How Spain is offering ‘children of Chernobyl’ refuge from Ukraine war

Following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, thousands of Ukrainian youths have spent summer holidays with Spanish families. Now, these host families are helping to provide a safe haven from the war in Ukraine to the so-called "children of Chernobyl" and their parents.

How Spain is offering 'children of Chernobyl' refuge from Ukraine war
Ukrainian refugee Victoria Bielova, 18 years old, poses with her 9-month daughter Vladyslava, in Algeciras, southern Spain. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

When Igor Pavlosky decided to flee Ukraine with his youngest children after bombs began falling, his destination was clear – Spain.

Like thousands of other Ukrainian youths, several of his daughters had spent yearly holidays with host families in Spain since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Now these host families are helping to provide a safe haven from the war in Ukraine for these so-called “children of Chernobyl” and their parents.

Pavlosky, 46, says he only reluctantly took up the offer of help and left Kyiv at the end of February because he “had to protect” his children.

He piled into his car with his four youngest and drove across Europe to Gijon, northern Spain, where his daughters had spent holidays every summer.

“It was very trying, I will remember it my entire life,” he says of the days-long road trip.

The Pavlosky family make a video call with their son Xenia, in Gijón, northern Spain. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

One of the daughters, Anastasia, was already in Gijón, having moved there three years ago. So was his wife Olena and another daughter who were visiting Anastasia when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Pavlosky left behind his oldest son Xenia, 26, who was banned from leaving Ukraine, as well as two other daughters — Ana and Stanislava — who decided to stay with their boyfriends.

‘Strong relationship’

His daughter Massa, 17, says she dreams of a Ukraine where she can “walk in the streets without bombs raining down, without being afraid of dying.”

Her older sister Dasha, 19, says Russian soldiers “came and took over our homes, the places where we played with our friends”.

It has been easier for her and her siblings to adapt than her parents because they already spoke Spanish, she adds.

“We came on holidays here, we already imagined ourselves living here. Mom and dad don’t want to live here,” she says.

Massa notes that before the war started she could talk and play with her dad, “But now he doesn’t say what he feels anymore.”

After the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant, dozens of charities in Spain began staging yearly respite holidays for Ukrainian youths to give them a break from the lingering effects of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

“There is a very strong relationship with the Ukrainians,” says Jorge González, the head of the Expoacción charity which runs a homestay programme for Ukrainian children and who hosted Stanislava at his home for years.

He says he loves Stanislava as much as if she was his daughter and urged the Pavloskys to come to Gijón as soon as the war broke out.

The Pavlosky family play volleyball at the Poniente beach in Gijón, northern Spain. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

‘Welcome here’

Expoacción has provided clothes and food the Pavlosky family, who are living in a flat that has been temporarily lent to them.

Igor has found a job as a construction worker and the children are all in school.

Olena’s face brightens and Igor gives a rare smile when they realise their son Xenia is calling from back home.

The entire family gathers behind the small screen to catch a glimpse of him. They blow kisses at each other and flash V for “victory” signs.

“Sometimes you wake up and you want to believe this was all a nightmare,” says Olena.

Some 134,000 Ukrainians have moved to Spain since Russia’s invasion, according to Spanish government figures, part of an exodus of nearly six million people.

In the southern port of Algeciras, Victoria Bielova, 18, is showing her nine-month-old daughter how to clap. They fled to the city from Ukraine a few weeks ago.

Bielova had been coming to Spain every year since she was six and she said she received messages from every host family in the country as soon as bombs began raining down on Ukraine.

“They said ‘you are welcome here, come’,” she says.

Ukrainian refugee Victoria Bielova, 18 years old, holds her 9-month daughter Vladyslava in the living room of her host family. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

‘Wait until war ends’

She hesitated at first but set off on March 15th with her daughter, leaving behind her husband.

After travelling by bus for three days she settled in with the couple who hosted her during her last homestay in Spain, Francisco Pérez and Cecilia Valencia.

They set up a guest room for her and her daughter with nappies, a crib and toys and invited her to stay “as long as the war lasts”, says Bielova.

Her sister is staying with a former holiday host family in Algeciras as well while her cousins are in Seville.

Bielova calls her husband Andry two or three times a day. She says she tries “not to think too much” about the war because her daughter “understands everything”.

She says she plans to return to Kyiv later this month if it is calm there, following in the footsteps of her sister-in-law and her nephew who have already returned to Ukraine from Spain.

But Pérez, who takes Victoria and her daughter to the park every day, would like them to stay.

“I tell her to wait a little longer until the war ends,” he says.

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Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

A Ukrainian grain shipment arrived in Spain on Monday after being shipped via the Baltic Sea to circumvent Russia’s blockade, imposed following the outbreak of war, a Spanish association said.

Ukrainian grain dodges Russian blockade to reach Spain via new route

The Finnish-flagged cargo ship, the Alppila, carrying 18,000 tonnes of grain for animal feed docked at A Coruña port in northwestern Spain early on Monday, the Agafac food manufacturers association said.

It said it was the first time such a route had been used for Ukrainian grain.

Agafac, which had placed the order, said the grain had been transported by lorry to the northwestern Polish port of Swinoujscie on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

It then called in at Brunsbuettel in northern Germany before heading for Spain.

This is “the first shipment of grain to be transported via a new sea route through the Baltic Sea to circumvent the Russian naval blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea that has been in place since the war began,” Agafac said.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for Ukraine’s agriculture ministry was unable to confirm whether or not it was the first such shipment of Ukrainian grain to travel via the Baltic Sea.

“We don’t have information about transportation specifically to Spain. We deliver to Romania, Poland. This is probably the logistics outside Ukraine,” he said.

When Russia invaded on February 24th, it imposed a naval blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that has choked off its grain exports, threatening a global food crisis.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the world’s top producer of sunflower oil and a major wheat exporter, but millions of tonnes of grain exports remain trapped due to the blockade.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine is currently exporting more than two million tonnes of grain a month via rail but that figure is far below what it was exporting before the war via its ports, notably Odessa.

The United Nations and certain countries like France and Turkey have been pushing for the opening of a “security corridor” in the Black Sea to allow Ukrainian exports to resume.

At the end of May, General Christopher Cavoli, the incoming head of the US European Command, said Germany’s railway company recently set up a “Berlin train lift” — a special train service to move Ukraine’s grain exports.

He said Poland was working on a simplified border crossing regime to ease the deliveries, and once out of Poland, the grain was taken to Germany’s northern ports to be shipped onwards.