“That night the children were all ten years older”

Doctor Roman Kornijko flees from Kiev to Freiburg overnight. To save 157 orphans, he leaves his family in the war.

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By Elizabeth Vollmer

“Today we woke up in another world,” Federal Secretary of State Annalena Baerbock said in a February 24 speech. Roman Kornijko was also thrown into another world that night. But the 55-year-old doctor did not sleep. He spent them sheltered from airstrikes – along with orphans at the Otchy Dim orphanage (in German “father’s house”) in Kiev.

That night happened what he and his team had been preparing for the last few days and what they had not really expected in the end: bombs fell in the immediate vicinity. The supposed security provided by the nearby military anti-aircraft defense makes them the focus of Russian bombing on the first night of the war.

None of the promised buses are available

A possible evacuation was already in sight. There have been initial talks with the partner “S’Einlädele”, a non-profit GmbH in Freiburg, which she has supported for many years through sponsorships and other campaigns, and the city of Freiburg itself and invitation papers for the departure have been prepared. They have coordinated with Ukrainian bus companies.

But when things get serious, none of the promised buses are available. The suitcases are packed. Tanks roll across the streets. Fear strikes children and caregivers. They learn from the media that the planned escape route could be the target of the next bombing. “I told the kids that only God can help us now, and we all prayed,” the leader says in an interview, “and then it was as if angels were following us on our way.”

It is with a heavy heart that Roman leaves his family in Ukraine

A bus operator he does not know has heard of the hopeless evacuation situation. Not only is he willing to take the trip to the Polish border for free, he also has a friend in the police who is willing to organize the escorting of the buses.

But before he can begin, Roman still has the most difficult moment ahead these days: He has to say goodbye to his family. There is limited space on the buses. The priority is to save the 157 children and their most important caregivers. And therefore he leaves with a heavy heart his wife and four daughters between 16 and 36 years. They all support this decision and it is difficult for everyone. No one knows if and when they will see each other again.

Bombs fall in the immediate vicinity

When they finally get free, the streets are crowded. Many people are fleeing to the west. But the police officers have an untraditional solution to this problem: They direct the buses into the – empty – oncoming lane. That way, you can quickly drive past traffic jams.

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When they feel relatively safe about 300 kilometers from Kiev and take a break at the rest area, bombs fall in the immediate vicinity. The children instinctively throw themselves on the ground. Then they hurry to get back on the bus. “That night the children all got ten years older. But I promised them they would get their childhood back,” the doctor says.

The police cars now drive in front and behind the bus with emergency lighting. The bus itself runs without lights so as not to be a target for bombing. The route already behind them is also the target of bombs that night.

“They were like angels to us.”

Three hours later, they would not have been able to get through. But that’s how they get to the Polish border unscathed. “‘Run off, our friends, and be blessed,’ the policemen said goodbye to us at the border. It was really very special. They were like angels to us,” Roman says touched.

And it is not the last angels who follow her on her way. Well-rested bus drivers take the wheel in Dresden, and it is also possible to carry out repairs on one of the buses along the way. When they arrive in Freiburg on Sunday morning, it is a moving feast for those who arrive and those who wait.

In an unprecedented action in Freiburg, the city administration, the S’Einlädele team, the evangelical city mission, the Maltese Hilfsdienst, the German Red Cross, the German-Ukrainian community and others worked together to make the evacuation possible and prepare the home.

Between trauma and football match

Three weeks have passed since that Sunday when I spoke to Roman for the first time. Meanwhile, some of the kids have settled in well. Roman’s eyes light up as he talks about the spontaneous German-Ukrainian football match. Some would have recaptured their childhood again.

Others are still struggling with the traumatic experiences and have begun to stutter or have begun to wet themselves again. It is all the more important for Roman to have a reliable daily structure, relaxing games and trusted caregivers for his protégés.

“They received and cared for people who fled their father’s house for as long as they could. I’m really proud of that. “

Without a large network of volunteer helpers providing support here, this would be as impossible as organizing multiple relief transports. In the last few weeks, many packages have been packed in Freiburg and brought to Ukraine. On the way back, there was room to evacuate more people from the war zones.

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Roman’s family was finally there on the bus on a Sunday and they could hug each other again, happy and healthy. “They received and cared for people who fled their father’s house for as long as they could. I’m really proud of that. “

“Never thought we would escape”

The world has changed since February 24th. Terrible images and news from this war dominate the headlines and perceptions. “At that time, we took 159 children and 90 adults in from Donetsk,” says Roman. “We never thought we would escape ourselves.”

At the same time, there are many good things: unprecedented solidarity, willingness to donate, unbureaucratic help, cooperation between different organizations. It took only six hours from the request for the city of Freiburg’s approval to take over the refugees’ accommodation.

The German-Ukrainian company provides its expertise as an interpreter. And the Swiss team from Amnesty International is benefiting from the experience of the father’s home evacuation when it comes to allowing the children in a Ukrainian Pestalozzi orphanage to flee.

“Temporary solution” takes longer than planned

It is now almost ten weeks since Roman and his team fled Kyiv with the children. They are still scattered on four refugee residences in Freiburg. This “temporary solution” is now taking much longer than planned.

The desire to live together in a large house – as in the father’s house in Kiev – is not realized despite intensive efforts from many sides. Instead, they are now looking for more houses, each of which can accommodate eight to twelve children with their caregivers.

Some foster families have already become self-employed and live with the children in ordinary apartments. Roman has encouraged them to do so, even though it means they are missing from the large group of currently 96 children.

Unexpected help comes from all sides

The stress on the employees is very high, retreats are hardly possible. In return, Roman experiences that, for example, a headmistress from Butscha contacts him, comes to Freiburg and organizes the children’s online lessons, that the refugee doctors take care of the medical care, and that about 60 volunteers help in different places.

Roman is there for his protégés in Freiburg and remains in close contact with the situation in Ukraine. He is currently involved in organizing the equipment at two outpatient clinics. Packed with bandages and medicine, they will go to Borodjanka and Irpin.

The district administrations of the two disputed cities have asked him to do so. The valuable vehicles and freight are worth 50,000 euros. 20,000 euros, of which still missing. But Roman is convinced that the money will gather, and he hopes and prays that the angels of God will also be with them on their way.

Elizabeth Vollmer is a religion teacher and lives with her husband in hospitable Freiburg. On Sundays, she often meets Roman in front of Pauluskirche. Here the Ukrainian guests celebrate their service in the Paulussaal, while the evangelical congregation celebrates “dreisam3” in the Pauluskirche. However, the relationship between children and adults in the two services is exactly the opposite.

Info: S’Einlädele is a non-profit shop in Freiburg. The profits are used to support the humanitarian aid projects set up in Ukraine, such as housing for street children and social and diaconal institutions, or currently “Ukraine’s emergency aid”. More information here. We have compiled an overview of other aid projects for Ukraine on this page.


Edition 2/22

This article was published in the magazine MOVO. MOVO is published by SCM Bundes-Verlag, which also owns Jesus.de.

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