Life in limbo: Splintered Ukrainian family longs for reunion

A Ukrainian woman who fled the country with her children to escape Russia's invasion has endured several months apart from her husband, who was forced to stay behind. Natasha Biglenko and her son and daughter are among more than 8 million Ukrainians who got away from the fighting by going abroad, and are yet to return. She spoke with NHK about the anguish of a family torn apart by war.

Heading to the border

In March 2022, as Russian bombs rained down on parts of Ukraine, Natasha and her husband Oleksii grabbed their children, Platon, 9, and Maria, 5, and fled. They made their way from their home in Kherson, in the south, to the northwestern border with Poland. It was here the family had their first experience of being separated, when Oleksii was kept back at the crossing due to a law stopping men of combat age from leaving the country.

Natasha with her son, Platon, and daughter, Maria

In Poland, Natasha and the children lived with a relative's family in a small apartment in Rzeszow, about an hour's drive from the Ukrainian border. Eventually they moved on to Czechia, staying briefly with another relative. After a short trip back to western Ukraine to see Oleksii, Natasha then took the children all the way across the world – to Canada, a popular destination for Ukrainian evacuees.

Struggling to adjust

More than a year after Russia launched its invasion, the mother and her children are safe, but struggling to settle. Their home is Lacombe, a small town of around 13,000 people in Alberta, western Canada, where they initially stayed with relatives.

Lacombe, western Canada

"Sometimes I ask myself why we came to such a distant place," says Natasha, "but Canada is safe. Still, this is not the life we wished for. In Ukraine, an armed man approached me and said I had to decide whether to stay in Ukraine or leave. I had no choice but to leave."

The family's government-funded rent subsidies have run out, so to cover the 1,800 in Canadian dollars for the monthly lease payment, Natasha works part-time as a cook and uses free food from local food banks to save on living costs.

Psychological toll

The war and the prolonged displacement have taken a heavy toll on her family, particularly her daughter Maria, who struggles with the trauma of the sudden evacuation and an unfamiliar environment.

"If someone told me the war will end in half a year or a year and our family could live together again after that, then we could hang on," she says. "But of course, no one can say that. This situation is really tough for us."

Platon, who is now 10, adds: "We ended up separating from our father. Our country, people, and house ... everything changed. It has been a very tough year."

Natasha couldn't hold back her tears while reminiscing over family photos taken at Kherson before the war.

A shared moment

The family share a video call with Oleksii

On February 3, Platon and Maria were excited to celebrate Oleksii's birthday, but damage to Ukrainian infrastructure made it difficult to connect via video call. The connection improved later in the day, and they were finally able to sing a birthday song and read a letter Platon had written to his father. This brought a big smile to Oleksii's face and he asked Platon if he had written it himself. Proud of his accomplishment, Platon said yes. But he shyly added he had help from his mother. Oleksii praised his son's letter and his growth.

Oleksii was overjoyed to talk with his family on his birthday via video call.

It was a moment that highlighted the struggles of Ukrainian evacuees across the world. They rely on smartphones and other technology to stay connected, but the uncertainty of the conflict means it is all but impossible for them to plan for the future.