By Silvio Castellanos and Susana Vera
MADRID (Reuters) – When Russian bombs began falling on Kharkiv, Anna Kharazii knew she had to get out. After a harrowing voyage across Europe with her young daughter, mother and mother-in-law, the family is building a new life in Spain.
“We came here with nothing, just hand luggage, and they have given us everything,” Kharazii, 37, told Reuters at Madrid’s Isabel Zendal hospital, converted into an administrative centre for Ukrainian refugees.
Some 25,000 Ukrainians have entered Spain since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, according to the latest government estimates. In neighbouring Portugal, Ukrainians are now the second-largest foreign community after Brazilians. The United Nations says almost 3.6 million refugees have fled Ukraine so far.
“We feel really welcomed and grateful for their hospitality,” said Kharazii, an IT expert and interior designer who is being helped by a Spanish family.
Fearing for their lives, Kharazii and her husband packed their daughter Kira and their elderly mothers into a car just after the invasion and set off for the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, which they believed would be safe.
Relying on strangers for food and shelter, they dodged air-raids and slept in bunkers along the way.
“You have to switch off the light so that they do not drop the bomb on us,” three-year old Kira said in a cellphone video filmed just before their escape, dressed in a rainbow-coloured tutu and head torch and clutching a stuffed pink unicorn.
But when they arrived, Ivano-Frankivsk was also under attack and Kharazii realised they had to leave Ukraine.
Her husband, Kirill Antonov, stayed behind to deliver supplies to troops, while the women took a 35-hour bus trip to Budapest where they found a free flight to Madrid on March 18.
A relative living in Spain put them in touch with Maria Jose Angoitia, a retired book shop owner who had a vacant flat.
“We had just bought it and were planning to rent it and we said ‘That’s it, the four of them are coming here!'” Angoitia said, explaining that friends and neighbours helped furnish the house with beds, a television and a microwave.
Angoitia accompanied the family on Tuesday to help them apply for their free travel cards and healthcare registration.
While the women waited in line, Kira, who has already visited the school she will be attending, propelled herself around on a toy motorbike and played with her new Spanish host.
Kharazii’s Russian-born mother-in-law Svitlana Antonova, 64, who grew up in the Donbas region of Ukraine, recalled how she already had to flee once when fighting broke out between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops eight years ago.
“I always thought Russia was the country most committed to peace, I was raised with that thought,” she said.
“All of it was a lie.”
(Writing by Nathan Allen, editing by Andrei Khalip and Alexandra Hudson)