Khrystyna recounts the days that led up to her decision to leave Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. Smoke was visible from her bedroom window when, at 4 a.m., a strange noise woke her and her husband up. The airport near where Khrystyna’s family lived had been hit by a rocket and they could see smoke. Their phones were ringing from friends trying to reach them. “I had no idea what to do when war broke out in my country,” says Khrystyna. “It was very scary, but we, as parents, wanted to protect our children.” 

Five days later they were on their way to Athens, where Khrystyna and her two children could live in safety with Khrystyna’s mother, who has been living there for 12 years.

Khrystyna holds her two children in her arms and the family shares a laugh.
Khrystyna, 32, at home with her children, Yaroslav, 4, and Anna, 7.
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

Now having been in Greece for over a year; Khrystyna’s day-to-day includes teaching yoga online, attending project management trainings and caring for her children. 

Khrystyna remembers how difficult it was to leave behind everything familiar to her—her home, belongings, father, husband, grandparents and friends. “We didn’t know what the future held for us, or if we would see each other again,” she recalls.

Khrystyna teaches a remote yoga class through a virtual meeting.
Khrystyna teaches a private online yoga class at home.
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

The war in Ukraine has resulted in the largest displacement crisis in Europe since World War II. Over 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees have been displaced around Europe and millions require urgent humanitarian assistance. 

A recent IRC needs assessment of Ukrainian refugees in Greece found that more than two-thirds of respondents have not earned an income since fleeing Ukraine and a quarter did not regularly receive enough food. 

For Khrystyna and her children, the most difficult part of leaving was being separated from their father. Although they spoke on the phone every day, they could not make concrete plans for their future together again as a family.

Khrystyna helps her four-year-old son draw and paint in their home.
Khrystyna does arts and crafts with her child, Yaroslav.
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

As Khrystyna waited for her temporary protection scheme to be activated during her first few days in Greece, she began to find a community through Facebook groups such as ‘United Diaspora of Ukrainians’ and ‘Ukrainian women in Greece’. It was through these groups that she first discovered Craft Your Business (CYB)—an IRC and Alba Graduate Business School program providing business training and Greek language courses. 

The CYB, part of the wider Citi Foundation-funded Resilient Futures program, aims to empower people by supporting them in building businesses. Khrystyna attended the CYB program and decided to start her own yoga instruction business—not only as a way to make money to support her family, but to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Khystyna sits on a large boulder in the wood and poses for a portrait.
“For me yoga is not a marathon but a path to myself—my inner self.”
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

Khrystyna discovered yoga when she was experiencing pregnancy-related back pain. For her, it was a life-changing experience. “It gave me a clear realization that we are not only our body, we are also our mind and soul,” says Khrystyna.

Combined with a practice of meditation, yoga allowed Khrystyna to deal with her trauma as it manifested physically and mentally. “There must be work done with the body and the brain,” she asserts. “When the body, mind and soul are in balance, then a person is happy.” 

In exploring the ways she has personally benefited from these practices, Khrystyna recognized that she could be of service to others: “After the war started, I came to a clear realization that I wanted to be a yoga teacher and to create retreats. It brings tremendous benefits to other people. I can help them.” 

Growing up close to nature in the mountains of her hometown Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, Khrystyna’s dream is to organize yoga and wellness retreats in the mountainous countryside of Greece; so she can create a similar experience for other Ukrainian refugees.

A photo of Khrystyna and her husband in a frame.
A photo of Khrystyna and her husband on their wedding day brings warmth to her home in Greece.
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

Khrystyna is grateful to build a new life in a new country with her mother next to her for support. This is not the fate of most refugees, who must navigate new cultures and languages alone.  

She encourages other refugees to take up any opportunities they can like the CYB course she’s attending at the Alba Business School.

“Start and don't be afraid,” she advises. “Take small steps every day. I would tell my old self not to be afraid, to move forward.”

Khrystyna pushes her four-year-old son in a stroller in Athens, Greece.
As part of her daily routine, Khrystyna strolls around Athens with her children after lunch.
Photo: Sumaya Agha for the IRC

Khrystyna has noticed how people in Athens are more calm; that they take time in their day to sip their coffee, or pause at the beauty of a sunset. She sees how vital it is to take things slowly to have a happy life. 

The people she has met here have made her appreciate the belief that you can learn and develop at any time and there will always be people willing to help you along the way. 

This is what she teaches her clients through yoga, and is the advice she has for other refugees: “Do not be afraid. Inspire yourself, believe in a better future, read books and surround yourself with positive people who support you.”