen… Every day you see that happens some war from another part of the world, but you don’t see [out the window]."

I hope, I would like to continue to do [good] for my people, to understand [the language]. Because when I arrived there was many small children and also many people that don’t speak English, they don’t speak Italian, they don’t understand what to do, how to move inside one country. They don’t know. In this case I hope to do some mediation for them to help them to understand what they need to do. I hope this whole thing finish quickly.

Also the desperation of Russian people is not good. Our president [Zelensky] ask all the people of Russia to go to the protest to the war. And some people who go out on the street and do some protest go into prison. They will be arrest. And they know it. It’s terrible also that the people of Russia live in terror, fear.

[Nobody] expected that this thing happen… Every day you see that happens some war from another part of the world, but you don’t see [out the window]. When you see this thing it’s very scary, because my nephew when he heard the siren, he said, “Oh, tank arrived.” And you don’t know what you need to do, you don’t know what to say to calm him in this case. And all people don’t know what they need to do.

I hope - because they beginning to [work on] mediation, and I hope it finished, but I don’t think so. Because the first two mediation don’t conclude [in peace].

Even with limited seating, many residents at the John Felice Rome Center came to hear Olga’s story.

Olga opens herself up for questions from staff and students at the meeting.

Student 1: What do you think that students, especially those living in Europe, can do to help?

Olga: All wars have some demonstration [in history]. In this case, it’s very dangerous go there. Also for me, I’m thinking that I arrive here with my sister and my nephew and I return to help because many people was dying. But in this case, I hope to help with the mediation for the people.

All what you can… only thing you can did is only to protest, only to protest. Because you can’t go there, you can’t go to take the army and go there to help us. Fortunately we have the men who stay there, but we need also the more mediation with all [sides]. Because the alliance like NATO is weakly. In this case, Putin beginning to do this war because if the NATO was strong, really strong in the Donetsk area I think this situation [would be different] and never happen, this war.

Professor: I noticed, you keep saying “he” for Putin… like “he did this,” “he did that.” It’s interesting, is that a really common point of view right now among Ukrainian people? To say Putin and not Russia?

Olga: We not have war with Russian people, only with the government in this case. Because also the Russian people don’t want a war. They know what happen now, also they don’t [have a very good economic situation].

The people want to keep the peace. And we all would like this but Putin, he imagine that more country taken, more power. This is his views in this case, but it is not [true]. He would like to take the part of Moldova, Poland… he never stop it. If he take the Ukraine, the next part would be Poland. In Poland, they know it. He never stop it…

He expected that he take Ukraine in two days. Also, I expected that he take Ukraine in two days, okay? We don’t believe, but after 2014 our army [was beginning to be] strong, and we have the spirit to combat, to fight and to win this war.

"People sleep on the station, on the floor, maybe for three or four days to wait [for] the train."

Director Todd Waller: Are there NGOs and international associations coming in with food and assistance, or is everything in Poland?

Olga: Yes, ah, inside the country no. Because to arrive to the border was very hard, really very hard. Because people stay there, some people [die there] because they have to wait four days. It’s impossible many people to return home, because the children can’t stay there for so long…

Inside is [an organization] but they are very small organization, is not so big like the Red Cross. [There is also] UNICEF to save the children. They help also for other people but not for all. They can’t. They don’t have the resources… because all money go to the army.

[Putin has some specific targets], like example the nuclear plants. He take wants the biggest in Europe, with six reactors. And I hope this does not happen, because this beginning the second Chernobyl. It’s dangerous not only for us, for Europe, the whole world, is the problem.

Librarian Anne Wittrick: Now that you’re in Italy how are you being looked after, your sister and her son? Is he at school?

Olga: I don’t know, it’s a very uncertain time because we didn’t expect for the document for my sister and neighbor to be refused. After we wait because without the document she can stay here for [three months without having to leave]. And after we need to wait to take the document for she and for children. Because the children with the emergency you need a permit from father to take the children and go away. But you don’t have the time [to grab documents], you go away.

All people have fear. Many people when they cross the border it’s really difficult in this case.

The staff at Dalla Bocca Del Lupo would like to reiterate our gratitude to Olga Pyl for sharing her story with us. Help by sharing this article with a friend or family member to keep the stories of Ukrainian refugees alive as the Russian invasion continues to unfold.

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