Spasiyana Sergieva for NPR
SOFIA, Bulgaria — This weekend would normally be a party for Ukrainians. But this year, Orthodox Easter Sunday will mark two months since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced, seeking refuge in neighboring countries. More than 40,000 of them are in Bulgaria, according to the Bulgarian government.
In a small, noisy cafe in downtown Sofia, a group of Ukrainian mothers and children sit on chairs or on the floor, drinking coffee and hot milk. It’s not where they hoped to be before the Easter weekend, but they are relieved to be here.
Tetyana Olefir and her daughters, Elizabeth, 13, and Alexandra, 10, arrived in the Bulgarian capital a few days ago. They are eager to return to Ukraine. Olefir says his own mother is sick and needs her family’s help. For them, Easter is synonymous with family.
“I want to go back for Easter because we have our tradition,” she says. “We have this Easter bread called Paska and my family all together, my cousins, we stay together and do it… And we go there in the evening, on Easter night, we go to church to bless it. And I miss home a lot.”
Easter is one of the most important and joyful holidays in Eastern Europe.
“Everyone paints eggs and draws on eggs,” says Olefir. “And also we make a lot of sweets. On Easter day we meet the family and celebrate Easter [dinner].”
This year they are enjoying the company of other displaced people from Ukraine and finding some comfort in sharing their stories. These mothers and children left behind husbands and fathers, sons and brothers. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 must stay to fight.
Irina Darbakova says she doesn’t think Easter will be a holiday this year. She escaped the fighting with her daughter and two grandchildren three weeks ago after their home in Mariupol was destroyed. But she had to leave behind her 20-year-old son, Juli, and has since lost contact with him. His son-in-law is also in Mariupol.
Darbakova’s grandson, Denis, is playing with another young boy on the floor. Their laughter adds lightness.
“We try to organize things so that they forget the tragedy they are going through,” says Pamela Della Toffola, who helped organize the rally with the help of her company’s charitable arm, Alias Group, based in Italy. “All of them have their husbands there…so it’s really difficult.”
She says she tries to give Ukrainians moments of happiness, to try to restore some semblance of normality to them. She distributes small cloth bags with bunnies on the front, filled with Easter treats, to all the children.
Although this Easter will not be filled with the usual traditions, some Ukrainians in Bulgaria find meaning in the safety and kindness of foreigners.
“Everyone helps us…we are really grateful to those who help us, says Josif Feny. He arrived from Kviv earlier this month with his friends Anet Pchelnikova and Natasha Nykolyn, and Natasha’s 10-year-old twin daughters, Oleksandra and Julia. .
Feny’s mother is Bulgarian, so he has a passport that allowed him to leave Ukraine, despite being 26 and in the required male age range to stay.
He says he feels torn, but thinks he can be more helpful by connecting with Ukrainians in Bulgaria.
“My feelings are mixed because I know I can go back and be there with more of my friends…every day I think I left them there,” he said.
He and his friends share a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Sofia, where girls can continue their education through online classes. Most of their classmates are also connecting from countries other than Ukraine, including Poland and Switzerland.
Oleksandra says she will miss being with her grandparents on Easter.
Feny, Pchelnikova, Nykolyn and the twins will attend their kyiv church’s online service on Sunday. Nykolyn says they will focus on the religious aspects of the holiday – and the fact that they escaped the war alive.
“The meaning of this holiday has changed for us,” says Feny, “because we…we survived something in our lives, so we can tell children and other people that we can give not traditions but something. something bigger.”