2023 Newsfeed

Starting again: The story of two Ukrainian refugees in Canberra

Whether closely or from afar, we’ve all been a part of the war in Ukraine. It is an event of such magnitude that it has permeated our daily lives more than any in modern history. The war has now been raging for over a year, continuing to affect us all – whether that be at the petrol pump, or for our taken-for-granted ideal of national security.

And yet, we have no idea. Our version of Utopia is almost 15,000 km away from the warzone. We can’t begin to imagine what the Ukrainian people are going through.

Flag of Ukraine on a flagpole blowing in the wind
Flag of Ukraine

Yustyna and Yaryna Yablonska are two women that know all too well the devastation of war. The two sisters are now Ukrainian refugees living in Canberra and have graciously agreed to share their story with us. Most importantly though (and a point often neglected) they exemplify human spirit.

Both sisters show that no matter what life throws at you, there is always light somewhere. There is always a way forward.

Yustyna and Yaryna holding Australian and Ukrainian flags and smiling
Yustyna and Yaryna Yablonska
Q: Thank you both so much for speaking with me today. Could you start by explaining what your life was like back in Ukraine before the war.

Yustyna: Back in Lviv, before the war, we [Yustyna and her husband] had a routine. Every day was the same. But now we understand that it was a really good life. I was working as a dental assistant and hygienist, working to become a dentist. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we started the day with yoga at 7:30, and after that we worked.

Every day, we worked from like 9 am until 8 pm. It was a really long day. Then we did some homework with our son and went to bed. We would meet with Yaryna and her family like every second weekend or so.

Yaryna: I worked a lot, probably 8 to 10 hours a day as a pediatric and general dentist. It was really my passion, and I miss my job. My patients are still writing to me, calling me every day, asking when I will come back. We have a joke that it would be easier for them to come to Australia!

My kids attended school and childcare. My husband had a business in Ukraine. So, we had a very interesting routine, but now I understand that we really had the life. I had even planned to open my own clinic. But God had another plan. He knows better, what we need, what’s best for us. We really miss Ukraine, our parents, our friends. But thank God we are here in a safe place and our kids have an opportunity to improve themselves.

Yustyna and Yaryna siting on their couch and smiling
Happiness in the face of adversity
Q: What were your expectations moving to Australia?

Yustyna: At first when our aunty called us and asked if we wanted to come to Australia, and said she could help us, Yaryna called me and said maybe we could try? So, I was like maybe, but I didn’t realise it was going to be such a long time. I thought maybe after two months we could come back. A lot of our friends said don’t worry, the war will finish in two or three weeks.

Yaryna: We only came with one suitcase per family. We just took things that were necessary. We didn’t realise it could be for such a long time. When we came, in our mind, Australia was something in a dream. Because for Ukrainian people, it’s so far away, and it costs a lot of money. It’s also very difficult to get a visa. When we arrive, I was like, I am in Australia, my dream has come true. But at the same time, it wasn’t a dream, because we just wanted the war to finish.

In Ukraine, we always said that Australia was like upside-down [laughs]. When we arrived in Sydney it was rainy, it was sunny in Ukraine. Everything is opposite. Even the direction of water in the sink is opposite to Ukraine. Turning on a light is opposite. Everything is opposite!

Q: You live in a beautiful house now in Canberra, but where did you live when you initially got to Australia?

Yustyna: We lived with our second cousin. She and her family, especially our aunty, were helpful. They organised everything for us. They tried to make our mood better. They organised even small things, took us to Sydney for five days, organised excursions, it was reallly helpful.

Yaryna: We didn’t have time to think about bad things. It was really great.

A bowl of beetroot soup (borscht) with sour cream on top
They tell me they want to cook me borscht next time I see them, a traditional beetroot soup
Q: Was there anything you didn’t expect about Australia that was really good?

Yustyna: We are really happy with school. For me, school is very exciting and enjoyable for kids, not like in Ukraine. In Ukraine, teachers and schools are very strict. At first, we thought it was a waste of time because they don’t study anything, but now we recognise it’s an interesting way of learning. In Ukraine,, they had a lot of homework. They had to study up to five hours at home as well. I think Australians spend more time for health, for sport, for interests.

Yaryna: For kids as well. A lot of parents, they spend a lot of time with their kids. In Ukraine we used to work so late, we didn’t have enough time with our kids. Even in the few hours before bed, we’d just organise everything for the next day. I am really happy that I can read a book with my son before he goes to bed.

Another thing is the amazing parks, and the different sports you can spend time playing. You can have a barbecue, have a picnic. We had that in Ukraine too. But everything costs money. You want to park your car, you should pay. You want to enter the park, you pay. Even for a table. We were so surprised it was all free. We were like, “are you sure?” So every weekend, we go somewhere and just enjoy.

Yustyna and Yaryna sitting at their kitchen table.
Chatting in Ukrainian, so I have no idea what they’re saying.
Q: I guess that there’s still that longing for home though. How do you deal with those emotion of that?

Yustyna: We don’t know when we will have an opportunity to visit Ukraine. We’ve started a lot of things in Australia. We’ve started to get more confident. Our English is improving a bit [laughs]. The things that sort of upset us are the things that remind us of Ukraine.

Q: So, you said you thought you would only be here for a short time. When did you realise it was going to be longer, and how did you feel about that?

Yustyna: It’s a really funny story, because we had just arrived, and our family understood the war wasn’t going to finish soon. So, they tried to help us find a house. Maybe two months after, they told us they found one, and asked us if we were sure if we wanted to stay in Australia. Because, if we wanted to, we needed to sign a one-year contract. It was a big shock for us. I said to Yaryna, “I’m not sure, I like everything, but I want to go home!” We said to them, can we have a night to think about it. We couldn’t sleep for a whole night. In the morning, our mum said to us, “maybe you should try.”. So, we made the decision, and we moved into this house in July.

Yaryna: Even at that stage, we didn’t realise. But day after day, Australia showed us advantages. Every day, we found new advantages. Because at first, all the things were strange for us – something new, something unusual. Even with our new jobs. When we came first day to our new workplace, I was very shocked. They would ask us something, and I wouldn’t know what they’d wanted. The language barrier was hard.

But our workmates are perfect, they help a lot. Not just our boss, but all the hygienists, the assistants, it’s a great atmosphere. You feel like someone really cares about you, really can support you.

Q: I know this is probably a tough question, but when the war does eventually end, whether that be in a year or in ten years, would you want to move back to Ukraine permanently? Or will you live in Australia?

Yustyna: That’s a really hard question, the hardest. Every day, we ask ourselves the same question, and we ask our kids the question. Last time, my son said he wanted to go back to Ukraine. I asked him “why do you want to go back to Ukraine?” He said, “I miss my grandfather.” He was very close to him.

Yaryna: We have our temporary visas for three years, and we have two years left. That is why we need to think of whether we want to stay in Australia. We need to think about another permanent visa. It’s a bit hard because of our qualifications. Australia really needs other qualifications, but we need to requalify and organise our documents. I think maybe if we start doing this, we’ll feel like we want to stay here.

We need to think of what would be better for our family, our kids. Australia is easier in some ways; the government provides a lot of support for example.

Q: What kinds of things do you do here that remind you of home?

Yaryna: We try to bring our culture to our relatives, and even to our workmates. We organised a lunch at our boss’s place. He invited all of our workmates to his house, and we cooked some Ukrainian food. It was a really nice time, Ukrainian music, Ukrainian food, we enjoyed it.

Every time when we have a traditional celebration like Christmas, we sing Christmas carols at our house, and we invite all of our Australian relatives and cook for them. Every time, we try to keep our traditions, and I like that our kids are proud to be Ukrainians. When someone asks my five-year-old daughter, what song do you want to sing at school or do what do you want to talk about in your speech, she tells them about Ukraine because she loves Ukraine.

Yustyna: Even in our job, sometimes our workmates ask us to tell them about Ukraine. They ask us how to say words, and they try to repeat. It’s really fun. One of the doctors even has Duolingo, and he’s trying to learn Ukrainian!

Assorted Ukrainian food arranged on a table
A Ukrainian lunch for the workplace
Q: Last question. You’ve talked about the support you’ve gotten at work, but what about the support from the Australian community?

Yustyna: A few weeks ago, a patient asked me, “where is your strong accent from?” I told them I had just arrived from Ukraine. I feel like people want to cry, and they want to prey for Ukraine. Australians really support us. Our neighbour, when we moved into this house, came over and said she was so proud to have neighbours from Ukraine, said if we needed anything like furniture to let her know.

Yaryna: Even strangers. We went fishing, and a stranger came up to us and asked us about fish. After that he asked us where we were from, and we said we were from Ukraine. He knew so much about Ukraine, and I just saw in his eyes support and even tears. So, even strangers support us and worry about us. It’s really good.

Ben: Thank you both again for speaking with me today. It has been an absolute pleasure. You are both so strong and positive, and you inspire us all.

Photos by Ben Signor