From fleeing Ukraine to inspiring change: one mother’s story of resilience

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

February 23, 2022, was a wonderful day in Kyiv. The sun and frost made everything sparkle. I rolled my baby boy’s stroller down the street to Mariinsky Park. He had just turned nine months old, and we decided to try the playground for the first time. I put him on the swings, and he seemed excited and happy. My heart was filled with such a deep appreciation for being a mother to this little man and watching him experience things for the first time. We returned home; I was singing some Ukrainian nursery rhymes and told Itan that tomorrow we would come back and swing again. 

If you are a parent, you may remember that feeling of going to sleep when you have a baby, and you are just exhausted from the day: from breastfeeding, playing, and doing hundreds of chores. It’s a good kind of exhaustion, but still, you sleep like the dead.

On the night of February 24, 2022, I was in such a deep sleep I didn’t hear my friend from the National Police of Ukraine calling me through the night. I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the sound of explosions. I looked at my phone, and there were dozens of missed calls and only two words: “It started.”

The full-scale invasion by Russia had begun in Ukraine. My body started to shake – not from fear, but from rage. I was looking around my beloved apartment, where I’d created a microcosm of care and beauty for my son and myself – my library, fresh flowers, paintings by my artist friends, Itan’s toys – and thinking, ‘No one can ever force me to leave my home.’ Then suddenly I saw him, my sleeping son. My heart heated with love, and my eyes filled with tears. I had only a few minutes to decide what to do, but the choice was obvious. We would take only the most essential things in a backpack: documents, water, snacks, and some clothes, and we would leave.

I spent 30 hours on the road, in traffic, checking online maps to find out what routes were not under fire. But I did not feel a second of hesitation, pettiness, or even sadness. I was repeating a mantra: My home is where my baby has a safe place to grow into who he is. My work is to be his role model. Being Ukrainian is a superpower. And repeat.

From the very first minute, when I realized that we were more or less in a place where the sound of sirens wasn’t that loud and I could breastfeed Itan (thank God I didn’t lose my milk), I called my colleagues. The team at 100% LIFE, where I am honoured to serve as CEO, is like a family; everyone not only cared how the staff was doing but also about the safety of our clients, almost 300,000 patients with different types of diseases, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. 

For the last 20 years, we have been the biggest HIV service provider in Ukraine, with 25 regional offices. But in one day, on the 24th, we transformed into a humanitarian foundation. Immediate humanitarian, medical, and social support was provided to those in need, and unfortunately, in that same day, the list of vulnerable groups expanded endlessly. Almost everyone in Ukraine was internally displaced, became a refugee abroad, lost their housing and means of existence, or lost their loved ones. The team at 100% LIFE was working 24/7 without any days off. Since the war began, we have provided almost $75 million in humanitarian aid to 1 million people: food, medication, body armour, social services, electrical generators, vehicles, water filters, clothes…. The list goes on and on. 

But the most important thing is that when talking to my team, I have never heard fear, hesitation, or pity. We find purpose in doing, even when everything breaks apart. 

I’ve travelled to seven different countries; I do not remember a single day when I have woken up and not scrolled the news and called my family and colleagues back home. Is everyone alive? Is everyone safe? Unfortunately, the answer has not always been yes. The pain from the losses I’ve experienced burns from the inside and makes me a kind of phoenix who dies from this internal fire and is reborn every single day. 

One of the most painful experiences was when Russian troops occupied the Kyiv region. Because I’ve been working in the area of women’s rights, health, and safety for the last 10 years, I received countless calls from colleagues on the ground: “Nastya, help us. What should we do? There are raped women, there are raped children, there are girls covered in blood, and they can’t speak….” 

It was such a massive challenge for everyone – for the social and health workers, police, and juvenile services – as the cities and towns were still occupied, but the survivors needed help immediately, at that exact moment. I didn’t know what to do; I was calling all around the world to anyone I could reach and offering any help I could provide, but it wasn’t enough, and it will never be. That’s when I had the most profound insight and internal transformation I have ever experienced in my whole life. 

This story will be read by many women all around the world. Many of you affected by the war will feel the same; maybe you’ll put your hand to your heart while reading this. 

So here is what I’ve learned. There is no less or more grief. Pain in the heart hurts the same for war survivors, for those who have survived sex crimes, and for those who lost their loved ones. What really matters is how we transform this pain into action – how it motivates us to do better, be there, stand together, be creative, love stronger, and laugh through tears. As flowers grow through the cracks in the concrete, we regenerate and transform the grief into something full of life, even though this pain will always have a place in our hearts. 

The moment I felt that I was not powerless and embraced this pain, similar-minded people started to appear in my life. Together, we’ve created the Radiate Life Foundation, aiming to assist women in restoring their lives. 

Today, my goal is to unite with a sisterhood of almost 18 million women who need humanitarian aid and provide them with skills like how to use a fishing rod to catch food for themselves and their dependents, how to become economically independent, and how to become a leader of their community even if the trauma is ongoing. Most importantly, I want them to feel they are not alone.

We unite the best service providers from local initiatives and civil society. The most effective things we can do are support the army to win on the battlefield, donate to sustainable recovery projects, listen to personal stories, and stand strong together. 

Since that sunny day on February 23, 2022, Itan and I have been to many swings in many countries. But I know that one day we will go to the playground back home, in Kyiv.