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After fleeing northern Ukraine, a family works to start a new life

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

There are now more than 6 million people who have been displaced from their homes inside Ukraine. And as Russian forces prepare for another massive front in the east, that number is expected to grow. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been in Ukraine talking with families who had to flee and are struggling to adjust, even in safer parts of the country.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: I first met the Lysenko family a day after they'd fled Chernihiv, a northern city in Ukraine that at the beginning of the war was under constant bombardment. Here's what they told me four weeks ago of their escape.

OLHA LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

IHOR LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Sometimes Russians along the roads with weapons. At times, they'd have to abandon the cars and run into nearby fields.

I LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Or get down in the car and try to hide. I've kept in touch with the family of four - Olha, a psychologist, her husband Ihor, who works in IT, and their two kids, Varya and Yegor. They made it to Lviv, a major western city packed with other internally displaced people. But it was overcrowded, so they headed an hour and a half north to a city called Chervonohrad, a mining town much smaller than where they're from.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: We're meeting for lunch a few minutes from their new apartment.

Are you hungry at all?

VARYA LYSENKO: Yeah.

O LYSENKO: Varya, you're always hungry.

V LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

I LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian) - water.

O LYSENKO: Here's water.

NADWORNY: They're staying in a distant relative's empty apartment. And after all, they've been through, a quiet apartment with heat, electricity and hot water is incredible.

YEGOR LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: "Yesterday I took a hot shower," says Yegor, who's 9, "and it was awesome." Their house back in Chernihiv actually survived the bombardment. They're still in touch with their relatives who stayed. But their city is heavily damaged - without working infrastructure, heat, electricity, schools and hospitals.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: It's in no shape to actually live right now with kids. They will go back someday, they tell me, but they're focused right now on healing. Ihor tells me, with each day that passes, his heart gets a little colder.

I LYSENKO: Every day of war makes you harder, less emotional. I feel less human-like.

NADWORNY: There are still some moments where he feels emotion, though.

I LYSENKO: Then I see some destroyed village on the road to my village and cry some in some silent corner.

NADWORNY: And he's been spending time back at work recently. There's not much to do because so many people are without steady internet or electricity. Many stayed in Chernihiv. But it's something. Olha, a psychologist, has started to offer sessions online, but she's taking it slow. She still has days where she's overcome with grief.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: She knows they were lucky. They're still alive. So are their relatives. But it's still a big trauma, she says. The place she went on a first date, her favorite park, all her memories are destroyed. There's a heaviness to that, she says.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: We'll never have the life we had before.

O LYSENKO: (Sighing, speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: At the beginning of the war, Olha remembers thinking about things she'd wished she'd done more of in her life.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: Painting and drawing were at the top of that list.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: As soon as they moved into this apartment and she felt like things were settled, she ordered pastels and paper. She shows us some of her artwork she's made over the past week.

O LYSENKO: It's not so good.

NADWORNY: She's modest. It's actually really good. She's focused mostly on fruit.

O LYSENKO: An apple - it's faster.

NADWORNY: A cluster of grapes, a pear. She says when she's drawing, she feels a sense of safety.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: The war, the trauma all floats away. She's been trying to get the kids to do some art, too, but it's been hard to get them to focus.

Y LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: I am painting very, very, very rarely, Yegor says, smiling. Instead, he's been playing video games, watching TV. He's acting pretty normal, Olha says. But there are cracks, like when the waitress asks how old he is, and he replies, I am 9, but I'm a big boy because my school was bombed.

NADWORNY: Varya...

V LYSENKO: Mom.

NADWORNY: ...Who is 6, is extremely outgoing, and she's having a much harder time. She's had no one to play with here, her mom says, so she's constantly approaching strangers in hopes of playing. Even while we're eating, Varya disappears for about 20 minutes. Turns out, she went to sit with another family with two kids a few booths down. I ask Olha if she's allowed herself to think about the future, and she shakes her head no.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: There is no stability for us at all, she says.

O LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: What way is life going to go? - she asks, staring off into the distance. But as we leave the restaurant, Ihor tells me he's finding comfort in things in the here and now. Chervonohrad, the city where they're staying, sounds similar to Chernihiv.

Do you find yourselves kind of, like, looking for signs like that, like the name is similar?

I LYSENKO: Yes. Yes.

NADWORNY: He tells me about the two cities' colors - red and black.

I LYSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: They remind him of a Ukrainian folk song. The song's words are about destiny. The lyrics say red color is love; black color is something that must be overcome. He says this means something, and it tells him they are exactly where they need to be.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Chervonohrad, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "TETRISHEAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.