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Displaced Ukrainians in Bulgaria are finding ways to mark Orthodox Easter

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

It's Orthodox Easter this weekend, a weekend that would normally fill Ukraine with celebrations. But this year, Easter Sunday finds millions of Ukrainians displaced and seeking refuge in neighboring countries due to the Russian invasion. More than 40,000 are in Bulgaria, and NPR's Meghan Collins Sullivan spoke with a few about how the holiday will be different this year.

MEGHAN COLLINS SULLIVAN, BYLINE: At a small, noisy cafe in downtown Sofia, a group of moms and kids sit in chairs or on the floor drinking coffee and warm milk. This is not where they hoped to find themselves heading into Easter weekend, but they are relieved to be here. Tetyana Olefir and her daughters, 13-year-old Elizabeth and 10-year-old Alexandra, arrived in Bulgaria's capital just days ago.

TETYANA OLEFIR: I wish to go back for Easter because we have our tradition to make it - we have this Easter bread called paska.

SULLIVAN: Easter is one of the most important and joyous holidays in Eastern Europe.

OLEFIR: Everybody - we're painting eggs and drawing on eggs. And also, we make lot of sweets.

SULLIVAN: Instead, today they are enjoying the company of others displaced from Ukraine and finding some solace in sharing their stories. These moms and kids have left husbands, dads, sons and brothers behind. Men aged 18 to 60 have to stay to fight.

Irina Darbakova escaped with her daughter and two grandchildren three weeks ago after their home in Mariupol was destroyed. She had to leave her 20-year-old son Yuli behind and has since lost contact with him. Tetyana explains.

IRINA DARBAKOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

OLEFIR: She doesn't think it going to be holiday for her because her son is still in Mariupol - is fighting for Mariupol.

SULLIVAN: Pamela Della Toffola helped organize today's gathering. She hands out little cloth bags decorated with bunnies and filled with Easter treats to all the kids. She says she's trying to offer some moments of happiness for them.

PAMELA DELLA TOFFOLA: Actually, we try to organize things for them to forget sometimes - what the tragedy that they're leaving.

SULLIVAN: For others, this Easter may not be filled with the usual traditions, but they're finding meaning in safety and the kindness of strangers.

JOSEPH FEN: Actually, everyone helps us (laughter) because - yes, we're really thankful for those who are helping us.

SULLIVAN: That's 26-year-old Joseph Fen. He arrived in Bulgaria from Kyiv earlier this month with his friends, Anet and Natasha, and Natasha's 10-year-old twin girls, Alesandra and Yulia. His mom is Bulgarian, so he has a passport that allowed him to leave Ukraine. He says he feels torn but that he thinks he can be most helpful making connections for Ukrainians in Bulgaria.

FEN: My feelings are, like, mixed (laughter) because I know I can go back and be there with all of my friends because every day I think, it's like I left them there.

SULLIVAN: The friends will attend their church's online service Sunday. Joseph says they'll focus on the religious aspects of the holiday.

FEN: Like, meaning of this holiday changed for us because we survived something in our life. So we can say to kids and other people - we can give not traditions, but something bigger.

SULLIVAN: Meghan Collins Sullivan, NPR News, Sofia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meghan Collins Sullivan is a senior editor on the Arts & Culture Desk, overseeing non-fiction books coverage at NPR. She has worked at NPR over the last 13 years in various capacities, including as the supervising editor for NPR.org – managing a team of online producers and reporters and editing multi-platform news coverage. She was also lead editor for the 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, written by five scientists on topics related to the intersection of science and culture.