When Nataliia Babii and her family first arrived at Melbourne airport as refugees from Ukraine, they were overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome. Nataliia had expected that maybe one person would be there to greet them, not the crowd that did show up. This was the first time they had travelled such a long way, and especially under the circumstances, the presence of so many people calmed their nerves.
Their journey to this point had been a harrowing one. In Ukraine, Nataliia had worked as the head of meteorological observation at the local airport in Ivano–Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. It would be one of six airports to be bombed by Russian military on 24 February 2022, instigating the war. Their house, located just across the road, shook with the impact.
‘I was at home with my daughters,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t understand that it was a bomb. I thought maybe it was a plane, and then second time … I was so scared.’
When the realisation hit her, she quickly took her two daughters, Anastasiia (now 16) and Iryna (now 15), down to the basement. ‘I don’t remember how many hours, but it felt like a long time.’ It was cold down there, so Nataliia covered her daughters with a blanket and tried to call everybody she knew to find out what was going on and if they were still alive. With black smoke billowing from the airport and a sudden lack of phone coverage, those hours in the basement were ‘terrible’, she says.
When the bombing stopped, they gathered their things and fled to the closest village. Nataliia’s husband, Ruslan, is a priest in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and he has a cousin in the Czech Republic. He organised for his wife and daughters to leave the country and live there in safety for a time, while he stayed behind and looked after his parishioners. There was so much to do, and knowing Nataliia and the girls were safe allowed him to serve the people without the stress of worrying about his family.
After some time in the Czech Republic, Nataliia received a call from her husband, who said there was a pathway for them all to travel to Australia through the government’s three-year temporary humanitarian visa program, and that the local Ukrainian bishop, Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, would help them to find work, shelter and food. So Nataliia and her daughters returned to Ukraine to reunite with her husband and gather the necessary papers, and on 4 June 2022 the family arrived in Melbourne. An Australian family opened their doors to the Babii family, and they have been living with them ever since.
Nataliia has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people they have encountered, especially those in the Ukrainian Catholic Church community. ‘In Australia … church is little bit different,’ she explains. ‘People in church, they understand that you need to talk about how you feel, and you can ask about help if you need something … They ask about you, saying how they can help.’
But starting again is never easy, especially when you have been forced to relocate to a country you don’t know, and to learn a language you’re unfamiliar with. Nataliia says her faith has sustained her.
Ever since she was a student, she has carried the same set of rosary beads with her, and whenever she grows worried, she prays. Down in the basement that day while the bombs were dropping, she prayed too.
I like [the Rosary] because it’s more powerful … I always pray this Rosary and it’s always with me and I know I will be safe.
If there’s one thing that Nataliia doesn’t understand about Australia, it’s why more people don’t come to church. From the time she was a child and lost her father, it was her faith, her prayers and the Mass that really carried her through. ‘They saved me,’ she says. ‘Everything in my life that’s happened to me, church helped me fight with my trouble.’
Nataliia worries for all those who stayed behind, especially family members. Her younger brother is a soldier in the Ukrainian army, a member of the military orchestra, and whenever they talk he mentions how busy he is and how many funerals they have to do. The conflict in Ukraine seems to continue ‘non-stop’, Nataliia says.
Still, she draws hope from the prayers of her people. ‘I don’t understand why it’s happened,’ she says, ‘but I think if we pray, God will listen our prayers. In Australia, every Mass we finish with prayer for Ukraine, and … it gives hope that everything will be good, that war will finish, and I hope it will be soon as possible.
‘I feel more understanding that God will save us, and everyone will go back to church and say thank you.’
After spending some time serving at Sts Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in North Melbourne, Fr Ruslan was placed in a parish near Sunshine. Anastasiia and Iryna were welcomed into a Catholic school, having all their fees and necessary expenses covered, and Nataliia spends time learning English at the local library, hoping one day to find a job again. She is very excited about the school her daughters have been able to attend; the regularity with which they go to Mass as a student body fills her with joy for the future of their own faith.
Everything is changing for us, but we are trying to start again.
Melbourne Catholic03 March 2024
Melbourne Catholic01 March 2024