Erik Heinonen has spent years helping people who were fleeing from war or natural disasters in his job for Catholic Relief Services. That work took him to Greece, Nigeria, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Four years ago, he moved to Ukraine, to the city of Irpin, which is outside of Kyiv.
Heinonen, who grew up in Eugene, built a good life for himself and his family in Irpin. “The things we were thinking about were: finding a group to walk the dogs with, buying bicycles. We were re-seeding the lawn and leveling it, so that when baby came, we’d have a good place for him or her — turned out to be her — to play.”
Then came the war. And after helping other refugees, Heinonen became one himself. In February, Heinonen and his wife and baby, along with his step-daughter and mother-in-law, fled to Romania.
“Part of my work is at times related to disaster risk reduction, which is all about being ready and resilient in the times of disaster and preparing communities for the things that may come,” said Heinonen. “So I was taking a little bit of that framework and applying it to our situation and thinking through what do we need to have ready in case we need to shelter in place if this goes in the wrong direction here at home, or if we need to leave the country, having everything ready to go.”
Heinonen’s wife, step-daughter, and mother-in-law had already fled their home in Eastern Ukraine once, when Russia invaded in 2014, so they were familiar with the sound of rocket fire. First, the family went to western Ukraine, with five people and two dogs in one car. “We got everybody in the car and closed up the house, grabbed one of the Ukrainian flags we had off the porch, stuck it in the car and drove off.”
Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently required to stay in the country to fight. Because Heinonen is an American citizen, he was allowed to leave with his family when they made the choice to flee to Romania.
“People I know closely and people I care dearly about are defending their cities, fighting either as part of territorial defense brigades or as members of the Ukrainian armed forces,” said Heinonen. “I think about them a lot and obviously hope that that they will stay safe in all of this.” Heinonen is now working from Romania for Catholic Relief Services to help other refugees from the war in Ukraine. “I don’t know how I’ll ever fully and sufficiently acquit my debt to the people who have stayed behind to defend and to support,” he said.
Being a refugee himself has taught Heinonen to focus more on the mental health of the people he works with. “Just simply listening and being there to have a conversation,” says Heinonen, “can be incredibly powerful and meaningful for people who have gone through this type of situation.”
Heinonen and his family have just signed a lease on an apartment in Romania, but shares a sentiment he hears among the refugees he works with. “Basically, everyone says the same thing, ‘we want to go home.’”
In his family’s case, that may mean waiting for mines and unexploded ordnance to be cleared out of Irpin, which was liberated a few weeks ago. Or it may be much longer.
You can listen to the whole interview with Erik Heinonen by pressing the play arrow on the audio above.