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Romana Drach with her shirt that does not show Russia. J. C. Dominguez
'My first priority was to save my daughter's life'
Ukraine

'My first priority was to save my daughter's life'

Saturday, 24 February is the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Marbella is one of the places on the Costa del Sol with the highest number of Ukrainians

María Albarral

Friday, 23 February 2024, 16:37

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"I was clear that my priority was saving my daughter's life." With such a heartbreaking statement this Ukrainian refugee from Marbella, Olena Stepanenko, began to relate her experience to SUR.

Saturday, 24 February marks the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Marbella is one of the towns in Malaga province with the most Ukrainians registered there - to be exact, 4,516 are on the padrón (municipal register).

"It wasn't the bombing, it was the lack of medication available. My daughter, Yekateryna, has a disease requiring daily injections. I was in a panic and the same day that war broke out I drove to the Polish border and got on a plane to Marbella, where a friend had offered to help me," says Olena.

The early days for this small family were tough as they spoke no Spanish. Olena had to figure out how to get hold of her daughter's medication as soon as possible. The young girl started secondary school in Marbella where she understood nobody. Two years later she is now attending intensive classes in Spanish at the same school where she attends her main studies.

Wearing a white t-shirt with a world map drawn on it but with no Russia and the Ukrainian flag embroidered on it, Romana Drach, also a refugee from the war and now living in Marbella, arrived at her appointment with SUR.

"The world without Russia is a better world. Today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be another country," she says. This 30-year-old woman thought about joining the army when the invasion happened but she eventually decided to leave the country.

"The first thing that comes to mind is defending your people, but the truth is that having a four-year-old boy I couldn't leave him on his own. My husband went to the front and we caught a plane to Marbella," she says.

Mother and son reached the town shortly after the invasion. "My husband worked for a company in Ukraine that is partnered with a clinic in Marbella. Our only connection with the people here was through his work but now they are like family," states Romana, adding that "here I do not feel like an outsider, and I thank the people of Marbella again and again".

The young woman tells us about when her young son Leo arrived in Spain and was immediately enrolled at school. We can hear the emotion in her voice: "My boy cried because he couldn't understand his playmates. It was really sad because 10 March is his birthday and it caused us even more sadness due to the difficult situation. Imagine our surprise when, barely knowing us at all, a mother from the school organised a party for Leo full of children his age.....in those hard times when your husband, your family and friends are in the middle of a war, an act of such kindness is like a breath of fresh air."

Romana recounts one time when she went to pick up her son from school to discover that they had given him some new shoes. She tells us that this was the beginning of so many gifts and help that she has received from the people of Marbella.

"There is a teacher who always brings me fruit from his orchard, and every time they give me something I feel so moved, because I see the terrific sense of solidarity that exists here," she admits, her voice full of emotion.

Both Olena and Romana are now working in Marbella. Olena does child-minding and taking care of the elderly, while Romana works remotely on her PC.

Olena Stepanenko and her daughter with some of her compatriots.
Olena Stepanenko and her daughter with some of her compatriots. J. C. Dominguez

Help Ukraine

Oksana Knysh heads up the Ukrainian association, Maydan Málaga, in Marbella, with Mariana Bytsyura being one of its active members. Both have assisted these two families and many more Ukrainians with their arrival in Spain and they actively participate in all the charity activities organised. "I was already living in Marbella. When Russia invaded, I rushed to call my family. My sister said that the bombings wouldn't stop and people were heading to the banks to withdraw money. Total chaos," says Oksana. She continues: "When you are far away, you are terrified because you can't hug your family and you don't really know what is happening and so you suffer a terrible sense of anguish that has now lasted for two years."

Mariana echoes the same feelings. She too was living in Marbella before the conflict. "My family tells me that they cannot sleep for the nightly bombings and the constant sound of sirens. During the day they carry on working, the children go to school and life goes on, because they cannot let the country's economy collapse," she says.

Remedios Bocanegra, Fabiola Mora, Concha Montes and Skia Arbulu are just some of the names of volunteers who, together with Marbella town council, these Ukrainian women most want to thank for their involvement. "Marbella is a tremendously supportive town that has dedicated itself to us. We feel most fortunate", were their parting words.

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