Vera Varyga, a woman living with HIV, Board Member of “Positive Women” in Ukraine.
The Day That I Will Never Forget
A couple of weeks before the war felt very worrisome for me, because analyzing the external situation I could clearly see that there was real threat of RF military forces invasion. But my psyche was not ready to accept it, and I hoped that something would stop this calamity. Despite everything we’ve prepared 5 “alarm backpacks” for all family members, including our dog Zhoozhah.
February 24 is the day that I will never forget. Not because it will become part of the world’s history, but because the news that the WAR began, not the one that started in 2014, but a full-scale warfare, turned my inner world upside down. It is the moment when you clearly understand that a lot of fear and pain await you, and it is a no return point, something you cannot undo, because globally nothing depends on you.
Why Am I in the Netherlands?
From the first days of war my husband began the conversation of leaving the country and taking our youngest son Yakov. We also have elder son Danil who is 19 years old. He didn’t serve in the army and he is not prepared for military service, not psychologically, not physically, but he is obliged to stay in the home country. At first, I did not want to think about leaving. I didn’t want separation in the family at such difficult times. In the following days everyone had to adjust to new circumstances: to continue work, look for a new job, do volunteer work or juggle all mentioned above. I noticed my evident inefficiency, my psyche reacted to the sirens and explosions with freeze and flight reactions, I continued to pool my family into shelters or read news threads. I could not work and be useful to my community.
My friends from different countries invited me to move to their places and finally I set up my mind to go to Sylvia de Rugama Prado in the Netherlands, to stay with her family. Sylvia is not just my friend, she is like a sister and a colleague to me, she has one big kind heart, as well as her husband Bert. In 2014 Sylvia together with AFEW helped us to develop a network of support for women living with HIV in Kiev. Right upon my arrival to the Netherlands, thanks for the support of Sylvia and AFEW International, I was able to continue working to help women living with HIV in Ukraine as well as to help immigrants. Today my son and I live in a small town in the central part of the Netherlands. We are safe. I am constantly in touch with my husband and my eldest son, we support each other. The war has separated us, and we share responsibilities over our children. It was our common but difficult decision.
My recommendations on crossing the border with Poland at Shegini checkpoint
What do you need to take with you?
I do not recommend travelling by your own car or taking a lot of stuff with you. It is better to take a train or a bus from Lvov or other cities. Walking passage to cross the border took us 12 hours, of which we were walking for 3 hours, the rest of the time we spent standing in a huge crowd of hundreds of people and made just one step in 10 minutes. If you are in the middle of the crowd, you can’t get out. If you step aside, you can’t return to your place. Children were crying all around, an ambulance came to pick someone up, then it got dark and very cold. My son and I had just one backpack each containing necessary documents, medications, and one change of clothes. We also took our dog with us, which we put in another small backpack. Having such little luggage on us gave us advantage versus people with large trunks, which made it difficult for them to move, I particularly sympathized with women who carried little babies in their hands.
I recommend taking several sandwiches and water bottles for each family member. On our way to Poland we met volunteers just once, they gave us tea and food. From the moment of approaching the border and joining the crowd of people we spent 9 hours without food or water.
As soon as you cross the border with Poland, you meet local volunteers. They will warm you and give you food. Then you will need to wait for a bus (one bus is not able to take everyone) that will take you to the town of Przemyśl, to a train station. Volunteers are also working at the station, but not all of them can speak Ukrainian or Russian. Try to inquire about the route to your destination. Keep in mind that the further you get from Poland, the less volunteers you meet who can understand you without translation. If Poland is your final destination, then everything is ok. If you have a lot of time until your train or bus, then they will invite you to wait in a camp. It is possible to get a Polish SIM-card in the street in front of the train station. You will need to stand in a small queue, but in the end you will have connection with the outer world.
Yasha and me got lucky. Our train to Germany was to depart in 40 minutes. The passage was free of charge with our passports. We got sitting seats, but that night we were warm and could sleep a little bit. Train station in Berlin was very big, and it was difficult for us to find a Ukrainian volunteer, but we finally found them on the first floor. Volunteers also disseminated free telephone cards, but the number was scarce and we didn’t get any. I got Wi-Fi connection, but the coverage wasn’t universal. Therefore, I recommend to set up your translation app to work offline in advance. We received a ticket with 4 stop overs to reach our final destination in the Netherlands. It was a challenging quest, without speaking the language and without any usual means of communication, but we made it gracefully.
In my backpack I had a supply of ARV treatment for myself. At the border nobody asked me about these pills.
We are in the process of getting official registration in the arrival country and will soon receive the status of “temporal protection” and a BSN registration number, that gives right to open an account in the local bank, receive social aid, medical/social services and enroll children in educational establishments. I will be able to see a doctor and get a recipe for ARV therapy or additional diagnostics, if necessary.
Here in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, there is no stigma in regard to PLHIV, unless you stigmatize yourself. Everyone tries to help, shares resources. For us, the Ukrainians, it is important to accept it with gratitude, to respect the laws of this country, to be tolerant to everyone, to study procedures and peculiarities of this country and people.
I am going to help HIV-positive people
Now, as never before, it is important to receive honest and timely information in order to be prepared, to survive and to win. Today I am happy to be this kind of source of information for HIV-positive people in Ukraine and in the Netherlands, to share the recourses that I find or that I acquire from my own experience. In the first place, it concerns ARV treatment, psychological support, and other resources about registration, humanitarian aid, work, contact information in the Netherlands.
If you are HIV-positive and you arrived in the Netherlands, or you need help in Ukraine, you can always contact me. My contacts are as follow: