Life aboard a Dutch ship housing Ukrainian refugees

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JUlia Martyshkina didn’t expect to find herself under the sea. But when she fled Ukraine on the first day of the war, she didn’t expect much. As the sound of the explosions on February 24 made her heart pound in her chest, all she knew was that she had to grab her 8-year-old son, Danilo, and run.

Struggling to think clearly, she packed almost nothing. She has just loaded her child on a bus that has taken a precarious route through Ukraine’s back roads to avoid winding traffic jams on the main road to Poland. “We could see all the signs of the bombing in the distance,” says Julia, a 35-year-old baker and cake decorator from Vinnytsia. Desperate to keep her child calm, she firmed her voice and told Danilo that they were on a special trip.

“We’re going to see Daddy,” she reassured him.

Dad – Vladimir, 36, who is estranged from Julia – was in the Netherlands at the time, nearing the end of a construction job. He was due to return home to Vinnytsia, a town about 250 km southwest of kyiv, a few days later. But instead, he found himself running to Poland to find his son. Three days later he brought the whole family back to the Netherlands.

Read more: Ukrainian refugees try to find their way to Poland

That’s how Julia, Vladimir and Danilo found themselves in the hull of the MLV Castor, a restored Dutch Cold War-era gunboat moored in the center of Rotterdam’s gleaming harbour. The reassignment of Castor to house 23 Ukrainians is part of the Dutch state’s efforts to find beds for 50,000 Ukrainians, in a country facing its own acute housing crisis. Monasteries, summer camps, private residences, military barracks and cruise liners, municipalities across the country have come up with their own unique solutions.

The response reflects efforts across Europe and demonstrates the huge logistical challenges ahead as the continent faces its biggest refugee movement since World War II.

Julia Martyshkina with other Ukrainian refugees on the MLV Castor

Max Pinckers for TIME

More than 5.5 million people have fled Ukraine in recent months, most of them to countries in the European Union. More than 3 million people have traveled to Poland, around 825,000 have fled to Romania and more than half a million are in Hungary. For the first time, the EU has activated its Temporary Protection Directive, which means Ukrainians arriving in an EU country have the right to live, work, go to school and travel freely in any other EU country.

Read more: Europe’s reception of Ukrainian refugees shows that a better asylum system is possible

And while the numbers fluctuate as new moves take place every day, it’s clear that many people are moving on. Germany has registered 390,000 Ukrainians. About 134,000 are in Spain. Nearly 48,000 Ukrainians have so far registered in the Netherlands, a country of 17 million people.


Julia arrived on the MLV Castor on March 16, docked by the municipality of Rotterdam after spending a few weeks in a cramped room where Vladimir had been carrying out construction work. While the couple are separated, they have worked together for the best interests of their child. Julia recalls her first thoughts upon seeing the 150ft gunboat, restored to its original 1947 specifications, including three mounted guns. “Is it really possible to live here? she thought as she crossed the catwalk.

The family cabin is in the hull, below water level. There are no portholes: just an escape ladder leading to the deck about 16 feet above. “The first night I couldn’t sleep because the water was slapping on the walls,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m in the water! I’m underwater!’”

The ship’s owner, Mario van Parijs, says there was a similar reaction from many of the 23 people – mostly women and children – who were assigned to his ship by the municipality of Rotterdam. He is puzzled. He grew up on his parents’ trading ship; living on the water is no problem in a country with 280 miles of coastline, 3,700 miles of inland waterways and a third of the land below sea level.

“Ukrainians never realized that it was also possible to live on a boat,” says the jovial Dutchman. “A family is actually gone in the middle of the night. They got seasick.

The former naval engineer enjoys telling the story of the MLV Castor, well aware of its contemporary resonance. It was built just after World War II as the Dutch prepared for the Cold War and any potential hostility from Russia. “One of its purposes was an evacuation ship for the government and the royal family, in case the Russians started dropping atomic bombs,” he explains.

Today, the MLV Castor has a new incarnation as a museum ship, party boat and floating hotel. As one of the few seaworthy ships of her time, she appeared in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk.

When the municipality of Rotterdam started preparing for the arrival of Ukrainians, it knew it had to find innovative housing solutions. Like many countries in Europe, the Netherlands is facing a housing crisis, with almost a million new homes needed by 2030. There are already 35,000 refugees from other countries waiting for permanent housing, many of whom live in appalling conditions in tents.

“The first option was to book a lot of hotel rooms,” Rotterdam Deputy Mayor Vincent Karremans told TIME. “We also started transforming offices that were empty. Then we started bringing them from hotels to river cruise ships.

Julia and Danilo Martyshkina aboard the MLV Castor in Rotterdam on April 30.

Max Pinckers for TIME

The MLV Castor is one of four river cruise ships that the municipality rents for three months to house Ukrainians. He even persuaded a cruise liner to bring one of his ships to port, and 1,400 Ukrainians now live on board.

Karremans says the town’s past makes it open to those fleeing war: “Only three buildings survived the bombings of World War II. It is part of our history and our DNA. We feel the plight of the Ukrainian people.


Julia is grateful for the welcome she has received from the people of Rotterdam, evidence of which is all over the ship: the officers’ mess is littered with donated toys; bins of toiletries brought in by neighbors fill the shelves in the three bathrooms. When Julia started looking for work, offers poured in and she now has three jobs: bartender, waitress and working in a karaoke lounge.

The municipality finances the catering on board the Castor, and every day there is a communal breakfast and dinner, served by Van Parijs’ wife, Eelke, while the Ukrainian mothers come in and out of the galley to prepare the meals. difficult children.

Julia is in on it. She is a radiant, warm and expansive woman with a smile that makes her look a decade younger than her 35 years. She seems happy and at ease on the boat, affectionately berating the ship’s dog, Butz, a big brown Labrador who navigates the steep stairwells with much more ease than Ukrainian children.

But Julia is not at home, and she is not happy. Behind the smile, there are always thoughts of war. “When I was in Poland, I saw the planes in the sky and thought the bombs were coming,” she says. “When I saw the birds flying overhead, I couldn’t see it was just birds.”

When she goes to her work in bars and cafes, she is in disbelief that people can have a good time outside and wants to ask them what they are doing, how they can continue.

Ira Koval, a Ukrainian who volunteers with the Foundation for Ukrainians in the Netherlands, which existed before the war but stepped up to help newcomers, says she sees the same trauma in many of her compatriots.

“Life here is like a movie played to you but it’s not real,” she says. “The weather is nice, everything is blooming, the weather is nice, you see people having a drink on the terraces and you have just escaped the bombardments. It is an extremely difficult situation.

This trauma is one of the long-term problems European nations hosting Ukrainians will face, as will the education of millions of children who do not speak the language of the country in which they have sought refuge.

The immediate need, however, is housing. Julia and her family are due to leave MLV Castor on June 16. No one knows yet where they will go. There appear to be few plans in place beyond temporary solutions, but Ukrainians cannot live on boats for more than a few months, and the thousands of people across Europe who have housed Ukrainians in their own homes begin to feel the pressure. Karremans says they are working on solutions, but admits they haven’t found them yet.

It is this next phase of the integration of Ukrainian refugees that could prove politically the most taxing for the European Union and presents the possibility of tensions between the needs of the new arrivals and the existing problems in their host countries. In the Netherlands, it is about providing housing for Ukrainians while many Dutch people and refugees from other countries have been waiting for years for stable housing. Germany faces similar housing challenges. In Spain, the government must justify helping Ukrainians find work when 12% of its population is unemployed. EU countries must find ways to address these delicate challenges if they are to avoid a backlash and a rise in nationalist sentiment.

Julia and Danilo Martyshkina aboard the MLV Castor in Rotterdam on April 30.

Max Pinckers for TIME

And while some Ukrainians are returning home as the landscape of the war becomes clearer, Julia cannot envisage a safe return: “Even if the war ends, the economic situation will be bad, there will be mines in the ground . Every day I will be so worried about my child.

For now, she can only return in her dreams, and the last time her spirit took her back, her homeland was a gray and desolate place. When she awoke, she was overwhelmed with an unexpected emotion at her unusual situation under the waves. “I opened my eyes, I was on a boat and I was very happy.”

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