Friday, April 22, 2022

Mariia Dokhniak outside Ballon Community Centre last week

NOT yet 21, Mariia Dokhniak has been forced to flee her home not once but twice due to Russian hostilities. Mariia is one of 50 Ukrainians currently staying in Ballon Community Centre, where locals have eagerly offered help.

“I’m surprised by how lovely people are, how kind and eager they are to help,” she told the Nationalist last week.

Mariia was born in a small city in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. Aged just 12, she and her family’s lives changed forever in 2014, when the city was taken by Russian-backed forces. There was intense fighting and Mariia recalled trying to go to sleep with the sound of gunfire in the background. Months later, it led to her family escaping to Kharkiv, 50km from the Russian border.

That conflict left a lot of issues. Mariia hated loud sounds, had lost all her friends and was afraid to let people get close in case it happened again. “Friendship didn’t exist for me anymore. I stopped trusting people. All the people I know disappeared. They all went to different cities. That’s what I learned from that, but I recovered from it.”

In Kharkiv, she battled to catch up in school, due to disruption and poor schooling.

“The last time it happened, I learned I have to study and educate myself,” she said. “It’s not only about college, but my mind … try to understand how the world works.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Mariia was shocked but wasn’t surprised.

She stayed inside a flat for nine days with her parents Irina and Pavel and 15-year-old brother Ivan as Russian forces bombarded the city. There was no electricity or water for several days, but compared with some people she knew, Mariia said that she was fortunate. She could hear and see the flicker of explosions, but was thankfully spared the grim sights of war.

Others close to her were not so lucky. A friend’s mother had her leg amputated after a bomb exploded. A classmate’s friend was killed. Photos emerged of a local spot where she played as a youngster showing civilians lying dead on the ground. To date, it’s believed that around 300 civilians have died in the Kharkiv region.

In her final year of an international economic relations course, her university in Kharkiv has been badly damaged, but continues to offer some work online so students can graduate. However, Mariia had to make the difficult decision to leave Kharkiv and her family.

“I thought I have to do something after my graduation,” she said. “I understand I won’t be able to continue my studies there (after graduation) so I need to think about the future.”

She was determined to live her own life after what she had previously gone through.

Her family made the decision to stay behind, moving to the relative safety of Dnipro in central Ukraine. After a draining trip, which led her to Germany, Mariia decided to head to Ireland. A friend of a friend lived in Dublin and this put the idea in her head.

“After speaking to him, I watched some videos about Ireland and read some historical facts. I learned Ireland was something similar to Ukraine,” she said.

Mariia arrived in Ireland on 6 April and was sent to Ballon Community Centre. She had been there a week when ***The Nationalist*** spoke to her and she hoped to move on in the next few days. A cot bed in a community centre was “perfect” in comparison to some of the places she had been while getting here.

Mariia has quickly got used to Ballon, although the subtle differences in culture became apparent.

“It’s beautiful, it’s green, I like it,” she said. “People are very kind. When I’m out and go near someone, they say hi. I’m not shocked about that anymore.”

Mariia likes Ballon, but would prefer to move to Dublin to get work.

There is a pool of about 50 volunteers in Ballon who are sorting donations, assisting around the hall in any away they can and providing transport if necessary. Five huts were donated by Tom McDermott-Walshe of Steel Tech, which are being used to store donations. There is currently a need for men’s and teenage boys’ clothing.

There was a little concert held for the Ukrainians in the centre recently, while the refugees also performed some of their own music. The Ballon group visited Altamont Gardens for a walk last week, while the Easter Bunny was due to arrive  last weekend. Generally, a day in the community centre revolves around eating, sleeping, chatting and keeping in contact with family at home.

Ukrainians staying in Ballon on a recent visit to Altamont Gardens

Mariia has been doing her best with college work and with her excellent English is helping with translations for her compatriots. She was doing her best to be positive and not to be consumed by what is happening in Ukraine.

“I try not to check the news all the time. That way, I can continue my life and try to do something useful. I have my university studies and graduating this year, so I do homework and all that stuff. I am trying to stay focused and not be looking in the news all the time.”

She added: “There is no point in me being depressed, being stressed. I know how it feels when I am. It doesn’t help.”

Despite the uncertainty around her and at home, Mariia is firm about what the outcome of the Russian invasion will be: “I believe the war will finish soon. I believe Ukraine will win because there is no other way. I don’t how it happens, who will help or when, but it will happen.”

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