20/02/2024 Juliana Széchenyi

Their first thought in the morning: how is it back home?

They thought they would stay for maybe two months, but they are slowly entering their third year in Slovenia. Marina Dolibec, Bohdana Kovtun, Nikita Bolshakov and Mihajlo Gorjainov are young musicians from Ukraine whose arrival in Slovenia we followed at the beginning of March two years ago, about two weeks after the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Two years after that, they still speak Slovenian, music is still at the centre of their lives (perhaps even more so), they still yearn for their homeland. On Friday evening, they will perform with the Slovenian Youth Orchestra at the Slovenian Philharmonic Hall as part of the Winter Festival.

All four young interviewees, practically without thinking, give the exact date of their arrival in Slovenia: 6 March, 10 March and 17 March 2022.

The main reason that has driven millions of people to flee does not need to be mentioned, but the reason they chose Slovenia is the possibility to continue to make music. Or in the words of Marina Dolibec: "They have other problems in my country."

The young musicians Nikita Bolshakov, Marina Dolibec, Bohdana Kovtun and Mihajlo Gorjainov arrived in Slovenia at the beginning of March two years ago.

Two years ago, members of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine were supported to come to Slovenia by Živa Ploj Peršuh, conductor and leader of the Slovenian Youth Orchestra, and her husband Tomo Peršuh. At that time, more than 140 musicians and their accompanists arrived in Slovenia in several groups. There are 87 more in Slovenia, says Tomo Peršuh, who was then also the guardian of the unaccompanied 14-year-olds, of which are now four left; some of them have gone back, some of them have come of age, as Peršuh cheerfully, almost proudly, gestured towards Nikita, 18, and Marina, a year older. Most of them live in private apartments, most of them in Ljubljana, but there are a few families in Kočevje, Primorska and Štajerska. In Ljubljana, 35 mothers and their children have been accommodated in a seminary.

Around 15 Ukrainian musicians are members of the Slovenian Youth Orchestra. Because they have a performance on Friday, they have two rehearsals every day this week, when the other children are on holiday. "We are trying to integrate them in all musical activities, to arrange performances where they can show their knowledge, their talent and, above all, to perform as young people with dignity," Živa Ploj Peršuh emphasised.


The boys who are going to Ukraine can no longer return

Nikita and Marina live in an apartment in Trnovo with two other friends. "Close to the Conservatorium for Music and Ballet in Ljubljana (KGBL)", the young cellist Nikita was quick to point out a key piece of information. They pay the rent with the help they receive from the state, so for now they have no problems. These come when they have to renew their status every six months, and until they get a decision, they don't get any money either. They also do not know what will happen when their protected status expires in March 2025.

Marina, now a student of solo singing at the Academy of Music, plays the role of their guardian or overseer, Peršuh jokingly remarked. When she left Ukraine two years ago, thinking it would be for two months and then she would return home, she said freely, "I don't understand, I can't comprehend that I have been here for two years." Her family has stayed in their home town of Zhytomyr, where it is "peaceful" for now, as the Ukrainian word, which actually has a similar meaning to Slovenian, comes into her conversation. So far she has been home twice, when she took exams at her home music school (she attended KGBL in parallel before entering the academy ), otherwise she often hears from family members and friends.

I don't know, it's the answer to virtually all questions about the future. "I don't know what tomorrow will be, what a month, a year from now. It's hard to make plans if you don't know what will happen. That's why I don't plan anything, I live from day to day. /.../ When I was in Ukraine, I was thinking about what I was going to do in the future. Now I don't do that anymore," she shrugged.

Nikita, who attends KGBL and is also in Zhytomyr from a distance, arrived in Ljubljana on the same bus as Marina. "I also thought we would come for two months, so that I could improve my musical skills a bit. I didn't think the war would last so long," said the young cellist, born in Kiev. He has not had a normal life for four years, since the pandemic brought distance learning, which is still part of his daily life. For now, he has one goal: to finish the conservatoire and be admitted to the Academy of Music. "Last year it was still difficult because I didn't understand Slovenian well, but now I'm doing great," he added.

He has not been back to Ukraine since the war started, and now that he is 18, he cannot go back, because the general mobilisation of the country means that men cannot leave the country after the age of 18. "Even 16-year-olds can have problems," added Tomo Peršuh.


Going to the dentist in Ukraine

Also, 19-year-old clarinettist Mikhail Gorjainov can no longer go to Ukraine. He is in Slovenia with his mother and this is not the first time he has run away. He comes from Donetsk, where he and his family moved to Krivoy Rog in 2014, and he had to leave this second home too. His father and brother stayed behind. He and his mother, who is a chemistry professor, now live in Kočevje, Slovenia. His goal is also clear: to be admitted to the academy. It is because of his music and the excellent professor he has that he likes Slovenia better at the moment, he says honestly.

Bohdana Kovtun is a violinist, in her second year at the Academy of Music. She also comes from the Zhytomyr area, from the town of Hmelnitsky. "It was difficult at the beginning because I didn't speak Slovenian yet. Of course, I still don't speak it well, but I understand," she said modestly. She returns to Ukraine when her studies allow, sometimes accompanied by a younger peer. The last time they travelled for 40 hours, she recalled, they waited for 12 hours at the border alone.

In Ljubljana, she lives in Črnuče, she added, and Tomo Peršuh casually hinted that she was lucky to be staying with a musician - Vlado Kreslin. She also performed at his concert, after all, they can rehearse together, and she certainly has no problems with complaints from neighbours, which are often heard by other guests when she is hosted by such a person. "I can rehearse at night," said Bohdana cheerfully.

Here, the conversation turns to those things that surprise and excite them in Slovenia. "My friend has already said in despair that he is going to play at Rožnik", Nikita exclaimed. They are also annoyed that shops are closed on Sundays and that umbrellas and bicycles are stolen in Ljubljana. But by far the biggest problem is that they have no choice of personal doctor, gynaecologist or dentist, so they can only go to the emergency room, where they have to be armed with all sorts of documents and papers. In particular, they have such a bad experience of access to a dentist that they - those who return from time to time - prefer to go to one in Ukraine.


They are integrated very well

They all integrated very well and were welcomed well everywhere, by their peers and teachers. "They are all doing well in school," said Peršuh, who as a guardian has gone to a lot of parent-teacher conferences and speaking hours. "As long as they are in school, they are well taken care of, but it's harder when they complete their education," he noted. It is also difficult for their mothers; they are all educated, they have taken Slovene courses, but with the level of language proficiency required, which cannot be reached in a year or two, makes it difficult for them to get a job. "There is simply no system to involve them so that the children do not lose support. As they cannot get permanent employment, they risk losing the child's assistance too, and they could lose their accommodation. This is also psychologically very stressful for them, so they do their best to find ways to be as useful as possible to society," Peršuh described one of the problems.

Two years later, everyone still wakes up every morning and the first thing they think about is what it's like at home, looking at pictures of bombs, burning streets ... Although most of Mikhail's life in Donetsk has been a war, and he left at the age of nine, he is adamant that this is his city, a city he loves and remembers as beautiful. "In 2012, two years before the war, we had the European Football Championship. Back then, it was a modern, beautiful and big city. That's how it has stayed in my memory." And it will be even more beautiful one day, he concluded firmly.

Medium: Delo.si
Author: Simona Bandur
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2024
Link: The first thought of young Ukrainian musicians in the morning: How is it back home?