Olga Dziuba, 62, had imagined her retirement differently. The renowned urban architect from the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa had only recently retired and was looking forward to spending her final years in her beautiful house. Her daughter, a doctor, lived nearby with her husband and children, and the extended family often met for meals and events. Her youngest grandson, Gacha, was born prematurely and had underdeveloped lungs. As a result, he needed regular medical care, but he was making good progress. Life was good.

This peaceful life was shattered when war broke out in her homeland on February 24, 2022. Odessa, previously a Black Sea resort, suddenly became a war zone, hit by air strikes day and night.

Olga’s daughter, an anesthesiologist, knew her skills were essential in Ukraine to treat patients who needed surgery. Martial law was declared, forcing all men of fighting age to stay in the country, including the children’s father.

But with their hometown under regular bombardment, the family decided that it would be safest for Olga and the children to leave Ukraine for the duration of the war. With heavy hearts, they said goodbye, and the family was torn apart.

Arrival in Hungary

Olga and her grandchildren, Konstantin, now 16, and Gacha, now 6, arrived in Budapest in March 2022. Since the family did not speak Hungarian, their first priority was to first arrange housing, schooling for the children, and medical care for Gacha’s ongoing lung problems. Since the beginning of the war, the Hungarian government has had an open-door policy and has been a strong advocate for refugees from Ukraine to have the same access to healthcare as Hungarian citizens. Thanks to health information available in Ukrainian and Russian, Olga was able to understand how to access healthcare and Gacha was able to continue his treatment free of charge.

Olga found a tiny apartment. Unlike their spacious house in Odessa, the living room measures only 12 square meters, and every free inch is fully utilized. Gacha has an area where he keeps colorful fish in an aquarium, Olga has her bed and a closet, and Konstantin has his desk. Despite the cramped conditions, they know their situation is much better than that of their family who stayed in Ukraine.

Adapting to life as a refugee

Gacha attended a Hungarian kindergarten, quickly learned the language and soon made friends. He continues to receive good care for his lung problems. Because of his health problems, Gacha has had to work harder than his peers, although he has always been active in sports. This determination to succeed has pushed him forward and he now competes in swimming competitions. He is part of a swimming team and his coach is a mentor but also like a father to him. “Gacha gets everything he needs here in Hungary. He has healthcare, he goes to a very good school and he does sports. All of this is provided free of charge, which is very helpful for us,” explains Olga.

However, 16-year-old Konstantin found it difficult to adjust to life as a refugee. He was just 12 years old when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and he started learning online. Konstantin was already 14 when the war broke out and he decided to continue his schooling online, believing that the war would be short-lived. “The hardest thing is that I have no one to talk to except my grandmother,” the teenager explains. “To be honest, I have become quite an introverted person and I mostly stay at home. I find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know. I miss my old friends and family so much, but I don’t really want to go out, neither with other Ukrainians my age nor with Hungarians.”

Back in the parental role

Konstantin’s situation is also difficult for Olga. Although she misses her homeland, the naturally outgoing person is determined to make the best of her situation. Non-governmental organizations offer her the opportunity to socialize and attend courses that help her integrate socially. The apartment is decorated with colorful artwork that Olga makes in art classes, and she takes yoga classes, knowing that she needs human contact to keep her spirits up.

Once a week she meets with a psychologist who encourages her to talk about her problems and fears. “I raised my children and until 2 years ago I was still working,” says Olga. “Then everything changed overnight. Now I’m back in the role of mother, which is not easy because I feel even more responsible for the children than if I were their mother. My psychologist says that tears cleanse our soul, just as water cleanses our body. So sometimes I allow myself to cry and I feel better afterwards.”

Every news story brings worry, and in September 2023, her fears were realized when her son-in-law, the children’s father, was hit in a bombing raid. Fortunately, he survived his injuries and was sent for rehabilitation. While he recovered, Olga and the children traveled to Ukraine for five days to see her daughter and son-in-law.

Two years ago, they would never have imagined that their close family would still be torn apart by the ongoing war. Olga explains the challenges they face. “Sometimes I feel guilty for being here, in a world where the war in my country is just another newspaper story, while my children live in danger. But when I feel hopeless and sad, I remind myself that my daughter is a doctor saving lives and that it is my job to keep her children alive.”

According to current estimates, there are about 65,000 Ukrainian refugees in Hungary, of whom more than 41,000 have registered in protection programs. Since the beginning of the war, more than 4.3 million border crossings from Ukraine to Hungary have been registered.

The national health systems of many refugee-hosting countries are caring for large numbers of displaced people. To help countries cope, WHO is working with national authorities. To continue their support, WHO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Union (EU) hosted a launch event last October for a joint two-year project to improve access to health care for refugees and displaced people from Ukraine. With financial support of EUR 4 million from the EU4Health 2023 Action Programme, the three organizations are combining their technical expertise to continue supporting countries and strengthen their health systems.