More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country as a result of the ongoing Russian invasion — 1.5 million of them are children. As many parents stay behind to defend their homeland, siblings are becoming de facto parents, caring for their younger brothers and sisters as the war rages on.
Ana, whose last name is being withheld for her safety and the safety of her family, celebrated her 26th birthday the day before the first Russian bombs fell. She was staying in Poltava Oblast in central Ukraine, visiting her mother, father and 16-year-old sister.
The night before the invasion, she didn't go to sleep until 4 am. As she scrolled Twitter, she read post after post about an impending invasion, but she still could not bring herself to believe what was to come.
"I decided not to wait (to sleep), because if it wasn't true I'd just lose more sleep," Ana told TODAY Parents. "And if it was, I decided I'd rather not be awake for it."
At 6 am, she received a frantic phone call from her husband in Poland.
"His first words were, 'Why are you asleep? The war has started," she shared. "Then chaos. Panic. Packing our stuff, getting dry food for our pets, scanning all of our documents. It seems very funny to me now, but a friend from Georgia texted me a list of 'tips,' and one of those tips was to have all your documents digitized in case you lose them."
Ana, her father, her mother and her younger sister packed four suitcases, prepared two pet carriers and filled two tote bags with food. As the family ate their last breakfast together at home, Ana's younger sister put on "Ice Age" to drown out the news playing in the background.
Then it was time to leave.
The journey to Poland
"Our parents said they were not leaving, for lots of reasons," Ana said. "But they wanted to keep us safe, so they decided to drive us to the (Polish) border and come back to help defend our city if there's such a need."
"Leaving our home was the hardest thing I ever did," she added. "I still have no idea whether I'll be able to come back."
Ana's mother sat her younger sister down and told her that she would have to go to Poland with Ana — she could not stay behind. At first, Ana's sister objected.
"She was 9 when Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas," Ana explained. "She grew up making military nets and packing body armors to be sent to the east. She refused to leave. She cried. We sat on her bed, both crying, until our mom joined us. It was quiet. We were saying goodbye without saying it."
The next morning, the family left their home.
"(We left) the place my sister spent her who life in. The place our parents built for us," Anna said. "My mom gave me the code to the safe, 'just in case.' I still hate the implication."
Ana's father drove for 28 hours. At one point, they had to stop driving because missiles were destroying an air base in Starokonstantinov, just 5 miles in front of their vehicle.
Eventually, they found another route and the family continued their journey toward the Polish border, driving through the night.
"Around 6 am, I woke up in a panic because we were not driving anymore. The car was parked weirdly on the side of the road, my mom and dad sitting in eerie poses with their heads hanging," Ana said. "I looked at my sister, and found her awake and frightened, too. When I moved to check on our parents, dad stirred awake, started the car and kept on driving. I later asked him about it, and it turns out he felt like fainting from exhaustion and took a 15-minute nap."
Eventually, the family made it to the border, where they joined a 35-mile-long line of vehicles filled with people attempting to leave the country. For food, the family ate boiled chicken and bread their mother had packed. In an attempt to cross the border sooner, the family found another entry point, this time only three miles long.
For five hours, Ana and her sister walked on foot. In total, it would take the sisters 13 hours to cross into Poland.
"We were in the dark, freezing, sleeping while still on foot," she added. "I had a pair of gloves, and I gave one to my sister so we both had one hand covered to hold onto our suitcases."
Once in Poland, Ana's husband picked the sisters up, driving them first to Warsaw and then to a smaller town in the northern region of the country. She says that she was so exhausted, she cannot remember anything from that first week.
'We have each other'
While Ana and her sister are safe, their mother, father, grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins are all back in Ukraine. Ana's mother is now working in a kitchen, feeding all the territory defense troops in their city. Her father is helping to fortify bunkers and bomb shelters, filling them with necessary supplies, and spends his free time making tank traps with a friend of the family.
Ana says her father jokes that "he hasn't done enough to get a medal from the mayor. Yet."
The sisters do what they can from afar — sending money to Ukrainian charities and the army; helping Ukraine and those who have fled as much as they can; spreading information and staying as up-to-date with the news as possible.
Ana tries to keep her sister busy, helping her pay attention to her school classes over Zoom, taking bike rides and walks outside and, of course, watching her favorite television shows on repeat.
"Cooking seems to help a lot with anxiety," she explained. "Eating tasty food, too."
Ana says she tries to focus on the positives, though it can be difficult — every day, it becomes harder for the two sisters to believe that their current living situation is just temporary.
"We have each other, and we get to spend time together," she explained. "I try to be supportive — to show her I have faith in Ukraine's victory and our coming back home soon. But it's hard. It's harder to smile at her postponing stuff until she's home — like dyeing her hair or buying new shoes."
Ana said she is trying to persuade her sister to learn Polish, in case she has to go to school in Poland next year. She also jokingly offers to help her sister find a seasonal job — another "just in case" scenario.
"I barely handle myself on a bad day, but now I have to take care of both of us," Ana added. "I try to be good at it, but only time will show whether I did a good job."
Ukraine forces push back Russian troops outside KyivMarch 29, 202202:20