“For mom, who doesn’t want to leave.” How to talk about the horrors of war in metaphors and still have hope

A group of Ukrainian mothers, teachers and psychologists have created a collection of their own therapeutic stories to help make sense of their personal journey and that of many other refugees. The stories were collected in a collection edited by the AMURTEL association.

Last Wednesday, the stories were artistically interpreted by several Ukrainian actors, refugees in Romania, in a performance show that took place in the festive hall of the Mihai Viteazul National College, in Bucharest. About 100 people, most of them Ukrainians, gathered at the performance in Ukrainian, with Romanian subtitles. The stories were narrated, performed with elements of mime and contemporary dance and were accompanied by music and the projection of animations inspired by the text.

“Stories that could offer small rays of hope to separated families”

The idea was born in the spring. In April 2023, 20 Ukrainian mothers, psychologists and teachers working with refugees took part in a storytelling therapy workshop led by Australian writer Susan Perrow. The event, organized by the AMURTEL Romania association, aimed “to help the participants create stories that could offer small rays of hope to families separated from their fathers, brothers and homeland”, writes Perrow in the preface to the volume of stories. In the stories they wrote as a form of therapy and dedicated to their children or those who remained in Ukraine, the women use various metaphors: from black storm clouds to erupting volcanoes, from gray rocks to meteorites that prevents the sun from shining on the flood that was destroying the thousand-year-old anthill.

In one of the stories, the war is imagined as the story of a toad that emerges from a nearby swamp and mercilessly tramples all the flowers in the garden – the flowers are Ukrainian houses.

“All journeys in stories lead to hopeful resolutions, even if hope is only a whispered message,” Perrow writes. “All the stories created, though so different in their choice of metaphors and imaginative journeys, capture the resilient spirit of the Ukrainian people.”

For mom, who does not leave her house near the front

With an almost accent-free English and always smiling, Kateryna hides the traumas experienced well. Twenty minutes before the start of the show she is presenting, the 30-year-old is agitated only by finalizing the last details and by the unbearable heat in the CNMV’s elegant, but non-air-conditioned hall. You wouldn’t say that 10 months ago this cheerful young woman ran away from the path of war. Kateryna had to leave behind her parents and brother, who live in the family home just 10 kilometers from the front line: in Orihiv, Zaporizhia region. She also has one sister who lives in Kiev and one who moved to Germany. She feels that most of his family is currently in danger, and he has had a hard time coming to terms with these thoughts.

Since October, since she came to Romania, Kateryna continues to get involved in volunteer projects and social work, as she did before she left Ukraine. There he took food to the vulnerable. Here, the AMURTEL association helps with what is needed: translations, photography, filming, organized trainings in which Ukrainian refugees in Romania learn about resilience. She chose this form of volunteering because it allowed him to stay close to the Ukrainian community. “I wanted to stay in touch with Ukraine like this.”

“I’ve only met rude people other than in traffic”

The volunteer still does not speak Romanian, but she is trying to learn it through an app and some online courses. Even so, she feels that he adapted quite easily in Bucharest. “I like Romania, it has a mentality similar to that of Ukraine. They look very similar. Sometimes I feel like I’m in Kiev or Zaporozhye when I see the post-communist blocks. But in the center it is more European. And I felt welcome. I’ve only met rude people in traffic.” Initially she helped, only logistically, to organize the workshop held in the spring by the Australian writer. She wasn’t going to attend, but both Perrow and Didi Devapriya, the NGO’s president, insisted that Kateryna wrote her story too.

“For me, to leave my house would be to die”

This is how a fairy tale was born, “The Dragon and the Blue Birds”, which the young woman dedicates to her mother. Since the war started, Kateryna’s mother refuses to leave her home and go to a safer area, even though the family home is on the front line of the war. Almost the whole area is destroyed. Out of 17,000 inhabitants, less than 2,000 still survive there.

Kateryna’s mother is one of them. She told her daughter, “For me, to leave my home would be to die.” In this house, however, the young woman’s parents no longer have water, gas, or electricity. Fortunately, they rely on a generator, and volunteers visit them with food, the young woman says.

“It’s not life, it’s survival. But my mother is very attached to the house, because she built it with her own hands. And she feels that as long as she stays there, she will protect it. She has a big garden, where she grew potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers”. Many of the family’s neighbors have left town, so Kateryna’s mother takes care of the cats and dogs left behind. “She feels like she can’t leave that place,” says her daughter, who tried “anything short of physical violence” to convince her to do so.

In September, when Kateryna, who lived in Kiev, visited her parents for the last time, she realized that they sleep in the basement of the house every night. “And the atmosphere is very tense. Every five minutes you hear explosions.”

After many conflicting discussions, which ended with her mother’s stubbornness not to run away from the war path, now Kateryna believes that “if she wants to stay, it’s her decision, she’s an adult, she’s responsible for her life. I don’t try to convince her anymore”. Then he adds with a smile, “Maybe just once in a while.”

The story helped her come to this reconciliation. When it came to writing the ending, she ran out of ideas. “I didn’t want to preach, to tell my mother what she should do. Susan helped me with the ending, because it’s an open ending,” says the young woman. She sent the story to her mother on her very birthday. “And recently she read it to my dad too. She is very proud of me and really happy that we are doing this show. Before, I didn’t think he understood and even got upset that I was trying to tell him what to do. Now, I don’t think she’s going to leave there anyway, but she got emotional. And maybe it’s a seed, maybe it will grow…”, confesses Kateryna.

The language of metaphor, less harsh than the direct one

The collection of stories, published in Romanian and Ukrainian, is called “Rays of sunshine after the storm” and includes, in addition to Kateryna’s, seven other writings by Ukrainian women who attended the workshop. “For most of them, it was the first time they tried to write something creative,” says Didi, from AMURTEL. They managed to print a thousand books that they distributed at the show, but also through non-governmental organizations that support Ukrainian refugees in Romania. In addition, the stories can be read online at https://therapeutic-stories.amurtel.ro.

Didi, a 49-year-old American woman, settled in Romania since 2005, usually works through Amurtel to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, with the start of the war, the association also started organizing events for Ukrainians who found refuge in Romania. She says that she didn’t expect so many stories to come out of the workshop (there were 9 texts in total).

One of the stories was published separately as a children’s book, with illustrations by the 13-year-old daughter of one of the authors. And the author of the ninth story refused publication, as she considered the text personal. “She wanted to keep it for herself. But it already had the effect and she was happy,” says Didi.

She wanted, in addition to the written texts, to organize a physical event. As he explains, in Romanian with an American accent, the purpose of the bilingual show is “to communicate, to awaken empathy, so that we, from Romania, can understand their experience from their words, well translated into the language of imagination, which is much less hard than the direct one”.

In addition, she believes, the metaphor also has a protective role for the one telling his story. “It can be re-traumatizing for someone to talk directly about an experience. But when we talk about the experiences exposed through metaphors, it is much more universal. We also feel that we resonate. We all have our moments of loss, of despair, after which we find hope”.

The original news article in Romanian is on libertatea.ro: REPORTAJ. „Pentru mama, care nu vrea să plece de acolo”. Cum să vorbești despre ororile războiului în metafore și să-ți păstrezi totuși speranța