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The town of Banská Štiavnica lies in central Slovakia. The ancient mining town with a population of roughly 10,000 once made its fortunes from the precious metals found in the hills that surround it. Today, it relies on tourism and recreation.
As the war in Ukraine continues unabated, those seeking to escape the violence have fled across borders into neighbor countries, including Slovakia. And now around 150 refugees from Ukraine now reside in Banská Štiavnica. Their roads to safety are not always straight lines.
Photographer Ismail Ferdous, a special correspondent for Blind, spent time in Banská Štiavnica documenting the lives and stories of some of the Ukrainian refugees, and how they are coming to call Slovakia home.
Tatyana, her two daughters Mariya and Anya, her son Ivan, her husband Sergii and her parents Ivan and Natalya have all come to Banská Štiavnica after fleeing the war in Ukraine. Before the war, they all lived around Kharkiv.
Tatyana, her husband, and children spent the first night of the invasion huddled in a bomb shelter. But Tatyana’s husband rapidly thought that they could not live under these circumstances, so they went to Tatyana’s parents house, outside of the city. As the bombing continued, and the knowledge that Russian soldiers were closing in, they decided to leave the city all together, but her parents decided to stay.
They made their way to Lviv and stayed in a dormitory there for a week, as they thought about what they would do next. But when the airport in Lviv was bombed, they realized that they needed to move again. While they thought about staying in Ukraine, there was no guarantee that any place would be safe.
They also knew that their savings would not last as long in any of the more expensive countries in the West like France, Italy or Spain. So the decision was made to stay in a country close to Ukraine so that if necessary, they could go back.
They looked at the options of Poland, Slovakia, or Romania. Then one day, while still in Lviv, Tatyana read an article that said that Slovakia was the safest of the countries that bordered Ukraine, and so the decision was made to head there.
So, using their car, they drove for 6 hours from Lviv to Kosice, Slovakia. While before that drive would have been difficult to do in a car because of differences in the law and driving across borders, because of the war, that was thankfully simpler. “There is some difference between a Ukrainian driver license and an international one”, tells Tatyana. “But for now, it’s possible to go abroad with a Ukrainian license.”
Tatyana’s parents took a train from Kharkiv to the Ukrainian border down from Uzhorod, a transit hub where it is possible to get out of Ukraine to the west. There they took a bus to the Slovakian border, and then on to Kosice, where they were reunited with Tatyana and her family.
Together they all made their way to Banská Štiavnica.
Though she and her family are all safe today, the psychological effects of the War in Ukraine reach into Slovakia, far from the front lines. It all weighs heavily on Tatyana’s mind, though she is reluctant to show it to her children and refuses to cry in front of them. She tries not to think of the past, and what was.
“Because at one point, we believe in our army, and that everything will be okay”, says Tatyana. “Ukraine will be a strong country. After all, the world supports us. But sometimes, in one day, you feel totally devastated.”
Tatyana was reluctant to tell her own story at first because she feels it is not nearly as bad as those of others, and she does not want to draw attention away from those stories. She recounts that when they were leaving Kharkiv, at first, they were afraid, but they gathered what they could and left. It was because they knew they would head away from the fighting and towards a more normal life that they found it easy to do so fast.
When Tatyana speaks to her friends who are still in Ukraine, they tell her horrible stories about the events happening back in the country. She hears of bombs destroying the houses of friends and neighbors, and the devastation that is ongoing. It all works to weigh her down knowing what is going on in Ukraine while she and her family are far from the fighting.
There are those who reach out to help those like Tatyana and her family.
In Banská Štiavnica, Tatyana and her family first found themselves living in the Grand Matej Hotel, before they were able to move from the hotel into housing. They were aided by Martin Macharik, a member of the town’s parliament and an NGO leader, who works to help those who come to town to integrate fully with life in Banská Štiavnica.
Macharik and his volunteer staff work to find both for the refugee families, as well as help the children attend school, give language lessons in Slovak and English, hold events to bring the local community together to meet the Ukrainian refugees, and give tours of the city to teach about its history so those arriving feel like they know where they are now living.
As Macharik and his staff also find housing for the refugees in town, they also help them settle in by helping to find furniture and other household goods to make the usually empty apartments feel like a home to those who will be staying there. Some of these apartments have also been donated by the owners to help house the refugee families.
None of this can erase all the pain and stress that are in the minds of the refugees, no matter how their own journeys unfolded, regardless of the duration of their expatriation. All of them have their own experiences, their own pain, and their own stories. But the kindness of those in Banská Štiavnica goes a long way to ease as many of the pressures as possible. And in doing that, and listening to the stories of those who share theirs, Macharik and his volunteers and the rest of the people in town are really working to bring everyone together fully in Banská Štiavnica.