THE long and agonising five-day trek — most of it on foot — from Lviv in western Ukraine to the border with Poland last year February is still fresh in William Massias's mind.
The Jamaican businessman, his Ukrainian wife Victoria, and their five children — Alexia, Leigha, Liam, Maya, and Timothy — had fled their home in Dnipro as Russian President Vladimir Putin increased his sabre-rattling, signalling Moscow's intention to invade its neighbour.
It took them hours, in freezing temperature, to get into Poland as the border was overcrowded with Ukrainians and foreigners fleeing Putin's bombs. But when Massias and his family finally did cross the border they, and the Jamaicans who had been following their journey, breathed a sigh of relief.
Having escaped the fighting, the family spent time in other European states. But now, they have left their friends and associates wide-eyed and O-mouthed with news that they have returned to Ukraine, despite the deadly conflict.
"We went back in September," Massias, who is now in the island, told the Jamaica Observer last week.
Why go back in the middle of the war after making such a great effort and then enduring torment to leave, we asked.
"Three reasons," he said with a smile that suggested he was happy with the decision.
"One is Grandma Vera," he said, referencing his wife's mother who had refused to leave the country.
"We called her and she said there was no fighting in Dnipro. Everything is okay. That was the first thing.
"The second thing is that I had a resident card that had expired. It had taken me two years to get the permanent card because, remember, I was living there. The immigration people called me and said, 'If you don't come to pick up this card we're going to discard it. You have to physically come and put your fingerprint in a machine to collect this card. Nobody can do it for you.'
"I said to the lady, 'You don't know there's a war going on, there must be some concession.' She said 'No, where we are everything is business as usual.' She said all the embassies have returned, everybody's coming back, and people are coming back into Ukraine," Massias explained.
The third reason, he said, was to continue his children's homeschooling, which became an issue when the family made Portugal one of their stops on what turned out to be an extensive tour of Europe last summer.
That tour, he shared, started in Poland and restored his faith in humanity.
"We were overwhelmed by the graciousness and generosity of people. I mean, we got like five, six people that reached out to us, giving up their homes," Massias told the Sunday Observer.
The first act of kindness, he said, was extended to him and is family by a Polish woman named Wanda who had contacted him on Facebook after reading his posts as well as the Observer's accounts of his journey from Ukraine.
"She has a three-bedroom apartment in the middle of Warsaw and she said to us, 'Here, this home is yours.' I said 'What?' And she said, 'Yes, this is your home, these are your keys. Stay as long as you want.' She wouldn't allow me to pay for electricity, water, nothing," he related, adding that the woman moved in with a friend to accommodate them.
"The amazing thing about it was that we were there for about six weeks, catching our breath. While we were there we heard a lot of the aircraft coming in at night... a lot of the planes dropping off soldiers."
The military activity, Massias admitted, had him thinking that Poland would have been dragged into the war. He discussed it with his wife and they decided to move further west.
"So we talked to Wanda and told her we're going to move. She cried and asked why. She said, 'You can't leave us.' And I said, 'Yes, I want to go to Portugal,' and as we go that way we're going take our time and just meander through the different countries."
Wanda's offer, he told the Sunday Observer, was one of approximately six he had received. "But my heart just went to Wanda. I talked to her on the phone and she's a wonderful person."
They left for Prague, stayed there for about a week. "We just wanted to see what was there, and then we went down into Paris. We didn't stay long, maybe another week, left Paris and went to Barcelona."
"Here's the beauty about this, all of our transportation was free. All the trains, once you show your Ukrainian passport, because my wife is Ukrainian, they allowed us to come through," he explained.
"So we get into Barcelona, stayed there for a while, maybe about two weeks, then went to a small town — I can't remember exactly what the name of the town was — and stayed in a Red Cross facility."
Massias said he recalled that when they were leaving Ukraine a woman, who was also following his story on Facebook and in the Observer, had contacted him with an offer of accommodation in Portugal. And while he had, at the time, told her that he wasn't thinking of going to that country, now that he was Barcelona he took the opportunity to call her.
"Her name is Sumya Diaz," he said, adding that the woman told him that she had seen on his Facebook page that he is a Priory High School alumnus and revealed that she, too, is a past student.
"I called her and she said, 'Yes, the house is here.' So we got there; it's about 30 kilometres from Porto. It's a beautiful house that was built in the 1800s. Really nice. She took us to the back and there was a vacation home there on the same property. We're about two minutes from the beach, and she says, 'This is your house. Stay as long as you want.' So she gave us the house then she came to us and gave us the key to a car. 'Have the car. Drive anywhere you want.' "
Again, his host would not entertain the thought of him paying utilities.
"I only bought food," he said.
He has fond memories of the many meals his family shared with Diaz and her husband and son, and the relaxed atmosphere at the property.
The Portuguese Government, he said, offered them residence status, and with that came the requirement that their children had to get into the formal school system. At that point he and his wife decided to return to Ukraine as they are comfortable with homeschooling their children.
The fact that he and his wife had been storing food in their cellar in Dnipro before they left — about a year's supply, he said — also factored in their decision.
"So we flew from Porto back into Warsaw and took a bus — 30 hours — into Ukraine."
Was there any apprehension in the family, especially among the children, about returning?
"Not at all. No fear," he responded. "The truth is that if there was any apprehension it was me more than my wife and the kids because I was always concerned for them, because my responsibility is them."
He painted a picture of Dnipro today.
"Everything is like how it is in Jamaica; you look out [you see] people walking, conducting business, all the shelves are full of food, business as usual. You can't tell there's a war there where we are. At first when we thought about it we said, 'Bwoy, should we go back into this place?' And then the more we thought about it, we said 'Well, we have a house there, we need to organise ourselves.' External people to that, who see the news, the first thing they would say is, 'Are you mad. Why?' "
But, according to Massias, he realised as well that all the fighting was taking place on the eastern side of the country.
He recalled one incident of a bomb dropping at an intersection in Dnipro. The explosion destroyed a section of the street. "Two days later you didn't even know there was a bomb there because they repaired the road. You could only see the patch. That was it," he said.
These days the only inconvenience he and his family experience are power outages every four hours as the Russians, he said, are targeting infrastructure.
"We're fortunate, most of the people in other cities, sometimes eight, 10 hours for the day they don't have electricity; same with water. When electricity is off, you have no water so those are things. It's inconvenient for us. We have some solar batteries, we have Starlink that connects us [to the Internet]."
Asked if he intends to make his Ukraine residency long term Massias, the CEO of online deal and discount provider Brawta Living, said, "I would say my wish is [for] Jamaica to be my home and Ukraine I go and visit as an access to Europe. So, I'm coming back home. I love Jamaica. Plus, I need to come back and focus on my business and get things going again. Our business suffered tremendously during the pandemic — 90 per cent of our revenues were gone — so I had to revamp and rethink and re-engineer, come back and launch it."
He plans to return to Ukraine in another two weeks, after which he intends to take the family to Jamaica for the summer.