I don’t want to be just a face from a screen: Stories of three fathers separated from their children by war

"My family plans to return. Because there is no right to leave a country for a father who wants to see his children, wants them to remain Ukrainians and wants his family not to fall apart. I've seen many good families fall apart since 2022 simply because they were separated. I don't want that to happen to my family," says Oleksii Erinchak, the founder of the "Sens" bookstore in Kyiv.

The full-scale war forced many parents in Ukraine to make tough decisions. Hundreds of thousands of mothers left their homes and everything they owned behind and moved to different countries to keep their children safe. Almost as many fathers had to stay in Ukraine without their families and the chance to see their wives and children daily because of the ban on travel abroad for conscripted men under martial law.

Three fathers who have lived hundreds of kilometers from their children since the full-scale invasion began agreed to share their stories with "Texty": Oleksii, who will soon reunite with his family; Ihor, who is unsure if his son will ever return to Ukraine; and Hlib, who hasn’t seen or spoken to his son for two and a half years. These three different life stories share one thing — father's love.

"I broke the law to see my son"

Shortly before the full-scale invasion, Ihor (names of all people in this story have been changed to protect their identities) and his wife Olena divorced but continued to raise their son, Sashko, together. In January 2022, they decided to move their child from Kyiv to Western Ukraine, to Lviv. After Russia started the full-scale invasion, Ihor joined the family.

On February 24, news broke that Russians had attacked several military units in the Lviv region, and in early March, they carried out missile strikes on Lviv and the Yavoriv training ground. Western Ukraine no longer seemed safe, so Olena decided to go abroad with her son.

Ihor supported this decision to keep his son safe: "I didn’t want my child to constantly live in a stressful environment where sirens and explosions are heard outside the window."

Sasha and his mother moved to Poland, and Ihor deeply missed his son. Almost a year later, Ihor found what he calls a semi-legal way to leave the country and spent three weeks with his son.


"For me, 2022 was a very anxious year. I felt guilty for not being on the frontline, and it seemed like I was wasting my time. By the end of the year, I was almost sure I'd join the army and thought that I might not see my son for a long time. So when the opportunity to go abroad came up, I seized it," Ihor recalls.

A few months later, his wife and son came to Ukraine to celebrate Sashko’s birthday and see Ihor off to the army.

During the two and a half years of the war, Ihor saw his son only four times and cherished these meetings dearly.

"We always talk on the phone, but it’s just different than real meetings. He used to show me his toys, and now I talk with him about his day at kindergarten, how his friends are, and how things are at home. But I love spending time together: playing, reading, going places, doing activities. When we meet, we are inseparable: we go to attractions, museums, everywhere together," Ihor says.

"I really dislike that my child is growing and changing, and I’m not seeing it. He’s a very interesting boy, and I’d love to be there with him through it all."

Ihor says he’s unsure if his son will return to live in Ukraine. He would like the boy to grow up in a peaceful environment.


"Of course, I was sad that he left Ukraine. But despite learning Polish, Sashko still speaks Ukrainian and knows he’s Ukrainian. He’ll attend a Polish school in the fall and he already has friends there. I understand that moving, especially during wartime, is tough for kids. And I don’t know what the future holds, as our society will likely be traumatized and anxious for a long time after the war ends."

"We are leaving Ukraine for the last time"

Oleksii Erinchak, the founder of the Kyiv bookstore "Sens", found himself in a similar situation. He prepared for the invasion: his wife and sons, Orest and Oles, had tickets to leave Ukraine on February 26, 2022. But the full-scale invasion began, and he had to drive his family to the border by car.

Oleksii says he initially felt calm knowing his loved ones were abroad. He could focus on work and volunteering without worrying about his sons and wife. He even got used to living alone at his flat because he could work from home without distractions.

But over time, his life became depressing: "It’s exhausting when you come home, and all you have left is to work again or watch a movie. I feel very lonely and miss physical contact with my family."

But what hurts Oleksii the most is missing his children’s growth.

"Now the kids are at an interesting age — my boys are 6 and 8, and they started showing their individuality. I’m very grateful to my wife for constantly sending me videos to see these interesting moments from their lives or for her telling me about those moments on the phone.

But hearing about these things and witnessing them in person are different things. And I want to be my sons' role model and father figure. I didn’t create a family for it to be so far away; I’m not a sailor," Oleksii jokes.

His boys miss their father a lot, too. Oleksii recalls that when he drove the children away just after the invasion began, they didn’t realize they would be separated from their father for so long. While Oleksii, behind the wheel, tried to grasp the fact that a full-scale war in his motherland had just begun, his sons carelessly played with their tablets in the back seat. But during the next meetings, Orest and Oles cried when their time with their father ended.


"After one of those meetings, I was driving back to Kyiv and had a long debate with myself. I wondered if I was doing everything right, doubted if I was making the right decision by not being with my family," Oleksii recalls. He and his wife discussed for many months whether the children should return to Ukraine, as it was a big risk.

It was their children who dispelled parents' doubts during the family’s last meeting in Ukraine in April this year.

"I saw the children off on the train and went home. Then my wife told me that as they were boarding the train to Poland, the younger son said: ‘This is the last time we are leaving Ukraine," Oleksii recalls.

Oleksii’s children and wife will finally return home in a few months.

"I have to be cool for my son"

Hlib, the last character in our article, has a more dramatic story. In the first days of the full-scale invasion, he and his family found themselves in the city surrounded by the Russian army, and it could have been quickly occupied. Hlib, his girlfriend Yuliia (name changed), and his son miraculously escaped the encirclement — the family drove to a safer place.

Hlib stopped at his parents' house on the way, but his girlfriend insisted on moving further. The couple had problematic relationships even before the invasion, but the stressful period worsened the situation. Yuliia quarreled with Hlib’s parents and accused the man of wanting to take their child away.

"She took her things, grabbed our son, and they left. Then her friends called me and said she had forgotten their passports. I brought them these passports. I tried to talk to my son, but he was very hostile towards me for some reason. That was the last day I saw him," Hlib recalls.


After that, his connection with Yuliia almost broke off. Yulia left the country and stopped communicating with Hlib. He learned about his son's life through mutual acquaintances.

"I found out that the city they live in has one post office, so I decided to blindly send a parcel to my son. She just took it without any message. I sent a few more parcels and tried to find out from her what my son likes to send him a birthday present. But all I got was that he has freckles on his nose," Hlib says.

He shares that it was challenging for him not to be able to talk with his son at first: "I walked around the city to places where we played and walked together with my son, where he shouted and listened to his echo. Once, I saw another child with my son's scooter in the city — it was very painful. I miss the atmosphere in his room when he slept, our family mornings, and how he whispered something in my ear and I laughed because it was so ticklish."

Hlib says he created a private page on social media where he began writing letters to his son, hoping he would see them someday. He blamed himself for a long time, constantly replaying their last quarrel in his mind and thinking about what he could have changed. But then he realized he didn’t want to appear pathetic in his son's eyes.

"One day, I imagined that he suddenly called me, and I started to complain to him, telling him how much I missed him and unloading all these negative feelings on him. But these are too strong and painful emotions for a child to bear. That became my motivation to change for the better. Now, on that page I created for him, I won’t recount my life or write sad messages on how I miss him, as I did before, but I write jokes, record audio tales, and share something positive".

"I know my situation is not unique", Hlib says. "And I want to advise everyone in the same conditions: you have to be cool for your kids. Be sporty, interesting, and fun. Be the best version of yourself. Kids don’t like pathetic adults; they’re just not interested in them."

refugees war eng family fatherhood

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