KOMOROW, Poland -- When the Russian bombing got too close to their home near Kyiv, the Pavlenkos quickly decided it was time to flee Ukraine.
In their desperate rush to get out, besides some clothing, the family grabbed three otherwise ordinary items: a giraffe keychain, a packet of buckwheat, and a desk lamp.
Now, living as refugees in Poland, the Pavlenkos cling to those three mementos of everyone they left behind, their lives shattered when Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of their homeland on February 24, triggering the largest exodus of refugees ever since World War II.
Alyona, 45, and her husband, Viktor, 48, have five children: Nadia, Vika, Yana, Andriy, and Myroslava -- aged from seven to 24.
Before the invasion, Viktor took odd jobs here and there and Alyona did cleaning on the side, but mainly she managed the family home, complete with a cow, chickens, a cat, a dog, as well as a fruit orchard. Nadia, 24, was teaching Ukrainian in a private school in Kyiv. Vika, 22, was working as a nurse in Zhytomyr.
But as the Russian attack creeped closer, Alyona Pavlenko said life became unbearable for the family in their hometown of Vysoke, southeast of the capital, Kyiv.
"Since we first heard the explosions on the Kyiv-Zhytomyr highway, we had been sleeping with our clothes on. [There was the sound of] missiles, explosions, planes," she told RFE/RL.
"The house was shaking. I was scared and scared for our children: one was in Kyiv, one in Zhytomyr, and three at home with me. My husband was in the territorial defense. If we were in the house at the time, we'd run to the basement, or hide under a window or in the bathtub. My hands were shaking."
In the early hours of March 2, with the sound of rocket fire very loud and very close, Alyona rushed outside and ran to the neighbors, who were readying to leave themselves and had space for the Pavlenko family if they wanted to come.
They took up the offer and soon found themselves driving away from their homes, not sure when they would return and where exactly they were headed.
According to Alyona, they quickly decided to veer toward Poland, given its proximity, a decision taken by more than 1 million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. In total, more than 4 million Ukrainians have left the country.
They eventually reached and crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border at Medyka in southeastern Poland, where Polish border guards have struggled to process the huge procession of people leaving Ukraine.
Alyona said that, while they were relieved to have reached the sanctuary offered by Poland, they were wary as well, hearing stories that some had preyed on refugees rather than help them.
There have been reports of Ukrainian woman and girls being raped after fleeing Ukraine. "We were told that not all people are to be trusted. Two girls were lost at the station and everyone was looking for them," Alyona recounted.
Two days after crossing into Poland, the family's journey came to an end in Komorow, a leafy town on the outskirts of Warsaw with many large, spacious homes. They were welcomed by Aneta Stremazalska in her three-story home, where she lives with her partner, two children, and mother.
"At first I thought very rich people lived here. But now I understand this is a middle-class family," said Alyona, adding that, as she and her family adjusts to their new digs, the question of 'how long will it last?' is always in the back of her mind.
"We're still taking advantage of their hospitality. It's clear we are a burden. This can't go on forever," said Alyona as she rummaged through the documents and other items taken from home, including a few articles of clothing stuffed in backpacks.
"I have the children. That's all that matters, nothing else is important."
She realizes that documents from home, however, are necessary to secure work in Poland, although she clings to the hope she won't need to and dreams of returning home soon.
"Every day, I think about going back. One day we watch the news and it looks safe to go back, and then the next day everything is different. I also understand, it can't go on like this. I need to make a decision. If not for the kids, I would have gone back," Alyona explained.
Alyona is also struggling to convince her disbelieving father living in Russia of the death and destruction that Putin's invasion of Ukraine has caused, a similar story told by other Ukrainians with relatives in Russia where state-controlled media speak only of a sanitized "special operation," or of destruction caused by "Ukrainian nationalists" or "Nazis."
"Despite the fact that his daughter and grandchildren have fled the bombings, he says, 'This is your fault, you [Ukrainians] started it all. When this is all over, I will drive with you around Ukraine myself and show you that all you've been shown is a lie. Why did you leave anyway?'" Alyona said.
As Alyona rummages through the documents and other family items, teacher Nadia is wrapping up another online lesson. Some of her students remain in Kyiv, but most are scattered across Europe, refugees like her, finding what they hope will be temporary homes from Greece to Norway.
Nadia explained her students are quickly adapting to their new surroundings, noting one student "already knows how to count to 10 in Greek."
Nadia, who teaches Ukrainian, says her students seem especially eager with their language lessons now. "They're happy to have classes and always get their homework done. The Ukrainian language is now an important thread that ties them to home," Nadia explained, adding that her efforts to find work as a Ukrainian teacher in Poland have so far come up short. "There are lots of teachers like me here."
Asked to pose for a photo with something of value that she managed to take from home, Nadia pulls out a package of buckwheat, a food staple for many Ukrainians. "My boyfriend, Artem, packed this for me, when I left Kyiv, to remind me of home, and also for that so-called rainy day. I'm not thinking about opening it yet. I do love buckwheat though," she said, laughing.
Nadia said Artem was now in a territorial defense unit in Kyiv and regretted she was not with him, split apart by the Russian invasion.
"It feels so unfair that my whole life that I planned for myself is in doubt now. In the end, I decided my teaching skills would be more useful for children right now. So I teach online every day for free," she said.
Twelve-year-old Yana, 10-year-old Andriy, and seven-year-old Myroslava are facing the additional challenges of a new school with teachers and students speaking a foreign language.
"I didn't like school back at home either," joked Andriy, asking if "I must go back again tomorrow."
Although in good spirits now, Andriy suffered greatly during the conflict in Ukraine, Alyona explained, throwing up nearly everything he ate. His deteriorating physical and mental health is what convinced Alyona that the family must leave.
As they scrambled to pack what they could, Andriy grabbed one small keepsake -- a keychain giraffe that he gave to his sister Vika. She has carried it everywhere since.
Andriy is not alone in his dislike for school. Yana is struggling as well. "It's boring, I can't get my head into it. I'm drawing in classes, look," she said, showing the doodles of hearts and stars in her notebook.
Asked if she took anything from home that is especially important to her, Yana happily answers "yes," a family lamp, and runs out to retrieve it. "I know which lamp she's talking about," Nadia said. "It's a lucky charm of our family."
During those cold nights while the bombs were falling, the Pavlenkos sat in their damp basement huddled around the lamp. Yana shows off with pride what appears to be a very ordinary desk lamp.
But when the children gather round it in the darkness of their temporary abode, their faces are bathed in its warm glow, a reminder perhaps of their lives back home before the war.