Paul Hopkins: Farewell then, Polina... and stay safe back home in Kyiv

Polina Afanasieva (19), came to Ireland last spring to escape war in Ukraine. It was a warm and sunny Sunday, a slight breeze in the air. The Orthodox Easter Sunday, celebrated by Ukrainians, those refugees welcomed to our shores. Those fleeing the Russian onslaught being rained down on their kin folk — the fighting men and women, the old and infirm and those with no wherewithal to escape.

The Ukrainians were holding an Easter fair in the local Scouts den. On the day the hall was decorated with balloons of yellow and blue, tables stacked high with authentic Ukrainian food and crafts.

That day I met Polina. She was with her mother and their stall had sold out. She had left her father and brother back home, fighting the raggedy Russian invaders. Polina, a third year journalism student, was continuing her studies online with her college back home for as long as was feasible.

Now she is back home in Kyiv but has been in touch to let us know how she is getting on, as a bleak winter bites deep.

"It was a difficult decision to return home," she says. "But I decided that it would be better for me.

"I worked as a journalist in the GPO, which helped develop my professional skills. I even had the opportunity to write an article about Ukrainian refugees for the Irish Independent and about my experience in Ireland. But every day I realised that I lacked the relevant knowledge that I can only get from the university."

She studied online for as long as could, but says it was very difficult to do. So, she has gone back to Kyiv to continue her studies in proper surroundings.

"Certainly, the military situation effects my emotions and mental health. At the university, when we hear a military alarm, we have to go down to the bomb shelter and we have to continue our studies there. It's cold and ugly, but most students only have the opportunity to study online so we are lucky.

"A few days ago, Russia launched 100 missiles over Ukraine. 100! The Ukrainian army shot down 80% of them. It is terrible to see the houses of your city burning... Russia is destroying our infrastructure and electric power stations every day. Their goal is to leave us without electricity and any energy for the winter. About 40% of the power stations were destroyed, and, because of this, we are often forced to sit without any light, for eight hours a day and cook food [only] when we have power.

"When there is no light, then there is no communication, no internet, and the elevators in the apartments do not work. I'm lucky I only live on the fourth floor. But what should the elderly and disabled people do?"

Polina says the situation with shops is good, they are equipped with "everything necessary". And there’s no problem with the commute in her city.

"I and the whole world understand the power of the Ukrainian people. We are not afraid of anything anymore. Many soldiers and civilians have died. But day by day we are getting closer to victory. The Ukrainian Army destroys the Russian killers.

"I want to once again express my incredible gratitude to the Irish people. I fell in love with your country, my heart is still in Ireland. I cherish all the memories."

She says the first snow has fallen in Kyiv. "But we continue to go to work and to school. I know that in Ireland you would have already bought all the bread and would have sat at home. We are so different and that's interesting, but we have one thing in common – kindness to each other!"

Many tens of thousands of people have made the decision to return from host countries to Ukraine and attempt to rebuild their lives despite the uncertainty, still, of the war. Those recently returned include women with children and elderly people. It is not possible to say how many Ukrainians have left Ireland as the temporary protection directive allows Ukrainians free movement.

Back at that Easter fair day, Polina asked if she could interview me for her ongoing video blog to get my views on the war. We stepped outside to the grassy knoll and the Sunday sunshine, and she flicked her smartphone into action. When we finished, she smiled, and we hugged.

"You are like my grandpapa," she said, and I did my utmost to keep the tear from trickling down my cheek.

Stays safe, Polina Afanasieva..