When we spoke to Alya it was late in the evening in Serhiivka, and there was no power. She was using her phone for the video call, sitting in her apartment in the dark and wearing three pairs of thick socks in an attempt to keep warm. She started the call by apologizing that the power hadn’t come on that evening. They had been getting about three hours of power a day to try and heat themselves and recharge batteries, but the evening we spoke was a reminder of a how precarious and unpredictable this was.
We had been eager to connect with Alya ever since hearing about her through documentary photographer, Allan Mestel; how she acted as his guide for part of his journey when he came to Ukraine in March 2022 to photograph the refugee crisis at the Poland/Ukraine border and then later in July 2022 to document the devastation from Russia’s war on Ukraine. (Click here to read Allan’s story.)
Originally from Serhiivka, on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, Alya worked in the tourism industry in Ukraine and internationally before settling in Kharkiv in the northeast of the country.
Alya before the war in the centre of Kharkiv with the Blagoveshchensky Cathedral (The Annunciation Cathedral) shown in the background. This is the largest cathedral in Eastern Europe.
“I hoped that it was some kind of thunder…”
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it rocked the world. Alya describes the shock, disbelief and panic that broke out around her in Kharkiv almost immediately.
Living just 15km from the airport, Alya was woken at 6am by sounds that she tried to convince herself were just thunder. But, she says, “even in my sleep, I understood that it was something very different from thunder.” When her phone started to light up with calls and texts from friends all over the world, it started to hit home to her that something big was happening.
She says, “In the beginning, everybody was scared. Everybody was in panic.” She describes people running in the streets, abandoning cars, homes, and pets. People flooded to the station in the thousands to queue for a train to Germany or other parts of Europe.
Like everyone, Alya was afraid, but she felt torn. She says, “I wanted to run and I wanted to stay.” Her parents repeatedly encouraged her to return to her hometown because they felt that it was a much safer place to be. But Alya loved Kharkiv, the city had been so good to her for so long, and it felt like a betrayal to flee now that war had broken out.
Shown above: before February 24, 2022, top view of the Annunciation Cathedral, Zalopan district and center of Kharkiv. Lopan Bridge, Kupecheskiy Bridge, Bursatsky bridge over the river Lopan.
“She’s staying, she’s not running, so I’m staying as well.”
Alya chose to stay, but she was unsure what to do with herself in this new reality. Some supermarkets were still open at this point, with very limited stock, so people were queuing for hours to get some supplies. On one occasion, she saw a woman working there, helping people, with a baby on her hip, and that was the moment that clinched it for her: “I was thinking, wow… She was working, and looking after that baby, and helping others. That was when I decided not only to stay, but to help just like she was.”
Shown above: building of Kharkiv destroyed after Russian missile strikes.
“She wanted to talk. She wanted to tell her story to somebody.”
Her first opportunity to directly help someone came just a couple of days later when she met a woman in the street who was lost and distressed. Alya gave her directions, and then the woman started crying. Alya asked what was wrong, and she explained that she had buried her son the previous day in the vegetable garden of their house.
Alya had no idea how she could help this woman, but she was determined to try. She thought, “I’ll talk to her if she needs my help, if she’s okay with that.” And it became clear that that was what this woman needed – to talk to someone about her son, and about her pain.
He had been a volunteer, helping to get medication from the city centre for the elderly people in their village as the local pharmacy was no longer receiving any supplies. When the military convoy arrived in the city, he had been burned alive in the car. This lady and her husband had had to gather what remained of their son into a trash bag and carry it for 15km, only to bury him in their vegetable garden because they weren’t allowed in to the cemetery. She described how he had been so happy to be helping people. It had given him a sense of meaning in his life. He was 38 years old. Alya says, “We are praying for him, because this is the best we can do for him.”
After this, Alya began to help elderly people to get the medication they needed – either using her own savings to buy the pills, or contacting organizations that could help. And this kind of thing is happening across Ukraine, with ordinary citizens using their own money or doing whatever little they can to help each other. It all adds up to so much.
“At that moment, I realized that I would go.”
Serhiivka is a picturesque town located in southwestern Ukraine on the Black Sea coast around 45 miles southwest of the city of Odesa—and Alya’s hometown. Serhiivka’s beautiful beaches attracted many tourists before Russia’s war on Ukraine.
On July 1st, Alya’s new reality was once again shaken to the core when massive missile strikes hit her beloved hometown of Serhiivka. Russian forces launched at least two missiles towards Serhiivka. There were countless injuries and over 20 deaths. The first missile hit the Godji Hotel and the second hit the hardware store at the front of a residential buildings. The war had come to this relaxed tourist town in the most sudden and brutal way, and the locals were reeling from shock.
Alya still has family in Serhiivka, including an elderly grandmother and an aunt who had been injured in the strike. She also knew that Serhiivka didn’t have anywhere near the same volume of volunteers, or the level of organization and infrastructure that a huge city like Kharkiv could draw on at a time like this. She realized that Serhiivka was where she needed to be, and that was where she could be of most help. She took only the most important items with her, including clothes and things that she could give away to anyone who might need them.
Alya with her grandmother before the war.
“It’s just painful.”
Alya returned to a scene of destruction and loss, and it hurt deeply to see her home community torn apart in such a savage way. She says, “It hurts when you know that your teachers died.” She talks about young children who have lost one or both parents, and older siblings or friends stepping in to care for orphaned children. She also remembers the teenagers that she and Allan had visited in the hospital, who had been celebrating their graduation when the missile hit. “It’s just painful to see that life completely changed for them.”
Alya is caring for her grandmother, and also has her aunt with her in Serhiivka, while her uncle is fighting on the front lines. She has set up a non-profit organization, Faith and Mercy, using her own savings, to do what she can to support the community that remains in this small town.
Shown above: Serhiivka after the July 1 missile strikes, courtesy of Allan Mestel.
“The most urgent thing we need is anything that can heat us.”
Before the strikes, Serhiivka had been a population of about 5,000, but most have since left for other parts of Ukraine, or Europe. There are only about 1,000 people still remaining, including many children. Without the tourist industry, there are few jobs in Serhiivka now, and the town was also cut off when an important bridge was destroyed by the Russian military, so the primary way to get supplies in to Serhiivka is through Moldova.
Alya explains that it is only about 20km to a nearby city, where they would stand a better chance of getting the food and supplies they need, but hardly anyone can afford fuel for a car, and the bus has become prohibitively expensive. Even if people could travel to the city, they don’t have the money to buy things because so many have lost their jobs.
Following the missile strikes, and a recent hit on the power stations outside Odesa, the main issue in Serhiivka now is the lack of power. Their most urgent need is heat. Temperatures regularly fall below freezing, and the people of Serhiivka can’t be sure when they will next have power. It will sometimes come on for three hours a day, but sometimes not at all. Alya says this is the number one priority – anything that will help people to be warm, from simple blankets to heaters of any kind.
She also talked about the difference it would make to the teachers and children of Serhiivka if they could get just one or two Starlink boosters to boost the WiFi signal at the school. This would mean the teachers could teach from the classrooms and give the kids the education they need and deserve.
The other need is medical supplies, including simple equipment for the doctor so that he can do his job – such as a thermometer, and a headlight—to see in the dark when there is no power—for checking people’s throats. As winter sets in, these things are all the more important.
“Faith and Mercy”
Alya’s non-profit is called Faith and Mercy, and aims to raise funds and source supplies to support the small community left in Serhiivka that is suffering not only from the effects of the war on the whole country, but also from this brutal missile attack on civilian homes and recreational centers.
She explains that the name for the organization combines the strength and faith of the people of Serhiivka with the mercy and compassion shown by local volunteers and international communities to do what they can to help and support the Ukrainian people.
She says, “When we have so many surprises every day…we don’t know what to be prepared for. Honestly, the only thing I have – and many people have – is faith.” She describes her own faith in God, that he will guide and protect her community, and not abandon them.
Alya talks about how the war changed people, in both Kharkiv and Serhiivka, as they reached out to help each other in whatever ways they could, and her amazement at the response from individuals and organizations all around the world towards the Ukrainian people. She says, “I would never imagine that so many people from abroad would help us. They have never seen us before. They have never been here before. But when they heard that we were in need of help, they came here or they helped remotely. Wow, I cannot believe that.”
It is through her own volunteering that Alya has found “the sense in life” and she encourages all of us to take opportunities to do the same – wherever and however we can. She says, “To see people smile when you help them, it’ll make you feel better, it’ll make you feel warmer. And I think there is nothing better than that.”
“We don’t want to survive. We want to live.”
Alya exemplifies the phenomenal strength of spirit and resilience that has become almost synonymous with the Ukrainian people over the past year, in particular. She says, “We are strong and we will be stronger. I believe in this.”
This same positivity and optimism was reflected in the students that she and Allan visited in the hospital after the missile strike, and Alya talks about that feeling of happiness and gratitude that comes with being one of the “lucky” ones that is still alive, still here: “I realized that being alive is already enough to be happy, right? But,” she says, “we don’t just want to survive. We want to live.”
Over the course of her life so far, and during her career in tourism and hospitality, Alya has travelled to many parts of the world, and yet she finds herself back in the town she grew up in, doing what she can to love, serve and save what remains of that community, that family. Reflecting on this, she says, “I don’t think what I really need is traveling or a big career, I need home. I need home and to be with people who really love me.”
To help the people of Serhiivka, donate to Alya’s non-profit:
Faith and Mercy
67780, Ukraine, Odesa region, Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky district, Serhiivka town, Chornomorska str., 13, ap.30
Non-profit legal entity identification code: 44820015
Donations can be made through Paypal to: email@example.com.