A place full of contrasts
Without the stability and their homes, Gabčíkovo became a home to almost one thousand Ukrainians, over 300 of which are children. This is their story.
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The Humanitarian Center in Gabčíkovo is a very contrasting place. Freezing corridors and warm rooms; a constant silence broken by the echoing noise of closing doors. Smiling children run and play together, but their families are torn apart by the war. Initially a temporary solution; now a continued reality for those who have nowhere else to go.
Gabčíkovo is the largest accommodation centre for refugees and migrants in Slovakia. About one hour away by car from Bratislava, it is run by the Migration Office under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior.
Helping others: Yulia’s distraction
Yulia first arrived in Gabčíkovo with her 10-year-old son Artemy in the middle of March 2022, almost a year ago, leaving behind her husband and her routine, scared and uncertain about the future. Artemy was not happy to leave his home country and move abroad, but things got a bit better when they were joined by Yulia's mother.
"At first, he did not want to have friends here, because all he wanted was to go back to Ukraine. Everyone believed that we would go back very soon."
The three of them are trying to build a new life at the centre. A former psychologist, Yulia now works for the Slovak NGO Mareena, supported by UNICEF, as a community worker. She loves her job. "People can knock on my door anytime," she says, as supporting other people in need distracts her from her own situation.
Life in Gabčíkovo is good for her and her family now, she admits, but she misses her husband and her routine back from home. She plans to return to Ukraine as soon as possible: "I don't hope, I believe I will come back," she declares.
The children are still scared
Karine has been in Gabčíkovo for almost a year now. Originally from Odessa, she also arrived in Slovakia in March 2022, together with her children and sister.
"Before the war, Odessa was a happy place", she says, "with many tourists visiting." What she misses the most is the breeze of the sea and the smell of the salty air. She closes her eyes and breathes in as if she was back home.
Like Yulia, also Karine got a job in Gabčíkovo. A kindergarten teacher back home, she kept her role with Mareena at the humanitarian centre. She built a strong relationship with the children, and she treats them all like her own.
The kindergarten in Gabčíkovo seems like any other: children are divided by their age into classes, and they follow a daily routine full of playing, learning, and spending time together. But the war changed them. "The children are scared. When there is a loud or strange sound, they get very frightened." When that happens, she calms them down by reassuring them that they are safe and protected now.
Reality hits again during the drawing classes: "In Ukraine, the drawings of children were full of colors, rainbows, and happy things. Here, the children draw tanks and bombs in winter landscapes. Some of these are very dark."
A contrasting place indeed
"On the one hand, Gabčíkovo is convenient because refugees have everything here,” explains Katka, a social worker at the centre. “If they have any problems, they can sort them out here: they don't have to go anywhere; everything is in one place. On the other hand, it makes it more difficult for them to integrate.”
Katka has been working with Žaneta and Melinda at the centre since last summer. They see Gabčíkovo in different ways, but there is one thing they agree on: something that should have been only a temporary solution, has been a reality for a year now.
"Many don't want to integrate here because they think they will return home and that this is merely a temporary situation,” says Žaneta.
“The Ukrainians who wanted to start a new life in Slovakia have already left the centre and found new jobs and places to live, but for many who think mainly about going back as soon as possible, Gabčíkovo can be a sufficient solution,” adds Melinda.
"But it has been a year already,” she concludes.
I just want to take my dog on a trip
A completely different glimpse into everyday life in Gabčíkovo is offered by Marianna, a 15-year-old girl who fled Kramatorsk, close to the frontline in Eastern Ukraine, with her family eleven months ago.
She and her family did not plan to stay in Slovakia for long. This is the main reason why Marianna initially did not enroll in a Slovak school and preferred to follow online classes in the Ukrainian school system. When the situation did not improve, she decided to attend the local school regularly, but only to discover that enrollment was no longer possible as all the spots were taken.
Like many other teenagers, Marianna hates routines and rules, and finds the centre, which is full of them, monotonous. She misses her old life: her family, dog, school, and the swimming pool.
Yet, she tries to make “the absolute most” out of her situation. Marianna volunteers for Mareena, supporting other teenagers and children. "I love to help,” she says. “I love to play with the kids, and I want to make them and other people happy."
Through the activities offered by organizations in Gabčíkovo, she found some new hobbies and visited some interesting places, such as a horse barn nearby. Talented for arts, Marianna wants to become a painter, and she attends drawing classes in her free time. She also met some Slovak girls at a football tournament co-organized by UNICEF, the National Football Association, and Mareena, and she sometimes keeps in touch with them through WhatsApp.
What Marianna wishes most is peace. And she makes plans for the future. "I want the war to end," she says, "I wish to attend university and study art. And I want to take my dog on a trip."
The end of the war with a magic wand
Samuel and Anastasia, both 8 years old, like Gabčíkovo, especially when the volunteers come and play with them. Like many kids their age, they are not too fond of going to school or attending their Slovak language course, which is a must for all children until the age of 15.
While talking they are fooling around and laughing. A typical picture of two 8-year-olds. They became serious when they mentioned their home country. They both miss home and their dads. Anastasia also longs for grandpa and Ukraine, while Samuel misses his family and his pillow.
If they had a magic wand, they say, they both would wish for the end of the war. And a lot of candy.