Special Project 17:01 16 May 2024

Five lost homes: How a displaced Ukrainian family stays resilient through tough times

Since Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine started in 2022, Ukrainian families have been hit with the most demanding challenges of their lives. Many lost their loved ones, jobs, and their homes, having to flee the hostilities to safer Ukrainian regions or even abroad. Rubryka tells the inspiring story of one such family, which, despite the burdens Russia brought to their lives, stayed resilient and hopeful for the future.

What's the problem?

First lost home

It's late April in Irpin, the lovely town northwest of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which was heavily scarred by the Russian bombing at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022. We are walking among the abandoned construction sites on the edge of a sprawling forest to find a new green-and-white high-rise building. This building, along with the nearby shops and cafés, isn't yet on any maps. Our GPS navigation keeps trying to direct us to a similar but incorrect address. As we wander through the alleys and pathways between closed residential complexes, our hero, Serhii Kazmenko, reassures us over the phone:

"Don't worry, everyone gets lost trying to find my place. They wander around for a while but always find it in the end!"

Today, we are his guests, and we'll be talking a lot about finding one's way home. The Kazmenko family has been displaced twice, losing five homes and their original region to war.

"We're from the [eastern] Donetsk region. We lived in the town of Olenivka. It's now known for the colony camp where, sadly, [Russian forces] hold Ukrainian prisoners of war. That's where we used to live," Serhii explains.

On July 29, 2022, the whole world heard about Olenivka because of a terrorist attack in the former prison where Russian forces held the defenders of Azovstal Steelworks of the now-occupied city of Mariupol in captivity. At least 50 Ukrainian soldiers died in the explosion. The exact number of those killed is still unknown.

Serhii no longer has any family left in Olenivka. When Russia invaded Donetsk in 2014, he evacuated his wife, children, and mother to the southern city of Odesa but stayed behind to help until the Russian occupation of his hometown.

"When I moved my family, I stayed behind in Olenivka. It was dangerous because of heavy shelling, but I helped with evacuations and humanitarian aid and supported the Ukrainian armed forces. Because of my volunteer work, 'DNR' [the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic"] declared me an outlaw, and I'm still on their wanted list," Serhii says.

Компенсація за зруйноване житло

Serhii Kazmenko says they won't return to the Donetsk region even when it's completely liberated

When his town was occupied in 2014, Serhii moved to Dobropillia, another city in the Donetsk region. Eventually, the whole Kazmenko family joined him there. They left two private houses in Olenivka, which Russians now occupy.

"I have friends who stayed there. They hope Ukraine will come back. They're great guys, trying to open people's eyes about Russia. They sometimes check on our houses. They told me that Russian troops, specifically Kadyrov's men [soldiers of the paramilitary organization in Chechnya], live in our houses," Serhii shares.

The next homes

In Dobropillia, Serhii continued his volunteer work, bringing aid to the Ukrainian military and civilians in towns like Pisky, Pervomaisk, and Avdiivka. The family of six lived in a rented apartment in Dobropillia for nine years. But then the Russian invasion of 2022 happened.

"When we heard that Russia had crossed into our territory, we didn't think twice and decided to go to Lviv. I took my family and friends, and we gathered everything and left. There was a big center for displaced people in Lviv, offering humanitarian aid and helping evacuated people. My wife started helping there, sending people to Brazil," he recalled. "I joined other guys to deliver humanitarian aid to the Kyiv region, Irpin included. We were bringing food and medicines and evacuated people," he recalls.

A few years before the full-scale war, the Kazmenkos had started a business and saved enough to build their own homes for themselves and their adult children. They chose to build in the Kyiv region.

Serhii Kazmenko is in his new apartment, although it's not one of the ones he originally invested in

At first, the family invested in a construction project from the ground up, buying two not-yet-built apartments in Hostomel, a town 20 minutes away from Irpin. The Kazmenkos made payments for their future homes for a year and a half. Then, they decided to take out a mortgage to buy another apartment. On February 16, 2022, just eight days before the full-scale war began, they purchased an apartment in Irpin but never got to move into it.

"When we learned that Irpin was occupied, it was really tough. We had dreamed of living near the forest, where there's nature, beauty, and clean air. We hoped our apartment would be safe, but it turned out that the building was at the epicenter of the fighting," Serhii says. "Later, we saw photos of our apartment online. It was destroyed — completely gone. So now we had five properties but couldn't live in any of them."

What's the solution?

The construction of apartments in Hostomel was put on hold indefinitely. Today, we're talking about the Kazmenko family's journey in their sixth but only home. They bought it three months ago using the eRecovery program, which the Ukrainian government created to help people who lost their homes or whose houses were damaged by Russian shelling. As part of the program, affected Ukrainians receive state aid to restore their housing.

"I'm 53, but I know you have to keep moving forward. You can't keep listening to old records. You have to look ahead. My wife and I have our motto: even though we've been displaced twice, we don't stop!" Serhii says, smiling.

While we are interviewing Serhii, his wife, Olena, is at work, and the kids are at school. The family dog, Rika, occasionally comes running from the children's room to get attention. Serhii says Rika joined their family seven years ago and has been a comfort to the kids.

Компенсація за пошкоджене житло

Rika demands attention

Як працює єВідновлення

And she gets what she wants

The oldest son now lives on his own. The three younger kids, including a nephew, live with the family. The nephew came to live with them after losing his parents when he was seven in 2012, and Serhii and Olena took him in and became his guardians.

After the full-scale war began, the family stayed in the western city of Lviv for a while before renting an apartment in Kyiv. They were among the first to receive financial compensation through the eRecovery program.

"Everything happened so fast. I can't even remember any major difficulties. We're very grateful; we received over $63,000. We added a little more and bought this apartment. At first, we had doubts, but nothing was strong enough to stop us. What else could we possibly lose?" Serhii says with a sad smile.

Now, the Kazmenko family has a cozy two-bedroom apartment near the forest, which they can see right from their windows. Serhii says some people advised against applying for the program because they didn't trust it. Still, the family decided to give it a shot, gathered the necessary documents, applied, and was one of the first in Ukraine to receive compensation.

"Irpin is a beautiful city. Sometimes, my wife and I walk around and can't believe we actually live here. We came here on vacation once and really liked it. We wanted to live here, and now, despite everything, our dreams have come true," Serhii shares.

Now, the father of the family continues his business and volunteer work. Just like before the full-scale war, he travels east to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians and military equipment to soldiers. One of the latest deliveries from his nonprofit organization was 500 specialized backpacks for combat medics.

He's now thinking about setting up a rehabilitation center for soldiers dealing with psychological trauma and addiction. He hopes to work with local authorities to create something helpful for soldiers transitioning back to civilian life.

Компенсація за пошкоджене житло

Serhii shows us his childhood photos. He says he was born in Russia, but his parents moved to Donetsk when he was seven. Since then, Ukraine has been his homeland

Ukraine has a solution — eRecovery

The eRecovery state aid program has worked in Ukraine for a year, first providing financial assistance to Ukrainians whose homes were damaged by Russian shelling. According to the Ministry of Infrastructure, over 23,000 families, with priority given to families with soldiers, people with disabilities, and large families, have already received funding to restore their homes.

Now, Ukrainians who have destroyed houses can also receive compensation to buy a new home. The program, developed by Ukraine's Ministry of Digital Transformation, the USAID/UK aid project Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration and Services (TAPAS), and the World Bank, offers housing certificates and has a simple application process designed to address initial skepticism about who would qualify for funding. Find out more about this recovery solution here.


If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: