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As Russia declared war, Yulia and her family fled Ukraine. A few ordinary Australians saved them.

As Yulia Konokhovych flung open the front door of her unassuming 1950s brick veneer in Melbourne’s south-east, I was met with her kind smile.

The mid-30s mother of two has her hair gathered into a neat plait. Her top eyelids are each lined with a simple black stroke. 

“Please, come in,” she implores, a melodic lilt to her accent. 

She thanks me for the continental pastries I’ve brought and ushers me into the living room, before disappearing into the kitchen. 

Yulia's warmth stands starkly against the sparseness of the space: Two small couches face each other upon the naked floorboards in an otherwise empty room. A single lamp sits on the mantel above the wall-mounted gas heater, impossibly tasked with warming the old bones of the house. 

Sweet buns cut into thick wodges await on the little dining table nearby. 

“Please sit,” she beckons, reappearing with cups brimming with black tea atop saucers and carefully folded serviettes. 

Yulia, her husband Mike Kyrylovych, and their two sons - aged five and four - are refugees from Ukraine

They have only been in Australia for one month. And yesterday, after weeks of living with a family who generously took them in, they moved here, to a rented home of their own.  

“My English maybe not so good,” says Yulia apologetically, “But I’ll tell you.”

“This is our story.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sends a warning to the world. Article continues after video. 


Video via Mamamia.

Just five months ago, Yulia sat in a cafe with Mike and their sons in the western Ukraine city, Lutsk. It was a Sunday, and she remembers their smiles and laughter, and that of those around them too. 

“I had seen President Biden on the TV the day before warning that Russia will be at war with Ukraine. But no one believed it. For us it was a joke. It couldn’t be,” Yulia tells Mamamia.

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Their lives were comfortable in Ukraine. Yulia and Mike owned three properties and a business importing European cars into the country. She was the business’ accountant. 

Happier times in Ukraine. Image: Supplied. 

On that weekend, they ate pizza, and she and Mike looked at furniture online. Over the past seven years, they had been building their ‘dream home’. Finally, it was almost ready. The construction had finished, and new furniture for most rooms had been purchased. Now they just had to choose the curtains and sofa. 

“The plan was to move in May, it was very happy for us.”

But four days later - in the very early hours of February 24 - Yulia and her family were awoken by the almighty blast of a missile attack. Frightened, she plucked her crying boys from their bed, and into her bedroom with her husband - where there were no windows. 

That night, Russia attacked every major city in Ukraine. 

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At sunrise, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made the declaration: Russia was at war with Ukraine.

“I was really shocked. I couldn’t speak. I was so upset and my children asked me, 'Mum, why do you cry?'. I don’t understand what to tell them,” says Yulia, her mascara now black streams. 

“Sorry, this is very hard,” she pauses. Yulia takes a sip of tea before recounting those first 24 hours: the fumbled explanations about war to her sons, the sounds of explosions, and the relentless bombing of Lutsk Airport close-by.

It was also during that period that Mike was called to the Polish border to sort out an urgent customs issue with an employee. And then the couple decided: He would stay in Poland for now - Yulia was terrified of him being taken into the army; she would go with the children to the family holiday home - where her parents live - in a village.

“I took only documents, whatever cash I could find at home, the children, and I drove us.”

She convinced her sister Raya to meet her there too, with her two children. 

There, the nine of them squished into the two rooms of the tiny home, as the news played on the TV constantly. 

Yulia cried a lot - “I was very, very afraid”. That fear intensified when she saw footage of Russian soldiers at Chernobyl. 

Yulia’s mother turned to her and said, “You have to go abroad. We don’t know what Russia will do.”

“I didn’t want to go because everything that we have is in Ukraine. Our whole lives.” 

Yulia thought - hoped - that maybe the war would end in 10 days, or a few weeks - “That maybe, everything will be okay."

Yulia's sons in Ukraine. Image: Supplied. 

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But on March 10, tired of the cramped living conditions, Raya returned to Lutsk. The next day, Russia heightened its ruthless bombing campaign on the city. Distressed and terrified, Raya called Yulia. 

They decided it was time to leave Ukraine. 

Aside from the documents and cash she had already taken, Yulia quickly packed some books and toys for her boys. Her only clothes were what she was wearing; the same cream turtleneck knitted jumper, black pants and sneakers that she wears as we speak today.

“It might sound stupid that I took toys. But in that situation, you don’t think about yourself,” she tells.

Yulia then drove her sister and four children to the Polish border, 200 kilometres away. But the line was so long, it took 10 hours to cross.

On the other side, they found a large venue for Ukrainian refugees to sleep, but Yulia couldn’t take it; the crying - hoards of women and children crying for their homeland, and life left behind. They slept in the car instead. 

The next day they found a hotel. The owner - “a very kind woman” - helped them, reducing the price and allowing them to eat in the hotel restaurant any time, without charge. 

But two weeks after being in Poland, Raya told Yulia that she had to return to Ukraine; she needed to be closer to her husband who had been called into the Ukrainian army.

“I was crying, and I said you don’t know what will happen. But she told me, ‘I’m not so strong, and I can’t be away from my husband'.” Yulia wipes her tears with the crumpled serviette she holds tightly.

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Yulia and Raya's parents had also refused to leave the village - and “their motherland”.

“My mother and father are pensioners, and in Ukraine, pensioners don’t live well, but we helped them. My father has a garden and looks after bees for honey, and grows tomatoes. It is his life. They can’t understand another life in another country,” she sobs.

Meanwhile, by the time Yulia made it to Poland, Mike had gone on to Germany - where his mother lives. He sent for Yulia and their children. It had been more than a month when they reunited.

“We hugged. We hugged our children,” she says through more tears, continuing, “And we understand that we need to start our life again.”

“With zero.”

Then Yulia connected with Sarah.

*****

As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, Melbourne woman Sarah Bendetsky, 36, leapt into action. 

A writer, journalist and community activist, Sarah is the founder of Souper Kitchen, providing free, home-style, kosher meals to all those in need in Melbourne - many of whom are Holocaust survivors and vulnerable Russian-speaking immigrants.

She’s also the force behind Souper Bistro, a social enterprise Eastern European café where all profits raised go directly to supporting Souper Kitchen. 

Sarah Bendetsky. Image: Supplied.  

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“Souper is always helping vulnerable people. It’s the heart of the organisation, and of us, ourselves migrants of the Former Soviet Union,” Sarah tells Mamamia.

Sarah was born in Moscow and migrated to Australia in 2008. Her husband, Avi, is Ukrainian, and they have two children. 

“When we saw that the Australian Government was issuing humanitarian visas to Ukrainians, we decided that we will work with whoever does work in this space, because we had food - and food is the beginning.”

Sarah had also fostered her own many connections in the community.

So, she got to work - at a grassroots level. 

She established the Soft Landing Project, and with two other Melbourne women, Alina Zamel-Well and Inna Mitelman, facilitated the assistance of Ukrainian displaced people. The project offers immigration advice and financial support for visas and flights to Australia, temporary accommodation on their arrival, employment, school, and anything else they might need.

Sarah with Inna Mitelman (left) and Alina Zamel-Well (right). Image: Supplied/Mamamia. 

The Facebook group 'Допомога українцям / Помощь Украинцам / Help Displaced Ukrainians Australia' acts as their central hub for information - and now has more than 8,000 members. 

A look through recent posts shows Australian-Ukrainians asking for sightings of loved ones with whom they’ve lost touch in Ukraine, call-outs for furniture and clothing, or answers to simple questions by new refugees, like if Melbourne tap water is drinkable.

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A religious Jewish woman deeply entrenched in her community, Sarah is inspired by her faith, and those who’ve come before her. Those, like, Avram and Masha Zeleznikov, post-war Jewish immigrants, and the owners of the iconic St Kilda café, Scheherazade. Serving more than Eastern European Jewish fare from the late-1950s until 2008, the Acland Street institution was a haven of comfort and support, and a cultural touchstone for Holocaust refugees rebuilding their lives in a new land.

“They did so much for the community,” says Sarah, who previously met and interviewed the Zeleznikovs.

She also reflects on her own family: Her great-grandparents had an underground synagogue in their home during Soviet times (where free religious practice was strictly forbidden - and punishment was dire). 

“We always welcomed people in our home.”

While Sarah is Russian-born, one set of her grandparents were Ukrainian - not an uncommon story, and another layer that has made this war so difficult to understand for so many Ukrainian and Russian people who often see the countries as siblings and their identities deeply intertwined.

“It's important to remember that we're all people and we have to support each other through a crisis. Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? None of us do. But if we have capacity to help today, that's what we have to do,” says Sarah.

Indeed, since the inception of the Soft Landing Project, Sarah estimates they have provided more general support to thousands of Ukrainian displaced people, and helped over 40 families evacuate Ukraine and re-settle in Australia.Volunteers of The Soft Landing Project. Image: Supplied/Mamamia. 

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Yulia’s family was one of them.

Sarah first learned about them from her brother, a rabbi and scholar in Israel. Yulia was one of his online students, and reached out to him for help after the war began. He connected her with Sarah.

Meanwhile, Melbourne man Marc Fookes, 84, had read about the Soft Landing Project in the pages of The Australian Jewish News and was eager to help the cause. He immediately contacted Sarah.

“People are being killed so unnecessarily. I wanted to rescue Ukrainians if I could,” Marc tells Mamamia. He shares about his own Polish-born father, who arrived in Australia one year before World War Two began. “He had a big heart” - and assisted many Holocaust refugees.

“Many of his family were either killed or they escaped from concentration camps and came here. My parents did a lot to help them.”

And albeit modest, Marc has done a lot to help Yulia’s family - paying for all their flights to get them from Europe to Australia, and now, their bond and first month’s rent.

But that was just the beginning of their relationship.

Once they arrived, Marc was keen to meet Yulia. 

“The first thing I got was a huge hug from her. Yulia said, 'Thank you for saving our lives’,” reflects Marc. 

“Now she calls me ‘father’!” - and on cue, Yulia calls Marc on the other phone line as we speak.

“It really pulls at my heartstrings. Now, my family has expanded which is a lovely thing to happen. I’m warm inside from all of this. And the kids are lovely,” Marc adds with a hearty chuckle.

“I wish more people would help. I’m concerned about those who can afford to help, but don’t. We're talking about people's lives here.”

*****

When Yulia arrived in Australia she was struck by the friendliness and generosity of Marc, the family who took them in and gave them temporary accommodation, and "so many" others. 

“The Australian people are very, very kind. So many have quietly helped us. We are so grateful,” she effuses.

“One lady gave us dinner. I was shocked. I don’t know her, but she knew about us and she came to the door with dinner for us,” says Yulia, her words tightening.  

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There was also the neighbour who saw Yulia rush out of the front door with the children on her way to kindergarten one wet morning - without rain jackets or an umbrella. She left some for her later.

“My children love going to kindergarten here too. In Ukraine, it’s very rigid, but here, they enjoy and want to be there.” 

There have been many challenges too: Navigating the visa process and Centrelink, language barriers, and finding a house to rent without a rental history or references, are just some.

But Yulia's fierce determination flickers between her tears. She is eager to improve her English and keen to work a few days a week - even though the high price of childcare currently makes it unfeasible for the family. 

Yulia's family by the Yarra River. Image: Supplied. 

Because soon, Yulia will have another family member to care for too - her 17-year-old nephew. She promised her sister she would take him in, to avoid him being forced into the army.  

“Every day you have to love your family and hug your kids - that’s the most important thing above all. Maybe we forget this sometimes, but the war teaches me, you have to appreciate them, food, everything. And thank God. Appreciate your life.”

But they still face their own trauma too. 

“Today, one son still sleeps with me, from the stress and anxiety. He always reaches out for my hand and asks, ‘Mama are you here?’.”

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Her tears are interrupted by a car that pulls up in the driveway. The front door opens, and her face lights up as Mike returns from his new job with a window manufacturer. 

He is a tall man with a broad smile. We shake hands, and they briefly converse in Russian, her voice now lighter. 

Yulia translates the good news: the second-hand Toyota in their driveway is now their own to keep. They look into each other's eyes and laugh together. The room is warmer. 

“I will not forget the first time we saw the sea here,” she resumes her conversation with me.

Yulia's son's by Melbourne's bay. Image: Supplied. 

“We hugged and really cried with our children. Our soul is free and can rest. And we understand, maybe our future will be in Melbourne?

“Maybe everything will be okay?”

Donations can be made towards The Soft Landing Project via direct bank transfer to: Jewish Russian Community Soup Kitchen, BSB: 033-034, Account number: 773838; via Paypal at [email protected] (using a note 'Ukrainian Support'); or via GoFundMe (which takes a percentage of proceeds).

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram.