Gijón, May 6 – When Igor Pavlosky decided to flee Ukraine with his youngest children after the bombs started falling, his destination was clear: Spain.
Like thousands of other young Ukrainians, several of her daughters had spent annual holidays with host families in Spain since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.
Today, these foster families help provide a safe haven for these so-called “Children of Chernobyl” and their parents, away from the war in Ukraine.
Pavlosky, 46, says he only accepted the offer of help reluctantly and left Kyiv in late February because he “had to protect” his children.
He piled into his car with his four youngest and drove across Europe to Gijon in northern Spain, where his daughters vacationed every summer.
“It was very trying, I will remember it all my life,” he says of the multi-day road trip.
One of the girls, Anastasia, was already in Gijon, having moved there three years ago. So did his wife Olena and another daughter who were visiting Anastasia when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Pavlosky left behind his eldest son Xenia, 26, who was banned from leaving Ukraine, and two other daughters – Ana and Stanislava – who decided to stay with their boyfriends.
– ‘Strong relationship’ –
Her daughter Massa, 17, says she dreams of a Ukraine where she could “walk the streets without the bombs raining down, without being afraid of dying”.
His older sister Dasha, 19, says Russian soldiers “came and took over our houses, places where we used to play with our friends”.
It was easier for her and her siblings to adapt than her parents because they already spoke Spanish, she adds.
“We came on vacation here, we already imagined ourselves living here. Mum and dad don’t want to live here,” she said.
Massa notes that before the war started she could talk and play with her father, “But now he doesn’t say what he feels anymore.”
After the Chernobyl power plant explosion, dozens of charities in Spain began organizing annual respite holidays for young Ukrainians to give them a break from the lingering effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
“There is a very strong relationship with Ukrainians,” says Jorge Gonzalez, the head of the charity Expoaccion which runs a homestay program for Ukrainian children and hosted Stanislava in his home for years.
He says he loves Stanislava as much as if she were his daughter and urged the Pavloskys to come to Gijon as soon as the war broke out.
– ‘Welcome here’ –
Expoaccion provided clothes and food for the Pavlosky family, who live in an apartment temporarily lent to them.
Igor has found a job as a construction worker and the children are all in school.
Olena’s face lights up and Igor gives her a rare smile when they realize their son Xenia is calling from home.
The whole family gathers behind the small screen to catch a glimpse of it. They kiss each other and flash V for “victory” signs.
“Sometimes you wake up and want to believe it was all just a nightmare,” says Olena.
According to Spanish government figures, some 134,000 Ukrainians have moved to Spain since the Russian invasion, part of an exodus of nearly six million people.
In the southern port of Algeciras, 18-year-old Victoria Bielova shows her nine-month-old daughter how to clap. They fled Ukraine to the city a few weeks ago.
Bielova had been coming to Spain every year since she was six and said she received messages from all the host families in the country as soon as the bombs started raining down on Ukraine.
“They said ‘you are welcome here, come’,” she said.
– ‘Waiting for the end of the war’ –
She hesitated at first but left on March 15 with her daughter, leaving her husband behind.
After traveling by bus for three days, she settled down with the couple who hosted her during her last stay in Spain, Francisco Perez and Cecilia Valencia.
They set up a guest room for her and her daughter with diapers, a crib and toys and invited her to stay “as long as the war lasts,” Bielova said.
His sister is also staying with a former holiday homestay in Algeciras while her cousins are in Seville.
Bielova calls her husband Andry two or three times a day. She says she tries “not to think too much” about the war because her daughter “understands everything”.
She says she plans to return to Kyiv later this month if it’s calm there, following in the footsteps of her sister-in-law and nephew who have already returned to Ukraine from Spain.
But Perez, who takes Victoria and her daughter to the park every day, would like them to stay.
“I tell him to wait a bit longer until the end of the war,” he said.