They didn’t even have time to put away their toothbrushes during the escape. Four children found refuge near Ještěd

The Vrbeks, the owners of the farm under Ještěd, provided their empty cottage for people fleeing Ukraine before the war. Now Svetlana lives with them with four children who have already started attending a nearby school. The family escaped before the war with only backpacks, the inhabitants received clothes and games for children. “The initial solidarity was great. It will be more difficult for those who have not yet come,” says Alena Vrbková.

The village of Kotel is located only twenty minutes by car from Jested, the dominant element of Liberec. As for the administrative division, it belongs to the neighboring town of Osečná. Classic village houses, village square, pond. Two massive thousand-year-old lime trees stand on the hill, not far from the village square. And there is also the house of the couple Alena and Ivo Vrbková, who run a goat farm under Ještěd in the nearby town of Javorník. Until now, the quaint log cabin was only used for recreational purposes.

When war broke out in Ukraine, they said they would provide a cottage to house people who had been pushed home by the aggression of Russian troops. Ivo Vrbka’s parents live in the house, but there was still plenty of space. On Sunday morning, four days after the outbreak of war, the family responded to an announcement from the Liberec fire brigade who found out about the help volunteers in the area were offering. “We immediately offered accommodation for five people. And the next morning they called us if it was true that they had a mother with four children who had nowhere to live,” describes Alena Vrbková.

A day later, one of the volunteers brought Světlana and her four children – Maxim, Marián, Arthur and Sofia – to the cottage. The youngest Sofia is seven, the eldest Maxim is thirteen. Vrbka communicates with Světlana thanks to her knowledge of Russian, but Světlana also understands Czech because she worked in the Czech Republic before her children were born.

Alena Vrbková in front of the cottage, where she was staying with a Ukrainian family. | Photo: Michaela Endrstova

“On Monday I bought some staples, toothpaste. When we were sitting here in the evening, I was wondering if they had any toothbrushes. They didn’t have any, so we quickly went to buy these basic things,” says Vrbková.

The family from Ukraine hurriedly fled with the belongings they had managed to pack. At the same time, the Vrbks also tried to figure out how to get the children’s clothes. They posted an ad on Facebook and within hours they had a room full of things, from clothes to toys. “People’s solidarity was incredible,” says Vrbková. Today, thanks to the generosity of others, children can build Lego, they also have a soccer ball or a puzzle.

Leave, grandma insisted

Svetlana did not want to leave Ukraine at first. She lived in the village of Il’nytsya in western Ukraine, where there was no war, and she hoped that the situation in the east of the country would calm down and the invasion would would end soon. However, Světlana’s mother and her sister hid from the air raids in a cellar near kyiv and understood that the Russian attack would not end there.

“She urged me to leave with the children, because it seemed that the corridors would soon close, they would shoot close and no one could leave,” Svetlana explains, why she finally decided to run away. Finally, the mother and sister, who should arrive in the Czech Republic in the next few days, also changed their minds.

Svetlana with her children

Svetlana with her children Photo: Michaela Endrštová

Světlana took the bus to the Slovakian border with her children. The trip to Uzhhorod, which would normally take about two hours, took fifteen hours. Endless columns formed in front of the border. When the family finally reached Slovakia, they were thinking about how to get to Brno, from where one of the volunteers was to take them to Liberec. But she couldn’t find the free buses that Svetlana had heard were tying up the refugees.

“I found a taxi that wanted to carry 150 euros per person. Of course, I didn’t have that money on me,” Svetlana describes. Eventually, the mentioned volunteer called a taxi driver on the phone for a better price, and the family finally arrived in Brno to see him.

Adriana Černá, spokesperson for the non-profit organization People in Need, points out that similar stories of taxi drivers taking advantage of the situation have also been heard by her colleagues. “Various fraudulent offers and tricks appear very early in every crisis, whether it is war or natural disaster. There are always people who want to make money on others fortunately”, explains Cerna. Today, according to his information, the mass transport of refugees from the border to the registration centers is ensured at most border crossings.

Children learn to go to school by bus

After this experience, however, the family was met with nothing but kindness. In Kotla, Vrbek was already waiting for him, who housed the family and in the following days helped with special long-term visas or social assistance in need. At the same time, they managed to find a place for the children in a primary school in nearby Český Dub.

The cottage where Světlana now lives with her family.

The cottage where Světlana now lives with her family. | Photo: Michaela Endrstova

“We know the director there, and if something happens, I’m close there,” says Vrbková. The children are divided into classes according to their age, but in each class, according to Vrbková, there is another Ukrainian child who has lived in the Czech Republic for a long time. “The director has also set aside two teachers who are always on hand for the children, taking them to lunch, coming out of the changing rooms, etc. The teachers are also preparing teaching materials for the children. But I think the children are learning Czech quickly, they are like mushrooms,” says Vrbková.

As for school, Svetlana does not hide her pride. Ten-year-old Arthur allegedly found three friends, seven-year-old Sofia again got number one – but the teacher rated him by Ukrainian standards, that is, twelve, which is the number a Czech. Alena Vrbková now teaches children how to get to and from school by bus. “I wrote them their first and last name, the address where they live and the phone number on me,” says Vrbková. As we know in Ukraine, we use Cyrillic.

It is unclear if or when the family will return to Ukraine, where they had to leave animals in addition to their home. Světlana therefore wants to start working in the Czech Republic as soon as possible. The Vrbks are now planning to hire him in their goat farm. And they hope their story will inspire others to help refugees.

“The ambulance is amazing, people are taking care of the refugees at the border, offering clothes, accommodation. But the question is, what will happen to those who are still to come. “They won’t have not much more in all the price increases. So those who have just arrived will have a harder time,” adds Vrbková.

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