Serhii’s Story: Escaping Mariupol through Russia and a New Start in Iceland

On March 30 I evacuated from Mariupol to Russia.

I was born back in the Soviet Union in the city of Zhdanov, which was later renamed Mariupol. In 1986, my parents got an apartment – now it’s just a burnt concrete box. And I lived there my whole life. Everything around me was familiar, of course. Now, when I see photos or videos of today’s Mariupol, or remember how it was in March – it feels very eerie and strange, not like the place I know.

The first explosions in our courtyard occurred on March 3; by March 7, everyone had already moved to the basements. After living in the basement, you grasp every opportunity to get out. And it doesn’t matter where. The feeling of desperation can’t be described in words – only someone who has experienced the same thing can understand it.

When there is constant shelling in the city, you develop a great indifference to death. You see the corpses lying everywhere, and you’re not as horrified as you were in the early days. People’s corpses are perceived as a detail of the landscape – that’s all. You no longer notice all the graves dug near the houses, either.

When Russian troops passed by my house in the direction of Azovstal plant, we suddenly found ourselves behind all the fighting. At that time, it was finally possible to leave the building, and one of our neighbors had a car. It was, of course, full of bullet holes, and the windows were blown out. But it was possible to leave the city, and as soon as the military allowed us to move, we left.

We drove into Russia. I was allowed to stay with distant relatives, whom I had not seen for a long time. We did not agree on politics with them: they absolutely did not believe me when I told them that Russian troops shot at our house. I wasn’t very welcome there. In the process of looking for a place to live, I came across mentions of Rubikus in the refugee chat groups and learned that they could help me leave for Europe.

Now I can’t exactly remember all the volunteers who helped me. Before crossing the border between Russia and Estonia in Narva, I deleted all my correspondence just in case, so as not to set anyone up: all Ukrainian refugees had their phones checked at the border, both at the entrance and at the exit. One volunteer I do remember is Rubikus volunteer Lilya – she was with me the whole time, virtually guiding my way at every point in the journey.

What remains of the apartment building where Sergei lived

I traveled first to St. Petersburg, where I stayed with a kind couple for a couple of days. They even gave me a tour of the sights of St. Petersburg. It was my first time there. I could tell they did everything out of charity and good will, and they showed me a lot of kindness. I’m very grateful to them for that. From St. Petersburg we went to Narva. The city of Narva is divided into two parts: the Russian part is called Ivangorod, and the Estonian part – Narva. And between them there is a pedestrian and automobile border and a customs office.

At the Estonian border, with the help of customs officials, we managed to arrange a bus to Tallinn. Lilya directed me to Hotel Zink, a hostel for refugees, which is right in the center of the Old Town. I stayed in Tallinn for two days while Lilya and the team at Rubikus made further travel arrangements for me. From Tallinn, I took a bus to Warsaw and spent the night in the Norwegian refugee center, and the next day I went to the airport, got on a plane and flew to Reykjavik. It was my first time flying. The volunteers explained everything to me about the airport, luggage, and everything else. Their help was always with me. I understood that I wasn’t abandoned; it was very nice to have people taking care of me.

“Why Iceland?” People often ask me that. The unemployment rate is the lowest here, and I realized that at least I would find some work. And it’s insanely beautiful here, the nature is so beautiful that fantasy movies can be filmed directly on location without computer graphics. Somewhere around here, as I was told by the locals, there are places where they filmed “Game of Thrones.”

The site Varenik (created by Rubikus) helped me in my choice. This site compares, in a fairly simple way, the EU countries that host Ukrainian refugees according to a number of criteria and helps you decide where to go.

The website Varenik – named after Ukrainian dumplings – helps refugees decide which countries in Europe to settle in.

In Reykjavik, the support for refugees here is very well organized. You go up to any policeman at the airport, show your Ukrainian passport, say you’re a refugee. If you arrive in the evening, they immediately arrange a bed for you, and the next day you get a transfer to the migration service, where you get a medical examination and a local tax number. This is quite an important document for Iceland, your registration in the Icelandic government system. Another big plus is that Ukrainian refugees in Iceland receive a work permit right away. I was given housing and meals in a dormitory at a local University. Great place – very beautiful, wonderful people.

Iceland is not a very big country, there is about 360,000 total population, so many jobs are in Reykjavik. I applied directly to an organization similar to the one I worked for in Mariupol. I described my situation and they invited me for an interview. They understood perfectly well that my English was pretty bad. I didn’t plan to leave Ukraine before the war, so I didn’t prepare by studying English. But they hired me anyway, and the locals helped me find an apartment here, and helped me get settled – I’ve been working for a little over a week now.

This story was original shared with Rubikus and is translated and reposted with permission. Serhii’s name has been changed for privacy.

You can help refugees like Serhii find their way. Contribute to our campaign to evacuate Ukrainians from Russia. An estimated 1.6 Million Ukrainians have been forced to evacuate to Russia from occupied territories.

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