Irina Leonenko-Wels

Irina Leonenko Photography

I felt like we might never have a home again….

Early in the morning of February 24th, 2022, at 5 o’clock, I sat on the floor in my home in Belgium, tears streaming down my face, while talking to my family in Ukraine. Russia had started bombing Ukraine.

I was worried about my cousin and her two small children, as the bombings were dangerously close to their home in Kyiv. I remember urgently telling them to get in the car and drive to my place. That very morning, they set off with no time to pack anything. The streets and roads were in chaos. People were stranded in their cars at border crossings for more than 4 days. My cousin and her 2 kids managed to escape the country and arrived in Belgium.

In 2014, my family was forced to abandon their home in Donetsk and move to central Ukraine when Russia invaded Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. They left everything behind, and for ten years, none of us have been able to return home. Now, bombings were occurring all over Ukraine, and it felt like we might never have a home again.

Intertwined with this anxiety was a fear that our identity, our stories would fade away. It felt as though our existence was being erased, our memories and history slipping through our fingers. I found solace in photographing various moments with my family during those hard times: when all fifteen of us shared my home in Belgium for six months; my first visit back to Ukraine after the 24th of February; and the summer of 2022 when I reunited with my parents in Ukraine.

Even small moments, like taking a swim in the Dnipro River – something I believed I might never do again – brought unexpected happiness. These instances became my lifeline, my way of holding onto a semblance of normality. The simplest of activities, such as that river swim, once taken for granted, transformed into symbols of hope.

My return trip to Ukraine was difficult physically and emotionally. Not only did I witness ruins and grief in many places, but I realized most of my extended family would be scattered across the world as refugees.

Even in the face of this uncertainty, one thing remains true: the memories I captured in my photographs hold our stories, our laughter, our tears. They're bridges to our past and gifts to our future. They ensure that our legacy lives on and that our children can one day sit down and find solace in the embrace of their relatives.