Since Russia’s invasion began, dozens of Ukraine’s 7.5 million children have been killed and thousands of others have left in search of safety. Among those thousands is 5-year-old Valeriia from Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown in central Ukraine. Her image—a smiling child, literally supported by her fellow Ukrainians—appears on one of this issue’s covers.
If you met Valeriia, you might think she’s shy, her mother Taisiia told TIME, but don’t be fooled; at home, she commands attention. She loves the same things as many little girls—her stuffed bunny; her Elsa doll from Cold Heart (which English speakers know as Frozen); and her pink backpack, which she had to leave behind as she fled her country. Valeriia also has big dreams: in particular, starting her first year of school on Sept. 1.
Now, it’s hard to say when and where Valeriia will be able to do so. On March 9, mother and daughter fled to Poland; for safety, they asked that TIME use only their first names. In an interview, Taisiia explained her decision to leave home to keep her child safe. “I love everything about her,” she said. “She is my sunshine, my joy.”
We didn’t realize there would be a war.
We woke up early in the morning of Feb. 24 to learn the occupying army had started bombing our military bases. I thought about my daughter, Valeriia; for her safety, I knew we had to go. We left Ukraine before we were bombarded, so we had a chance. We can say God blessed us. But even though Valeriia is with me now, my husband and son stayed in Ukraine; we talk every day.
It was very hard to leave Ukraine, very hard. But everyone wants to take care of their children, so a lot of people were trying to get out. The lines for buses and trains stretched 3 km [1.9 miles]. The people, most of them women and children, were packed together in almost no space. We had to stand for 18 hours on the train to Lviv.
It’s a terrible thing to see. Before, when you came to our cities, everything was beautiful, quiet, and calm. And now there is chaos, fear, danger. [pullquote]Every mother is afraid for her child. — Taisiia[/pullquote]
The [Russians] still haven’t come to our city. Our people from Kryvyi Rih have fought them off. But they are closer and closer. I follow the news, and I can see them approaching. In the media, Russia says they aren’t at war in Ukraine. But the war is real. People are dying for real. I have so many friends in Kharkiv who are in the shelters. They couldn’t even get out with their children.
And here I am, with my sister, my nephew, and my mother in Poland, in a hotel near Warsaw. They take care of us: they give us food; we have a place to sleep. When we crossed the border, volunteers helped people with small children. It was well organized. They had hot food and drinks, and they tried to cheer the children with candy. Even in this difficult situation, it was a warm reception. I cannot find the words to express how grateful I am to everyone who has helped; I’m shocked in a good way.
Read More: The Mothers Returning to Ukraine to Rescue Their Children
The most important thing is the kids are secure. Emotionally, we are a little better now. Some stress has gone—almost—but there is always more, because we left our family. My daughter is calmer; before, she was anxious, a scared child.
I believe this horror will all be over very soon. All Ukrainians—women and children—will come back home, and everything will be fine.
For now, we will try to be useful for Poland, for the Polish people; we don’t want to abuse their hospitality. And maybe, as we were helped, we can help other Ukrainians too.
—As told to Tara Law, with translation by Artem Iurchenko
To learn more about how you can help the people of Ukraine, visit time.com/help-ukraine.
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