War in Ukraine: “I will never forget the first air-raid siren”

Three weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Antonina Kolpovska and her family fled their homeland and sought refuge in Denmark. A year on, she reflects on how much her life has changed.

We had a good life before the war. My husband and I lived together in Dnipro with our three daughters and had just finished renovating an apartment we were going to move into. We had good jobs, too. I was a programme officer in the USAID DOBRE programme, where I helped to develop local communities in the Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv regions. My eldest daughter was meant to graduate in 2022. It was something she’d always dreamed of doing, so along with her classmates’ parents, we were planning an unforgettable party for them. But the war changed everything.

I’ll never forget 24 February. It should have been a happy day. My middle daughter was meant to be part of a gymnastics performance, while my youngest daughter’s kindergarten was planning a day celebrating mothers and grandmothers. We all had a lot of plans and things to do. We’d been warned that Russia would invade, but like many Ukrainians, we couldn’t believe it when it actually happened.

The first thing I did was pack some essential belongings and documents. We went to my sister-in-law’s house because it had a basement, which we thought would be safer than our seventh-floor apartment. But I was uncertain about what to do next or how to protect my children. My husband and I started volunteering, bringing food, medicine and other essential items to the soldiers and defence forces.

Three days later, we heard the first air-raid siren. I will never forget how I felt when I heard it. It was total chaos. People were panicking. Children were crying. Nobody knew what to do or where to go. They were running out of their homes with their children and pets. I was far away from my children at the time and my only thought was: if the rockets start falling now, how will I get to them?

My hometown is near the regions where the fighting broke out: Donetsk, Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. We lived in fear because we never knew where a rocket might land. They often strike residential buildings, including in my hometown, so I feared for my own life, as well as of my children, relatives and friends. It was very scary, and I didn’t know how to protect my children.

Leaving Ukraine was a difficult decision. We had everything we needed there – our home, our parents, our jobs – and didn’t know what was awaiting us in another country. Initially, we moved to western Ukraine. But the incessant sirens were stressful and because it was so crowded it was impossible to rent an apartment. We had to live in a hotel, which couldn’t last for long, so after 10 days we decided to move on.

Then some close friends persuaded us to move to Denmark. They had already been living in Copenhagen for a year and pushed us to join them. We moved to Denmark on 17 March 2022. Our friends came to meet us and showed us where to stay. We lived in a hotel for four months, which wasn’t easy.

Finding a job in Denmark was hard, too. I wanted to find work in my field and sent out more than 50 cover letters and CVs. But after seven months, I’d had no luck, so I decided to look for an internship. I discovered that networking is a crucial part of finding a job in Denmark.

Fortunately, I’d made friends with a woman who works at IMS (International Media Support). She’s a very kind person who goes out of her way to help others, so she asked about internships at IMS on my behalf – and they offered me a two-month internship. I was amazed and thought that, at the very least, the experience would look good on my CV when I applied for other jobs.

After one month, a position opened in the Eastern Europe and Global Response department – and I got it. What seemed impossible turned out to be achievable. You just need to believe in yourself and keep moving towards your goal. If it doesn’t work out, don’t give up, but try to move on.