In a white house decorated with flowers and butterflies located in the Romanian Carpathian mountains, Ukrainian children run around. Older children sit in front of laptops and prepare to start online school. The dogs bark outside. The mothers prepare breakfast.
Since March, 21 refugee children and 13 adults have been housed in this temporary shelter, which before the war was used as an activity center to organize summer camps for young Romanians with cancer.
Among them is ten-year-old Daria Oliinyk, or Dasha, as she is known.
A competitive gymnast, her days are filled with online school classes and, at night, she trains for 90 minutes via Zoom with her coach, who is now in Poland and has also fled Ukraine.
Dasha arrived at the Romanian center, run by the nonprofit organization Asociatia Magic, on March 3 with her mother, Natalia, and her five-month-old brother, Sasha.
His father, Olech, stayed in his hometown of Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, like most Ukrainian men of fighting age.
It took the young family three days to drive from Ukraine through Moldova and Romania, waiting for hours at congested border crossings and stopping several times to ask for directions.
But shortly after arriving at the center, Dasha asked one of the volunteers for an exercise mat. Assuming that the girl wanted to play with her doll, the volunteer offered her a blanket. She turned him down and demanded a “real” exercise mat.
“I can’t suspend my athletic career because of a war,” Dasha, who has been training since she was three years old, told Al Jazeera.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dasha trained three hours a day, six days a week.
But her daily visits to the gym have been replaced by Zoom sessions with other young gymnasts, just three times a week.
The sessions create a sense of continuity, said coach Marta Repetatska.
“I would like them to train a little so they can relax and for a while forget about the situation in Ukraine,” he said.
Children make up half of the Ukrainian refugee population, according to UNICEF.
Experts say continued access to education gives children some stability and a sense of belonging in a time of uncertainty.
Natalia gently pushes her daughter to stay on top of her schoolwork and maintain a strong work ethic.
“I support her, I help her and, if necessary, I insist and set rules. Because she is a little person who needs her education and she cannot be left behind, “said Natalia. “I tell him that sometimes in life, if it’s hard, you can stop for a bit, you can cry for a bit, and then you move on.”
Dasha’s school in a city south of kyiv offers four hours of online classes a day, a routine similar to the pandemic but with some essential differences.
For example, if alarms go off in Vinnytsia, classes are interrupted while teachers take shelter. The school has been transformed into a refugee center for people from the areas most severely affected by the war, such as the north and east of Ukraine.
The exercise mats Dasha used to train on in physical education classes now serve as mattresses for the refugees.
Training remotely was challenging at first for Dasha. But little by little, other children from the Romanian center joined the Zoom sessions. They were far from being able to do the splits, but they encouraged Dasha and helped her feel less alone.
“I really miss my gym colleagues and friends, and I wish I could work out and work out together in the same gym,” Dasha said.
Repetatska described Dasha as a “very talented” gymnast.
“Now is the time for you to show your best results in gymnastics. Unfortunately, the war changed everything,” she said.
While training via Zoom offers consistency, it won’t keep gymnasts fit, Repetatska said.
She has been trying to find new temporary coaches for the gymnasts in the countries where they are.
In Dasha’s case, the Romanian Federation of Rhythmic Gymnastics has offered to train her.
She is open to change, but would prefer to return to Ukraine, be with her father and pick up where she left off.
“I want to reach my goals and continue on the path I was on,” he said.