– April 21 2022
Safe, but feeling worse
In this interview, Alina Bobko, a social worker from SOS Children's Villages in Ukraine, shares how war destroys lives and how it affects the mental health.
Alina Bobko is a social worker who works with young people from SOS Children's Villages in Ukraine. On the tenth day of the war, Alina was forced to flee her country. Although now safe, Alina, like many Ukrainian refugees, struggles with survivor’s guilt.
Alina, tell us how it all started?
On February 24 at 5 am, we woke up to explosions. My husband said it was just a dream and there was nothing to be scared of. Then the second explosion came and sirens sounded. We ran to the windows. We realized that something bad was going on, but still couldn’t believe it. We hoped it was just firecrackers somewhere close.
Vova, a young person from the SOS Children’s Village who had been staying with us, was in his apartment that night. I immediately called him. I told him to come to us right away.
How and where did your family spend the first days of the war?
We stayed at home in Brovary for two days. We realized that the situation was getting really scary. There were five of us: me, my husband, our twelve-year-old son, Vova and my four-year-old nephew.
We taped the windows and prepared a hiding place. We soon realized that this was not very safe, but neither was running to the nearest bomb shelter that wasn’t close to us.
On February 26, we decided to go to relatives outside the city and stay in their basement. There was no sense of security there either. Their home is not far from the Boryspil airport, so when there were explosions at the airport, we could hear it all.
Why did you decide to leave?
We didn’t plan to leave. But because of the explosions and the constant danger, we decided to take my son and nephew to safety. I saw that they were already having nightmares. While sleeping, they would shout and jump. My nephew developed a nervous tic.
It was such chaos. We found out that a train was leaving from Kyiv to western Ukraine. For us it didn’t matter where we would go; the most important thing was to go far away from what was happening. There were military checkpoints and it was already getting difficult to leave the place where we were. After three days, we left on a train to Uzhhorod (located in western Ukraine, at the border with Slovakia).
How difficult was it to leave Ukraine?
It is very difficult. First to Uzhhorod, we spent 17 hours on the train standing. My son slept leaning on my shoulder.
Our plan was to stay and wait in western Ukraine. Then we heard information from Kyiv to leave with children and go to Europe if you had any relatives there. The information said that it would be a difficult night. At that moment we decided to go further. It took us another 24 hours to get to my sister’s home [in Central Europe].
How do you feel now?
To be honest, emotionally I feel much worse than at home. Here I am without the man who could calm me down: my husband. I think I would be able to relax a little if he was here. My husband and Vova are now in a different region, but they still sleep in basements. Thinking of this has me fall to pieces.
On the second day I was already starting to feel a strong emotional burden. I feel guilt. I understand that I am safe here, that nobody is shooting here. I don’t need to run anywhere, I am in a warm place and we are cared of. Emotionally, I feel much worse here than when I was in Ukraine. My husband, Vova and my relatives are still there.
Do you need any help?
Yes, I need psychological help. I wouldn’t say no to this because I am also in constant contact with the young people [from SOS Children’s Villages]. I had a call today with some young people. Five of them are in a village in Kyiv region where a church was bombed. They are all fine.
Sometimes young people call me at night. Night is the time when you think more and start to feel emotional. I hear the fear and anxiety in their voices. I feel that after such calls I need professional supervision. I am a psychologist by education and I understand that I won’t be able to help young people if I don’t have a chance to also take care of my emotions.
I used to do charity work, take things to the needy and provide. Now in a foreign country, people help my family. It is a very strange feeling to be on the receiving side. But I, like millions of Ukrainians, believe that I will return home, rebuild our lives and reunite with my family.
Survivor’s guilt is a mental condition that develops in people who have lived through a traumatic life-threatening event which others didn’t survive. Survivor’s guilt is manifested differently. For some people, it is physical: nausea, digestive problems, loss of appetite or insomnia, while for others it is psychological: obsessions, apathy, panic attacks and more.
To help the millions of Ukrainians cope with their emotions, the colleagues from SOS Children’s Villages in Ukraine put together some tips for overcoming survivor's guilt:
- Allow yourself to be sad—you have every right to do so.
- Remember what led to where you are. An attention shift to external factors can help you get rid of the self-blame.
- Try to be useful—even abroad. For example, you can get involved in volunteering, talk with people from Ukraine and help morally or financially.
- Set new goals. They can be related to work, raising your child, self-help or helping others.
- Do not self-harm [consciously inflicting pain and harm to yourself], drown your pain in substances or stop eating.