Ukrainian teenager touches Slovenians with sensitivity at the piano


Ukrainian teenager touches Slovenians with sensitivity at the piano

Living in a world of sound, Vika, 13, is accompanied by an inner music that helps her find her way., 17 May 2022

Like a teenager anywhere, 13-year-old Vika Fursova listens to music on her smartphone. But instead of popular hits she is listening to is her own improvisation on the piano. Soft, like rain, it comforts her after a harrowing journey from war-torn Ukraine.

Vika was born blind, so sound has always been vital to her. In Ukraine, she attended a special school, where the focus was on music. Now far from home and homesick, Vika depends on music more than ever. “It lifts me up, dispels sadness, helps to connect me…” she says.

Fortunately in Slovenia, where Vika and her family have been granted temporary protection, there is every chance she can continue to grow as a musician. UNHCR and its partners are working to support her in this.
Vika, her parents Tetyana, 39, and Oleksiy, 44, and siblings Vladislav, 7, Oleksandr, 5, and Dariya, 8 months, are from Kharkiv, a city of parks and now of bomb craters. Oleksiy had his own business and built a house in the countryside, in a village that has come under Russian control.

“On the morning of 24 February (when war broke out), we packed up and left,” says Tetyana. “I was hesitating but Oleksiy insisted and as things turned out, he was right. Two days later, our neighbours were already hiding in their cellars.”

I heard it was a nice, quiet country

The family of seven – because grandma went too – squashed into their car and drove for 20 hours to western Ukraine. With little space for luggage, the main things to take were Vika’s braille machine and a Monopoly set with raised tactile letters, enabling her to play the game with everyone else.

“We waited in western Ukraine, hoping peace talks might work out,” says Tetyana. “But when it was clear the war was dragging on, we drove via Slovakia and Austria to Slovenia. Slovenia, because I used to work with Slovenes at a telecommunications company in Kiev. I heard it was a nice, quiet country.”All refugees leave their world behind but for Vika the move was particularly hard. Her special needs, back home, were met at the V.G. Korolenko School for the Visually Impaired, founded in 1887. “It had a rare collection of special teaching materials,” says Tetyana. “Now the windows are all blown out. The school’s closed and some of the children have been evacauted to Poland.”

“Her inner world comes out in her own pieces”

Vika, who has played the piano since the age of five, was due to take exams at Korolenko before moving on to the next stage of her education. She had a close friend there, also called Vika, also blind, and together they played pieces on the piano for four hands. Happy times.

Now Vika must adapt to life in a refugee centre in the town of Logatec, near Ljubljana. The centre is home to just over 300 of the 6,000 Ukrainian refugees who have applied for protection in Slovenia. Thousands more have transited through the small Alpine country.

Romana Zidar, UNHCR’s point person in Slovenia, goes regularly to Logatec to assess the needs of refugees. “They are so different – from the elderly to children to the hard-of-hearing. We try to find solutions in the community,” she says. Specially for Vika, UNHCR’s partner, the Red Cross, came up with a synthesiser so the girl could practise in the one room the whole family shares.

Vika was going to need the electronic keyboard and more – access to a proper piano – because she’d been invited to take part in a charity concert with the Slovenian police orchestra. The local music school opened its doors and allowed Vika to rehearse on one of its instruments. The concert went well and Vika’s performance was noticed.
Since then Vika, who is attending an ordinary school in Logatec, picking up Slovenian and using her English, has been welcome to make periodic use of the music school’s resources. On its Steinway grand, she warms up her fingers before playing part of a Beethoven sonata and music by the 20th century Ukrainian composer Mark Karminsky.

But it is when she starts to play her own compositions that she really moves the listener. “Her inner world comes out in her own pieces,” says Tetyana, close to tears. “I think we can hear everything she has experienced.”

“I dreamt of travelling, but not like this.”

“Melodies come to me,” says Vika, who wears a sweatshirt with the words Girls Can Dream. “I sit and play and in the process, something comes to me and I start to develop it. The longest so far is eight minutes…”

On the phone from Kharkiv, music teacher Olesia Olhovskaya, who continues to give Vika lessons online, confirms her special talent. “She’s very creative,” Olesia says. “She can play for hours. I never have to force her. She sits down and she’s one with the instrument. It’s her nature. I hope I will see her again in school next year.”

The ties with Ukraine are strong and everyone is hoping for a speedy return. Tetyana is missing her garden and plants. Oleksiy understands his work prospects would be better in his native country. Vika in particular is aching for home.

“I dreamt of travelling,” she says, “but not like this. I want to go home. That’s my dream now.”

Vika sits again at the piano and offers a new improvisation. Like a soundtrack for a film, it starts dreamily, swells with forward movement and resolves in light. Her hands fall from the keyboard and she is silent for a few seconds. Then a cappella, in a high, clear voice, she starts to sing and the room is filled with her hymn for peace.