Two years ago Julia Volok was shocked to experience an angry reception from fellow Ukrainians as she fled home from Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the soon-to-be global coronavirus pandemic.
The buses carrying the Chinese-language student and her fellow evacuees through Ukraine on their way to quarantine were pelted with projectiles as if they were, she said, “enemies of the people”.
Now that experience has paled into near-insignificance after Russia invaded her homeland, forcing Volok to once again flee – this time with her mother – on a 2,400 km journey across Europe.
Six trains and a bus carried her on a four-day journey from being a web and app designer from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine to living as a refugee in Aachen on the westernmost edge of Germany.
Volok told Reuters how two weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Russia refers to as a “special military operation,” her family finally decided they couldn’t risk staying in the city.
“On March 11 around 6 a.m, my mom got to my room and said that we have some rockets in our city,” she said in a video call.
“I saw we are really in danger, so we decided to go immediately from our city. So maybe in a few hours we packed all our stuff. Just we had a few tiny suitcases and we moved out.”
Volok waited an agonizingly long nine hours at a packed Dnipro railway station, fearing it too could come under attack, before finally boarding a train west to Lviv, and onwards to the Polish border.
She described sharing seats with other scared passengers and feeling powerless and vulnerable. But in Germany a warm reception awaited her and Ukrainians from even harder-hit cities such as Kharkiv.
“I feel 100% better because I start to sleep well because there are no sirens,” she said. “And I don’t need to worry about will I wake up tomorrow or not.”
(Production: Natasa Bansagi)