What life is like for the Ukrainian families who fled
Photographs by Hailey Sadler
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN
Published February 10, 2023
Every day we see devastating images coming out of Ukraine, which has been fighting off Russia for nearly a year now.
But war is more than just the death and destruction on the front lines. There are ripple effects that aren’t always seen in the news.
What does it look like for the families who survived but had to flee their homes? How do they recover and start over in a new place? What are the longterm effects?
Photographer Hailey Sadler recently spent time in the country of Georgia, where many Ukrainians have sought refuge since the war began. A lot of them are from eastern Ukraine, where some of the worst fighting has been taking place.
“I wanted to show these families whose lives were kind of in this limbo of waiting, trying to rebuild home in some aspects — especially for the sake of their children — but also really wanting to return home as soon as possible,” Sadler said. “Some people I talked to were kind of checking every hour on their phones, just to see with their neighbors like: ‘Is our house still standing? Are we going to have something to come back to?’ Other people that I talked to were saying that ‘home is psychological for me. It’s a mental place that I go to because my physical home doesn’t exist anymore.’ ”
Sadler, with the help of local translator and producer Annie Davarshvii, documented families who were still wrestling with the traumatic experience.
“This feeling of emptiness will be with us for a lifetime,” said Vitaly Narikov, a resident of Mariupol, Ukraine, who came to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with his wife, Elena. “In our phones, we will always have those photos of our houses, now being destroyed. Photos of our favorite places, moments and things that don’t exist anymore. Before that, our everyday life and struggle, all our earnings were invested in the place we were living, in our houses. And now we have nothing. Nothing exists anymore. It’s just a hole.”
Yevgeniy Smirnov and his wife, Julia, escaped Mariupol in May and continue to share a single hotel room in Tbilisi with their adult daughter and four grandchildren. He told Sadler that their new space, while small, feels like home because “people are what make home.”
Sadler photographed families at three hotels along the same street in Tbilisi. There were many shared spaces, with bunk beds lining lobbies. She also spent time with a few families who had found apartments in the Georgian capital. But she was perhaps most touched by a refugee-run collective called the Ukrainian House in Tbilisi.
This space was initially intended to be a boarding house for factory workers, Sadler said, but it is now filled with Ukrainian families and funded by donations. The home has its own Instagram account, and its residents also create pottery and crafts and sell them to raise money.
“It really had such a feeling of a second home,” Sadler said. “They created a system of sharing meal preparation and cleaning the kitchen and rotating through groups of people who did that, and everyone ate together in the shared dining spaces.
“A lot of folks did not have relationships with one another before, but many were from the same incredibly hard-hit areas and so they bonded over their shared experience and their shared homes and have really turned into this beautiful kind of second family. All the kids know all the adults, the adults are parenting all the kids. It’s just really, really interesting and special and beautiful amidst the horrific, collective trauma that everyone experienced.”
More than 200 people have lived at the house since it first opened. There are currently 86 people there, with 21 families that include 26 children.
“We help each other here to bear the pain of our memories,” teenager Kate Timakina told Sadler in the fall.
Sadler was struck by how much the families supported one another and how they tried to make the most out of their new space — especially the children.
“Kids will always be kids, and they have this beautiful resilience to them,” she said. “But of course underneath that is the incredible trauma that they have undergone and that is continuing to impact them as they live in this state of insecurity and instability.”
She brought up one little boy, a 6-year-old named Miron, whose mother described how he used to draw pictures of their family and his friends. Now he draws pictures of war, of tanks, of fire, of different military equipment.
“He said he didn’t want to make friends here because he knew he would just have to leave them,” Sadler said. “And that’s a heavy thing to hear your baby say. That’s a hard thing to grapple with as a parent.”
He told his mother, Ganna Serdiuk, that he wanted a “normal life.”
“What baby says that?” Serdiuk said. “I try to take him to the park and to the zoo. But he cries. He remembers sometimes a toy or book from home. And he cries.”
Serdiuk and her family remain in Tbilisi, but some of the people who Sadler photographed have moved on.
Narikov and his wife have relocated to Canada.
“We are damaged for a lifetime,” he told Sadler. “All those terrible things no one saw, no one photographed and will remain untold, just stick in our minds. How the body parts were all over the city, and when a dog brought a man’s leg, it was just an ordinary thing to see. …
“It was shocking, of course, when the first bomb fell, when the first person died. Oh such bad luck, we thought. And then it became usual in our everyday life. Death was everywhere. We were sitting there, smoking cigarettes and calmly waiting for our turn.”
Timakina is now in Slovenia for her studies. Her mother and sister are still living in Tbilisi.
“I miss my native town and my house, but more than that I miss all my family being together under one roof for events like holidays, Christmas or birthdays,” Timakina told Sadler last year. “My cousin and I used to make videos of the events. That’s one of the things I made sure to bring with me. …
“Seeing those emotions and hearing those conversations is so sweet. That’s the saddest thing, my family being separated. But I don’t want to be depressed. The thought that helps me is that we are alive, and we are in a safe space. That helps me not be sad.”
For many of the families, there wasn’t a longterm plan for the future, Sadler said. It was more of a day-to-day feeling of survival.
“A good number of families were hoping to move elsewhere,” she said. “Some folks had a relative in another country and had decided it was time for them to move on and try to really re-establish a life elsewhere.
“But I would say the majority of the families that I spoke with were just waiting for the chance to go home, without really a firm time on when that could be. There’s definitely that heavy sense of just waiting and praying that it would be soon.”