“I didn’t have any huge dreams. I only knew I wanted to live so that I didn’t have to count each crown, each coin,” said Oli.
Within hours of exchanging their Soviet Rubles for Polish Zloty, Oli and her family were left without citizenship. It was 1991, and the Soviet Union had fallen.
In -30-degree Celsius weather, Oli’s family spent two days inching forward in line to cross the border into Poland, unable to sleep for fear of being skipped. They had no access to a toilet or fresh water, only what little food they brought with them. They crossed at night while Oli slept, but 33 years later, she still remembers the border security searching their car to make sure they didn’t have anything dangerous.
To the family’s surprise, when they arrived in Poland, it was Christmas—celebrated on the 25th instead of January. Everything was closed, and they struggled to find an affordable place to stay. They booked the most expensive hotel in Warsaw for a night. “After these days in the car, it was weird to sleep in a bed,” said Oli.
Oli and her family spent five years without citizenship. Her father had been a surgeon, and her mother was a general practitioner. They had to start from scratch when they came to Prague as refugees, volunteering, making connections, learning the language, and eventually taking the medical exams again.
Moving to then-Czechoslovakia, she was thrust into school not knowing the language and moved up a grade because her reading and writing were advanced. She was still expected to perform just like the local children.
“The teacher told me I was stupid because I was holding the pen the wrong way… I can still hear her voice,” said Oli.
Oli was steadfast, and a core memory was when she finally came home with an A in the Czech language class. Despite only being in primary school, she studied hard to catch up because her parents viewed low marks as unacceptable. Oli laughs, looking back now, “because even Czech kids didn’t have… good grades.”
Oli’s family left their home in Chernivtsi, in what is now Ukraine, twice when she was only 7. The first time, they left for Germany with other families, but her mom was not happy there. Poland was the beginning of their second new start, heading towards Prague.
“I remember very fondly the place [Chernivtsi] when I was small. Even when I came back there later, the architecture is really beautiful. It reminds me a little bit of the Czech Republic, the architecture,” said Oli. Maybe this is why they chose to stay permanently.
The family got residency and finally moved out of the refugee camp in Usti Nad Labem after about eight months. Oli believes that the reason they got residence permits so quickly was, in part, because of the Czech woman her mom helped while volunteering as a doctor.
Life was really hard growing up. Her family sold everything they had to afford their escape to Prague, even her parents’ wedding bands.
Attending university allowed Oli to escape once more from the struggles her family endured growing up. She worked as an English teacher to support herself.
“I was so happy to be out of the reach of my parents that I really didn’t care what I was studying. I was just enjoying the freedom,” said Oli.
Every choice that Oli makes is influenced by her experiences, whether it be growing up with an ever-changing idea of home or working twice as hard as everyone else. She works two jobs to provide a stable income that she didn’t always have, and it challenges her.
Oli still has family in Ukraine, but she has made the Czech Republic her home with her husband and two children in a small town near Prague. She works part-time in HR and runs a kindergarten.
The kindergarten was inspired by her daughter, as staying at home on maternity leave made her restless. She loved doing courses and clubs, learning while spending time together. Oli works with children because she wants kids to enjoy learning and not have to endure the negativity she went through. She models the kindergarten after her positive experiences, where knowledge is rewarding, not demeaning.
“I’m happy to learn… because I feel like I’m growing, and I like that,” said Oli.