Refugees flee into the arms of loving strangers in Melbourne’s Parkdale

The group had to walk for hours due to the traffic standstill between Lviv and the Polish border.

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As well as her apartment and possessions, Ms Shyshko had to leave behind her parents and her 85-year-old grandmother, none of whom had passports, but all of whom she believes are safe.

The family, joined in Poland by Mr Shyshko from Tel Aviv, was helped to board a bus to Warsaw. They spent most of their savings buying flights to Australia via Helsinki.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Ms Pilcher felt compelled to help. “I was sick of crying every night at what I was seeing,” said the community health worker.

“It felt like history was repeating. If I didn’t have children [aged six, four and seven months]my plan would have been to fly back to Romania and volunteer on the border, but obviously, I can’t.”

Ms Pilcher’s family left Timisoara in Romania when she was 12, after the USSR crumbled and Ceausescu turned his soldiers on civilians.

Yana Shyshko, feeding the Pilcher-Shyshko household's youngest resident, Eli Pilcher, 7 months.

Yana Shyshko, feeding the Pilcher-Shyshko household’s youngest resident, Eli Pilcher, 7 months.

She remembers seeing people shot in the street and passing bodies during her tram ride to school.

The Ukraine war brought this back along with a desire to do something practical.

“We had donated money, but I said to my husband, ‘What more can we do? We need to build an app where Ukrainian families can connect with families anywhere in the world.’ I’ve Googled and found one straight away.

“By the time I told my husband I had gone on there, Yana had already contacted me. I said him, ‘You know that website you told me about, well…’ ”

As Ms Pilcher and husband Alex were moving out of their bedroom to get it ready for the Shyshkos, Yana, Dmytro and Alisa were recovering in a Polish refugee camp.

When they arrived in Victoria they were greeted by Alex Pilcher, a project manager, holding a homemade sign.

“It had our name and with love hearts. It was very great,” Ms Shyshko said.

“Alex was so kind. I was a little bit afraid of speaking English, but he tried to speak with me and asked about Dyma and Alisa. I said Dyma likes sport and Alex said, ‘There’s a lot of sports grounds for children and Australians like sport.’ ”

Mr Shyshko holds daughter Alisa at Parkdale beach after the family began its new life in Melbourne in late March.

Mr Shyshko holds daughter Alisa at Parkdale beach after the family began its new life in Melbourne in late March.Credit:Simon Schluter

When he saw Alisa, Alex “felt very emotional,” Ms Pilcher said.

“He doesn’t cry much – I mean, he cried watching Shane Warne’s funeral – but he cried when he saw the family, particularly Alisa, and thought of the kind of journey a girl of her age had had to make to get out of. Ukraine. You couldn’t imagine that for our children.”

Back in Parkdale, Georgie, 6, and Pippa, 4, had already made and sent a video introducing themselves to Dyma and Alisa, and were nagging their mother about “when are they coming, is Alisa arriving today, can we go and pick her up today?”

The warm welcome was only the first in a stream of generous gestures that keep on coming. Donations are also starting on a fundraising page.

Ms Pilcher put a callout on the Parkdale “Buy nothing new” Facebook page she helps moderate, and has had offers of toys, books, food, kitchen and other household items for the Shyshkos.

A contact at Monash Health offered his two-bedroom apartment in Clayton rent-free for six months from later this month, and a family who sold their Flinders holiday house invited the Shyshkos to take the furniture.

Operations manager for the Association of Ukrainians in Victoria, Irene Stawiski, said the community had set up a website where Australians can register offers of help, a job for a Ukrainian refugee, accommodation or donations.

Some children had already been placed in Victorian primary and secondary schools, medical care taken had been organized and many job offers, which can be up when appropriate visas are granted, are flowing in.

“As a community we’ve had to do things very quickly, but we’ve been absolutely inundated [with offers of help],” she said. The group has started a drop-in center and play area so newly arrived Ukrainians can find others.

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The Pilchers have also helped Serhii Shyshko find work, for which he is permitted to train while awaiting a new visa.

After all of this, Ms Shyshko said, she and Ms Pilcher will have a permanent bond.

“Edina is my best Australian friend. Forever,” she said. “I want to thank your country for helping … now we know that we are not alone in this big world.”

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