The farmhouse had stood mostly empty for years on the outskirts of Prague.
Alena Kralikova had tried to sell it, but there just hadn't been that many inquiries about the patch of land that had once been toiled for wheat, barley and grains for decades by her family. It had fed them, sheltered them and comforted them through tough winters and oppressive regimes and again in later years through warm summers and a parliamentary democracy.
Kralikova would sometimes go out to the farmhouse along the narrow road and, when she'd enter the kitchen where her parents would prepare dinners of rabbit and bread, the memories would come flooding back. Sometimes she'd smile at what once was. Sometimes she'd cry at what it was now.
Her father died three years ago and, so too, died her last living tie to the farmhouse. It was time to let it go. So, she steeled herself with those memories and signed the paperwork to let a real estate agent begin the work of finding new owners.
A few people came and looked, but there were no offers. The global pandemic had depressed the market. Kralikova also knew it was far enough outside the city that the pool of potential buyers might be smaller. So, it sat there, empty–except for the occasional visits she'd make to dust, clean and remember.
Then, in March, war came to Ukraine when the Russian army invaded the country of about 44 million.
Kralikova, an Amgen medical science liaison, watched on the news the waves of refugees as they sought safety and shelter while fleeing Russian soldiers. She wept at the sight of many women and children making their way through bombed-out streets. She saw neighboring Poland begin taking in so many of those escaping their homes often left in piles of smoldering rubble.
She said she heard of some other Amgen employees opening their homes to refugees, trying to provide a small bit of light in a depressingly dark time.
Kralikova thought about the farmhouse. Just sitting there. Vacant. She thought about all the Ukrainians she had known in Prague over the years. She said her cleaning lady had been from Ukraine. Some construction workers she had known were from Ukraine, too. She wondered if they had relatives who were fleeing the Russian invasion.
So, she made a phone call to a Ukrainian friend. Perhaps, she thought, there might be a way for the empty farmhouse to become a home again.
Yes, came the reply. Most definitely, yes.
'Can You Accommodate Five More?'
About 7 million refugees have fled Ukraine, with Poland taking in 3.6 million – by far the most of any nearby country in Europe.
The scope of the displacement of so many drew worldwide attention and Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, praised the European response and singled out Poland's efforts amid the crisis.
"I have seldom felt so emotional than the moment I saw Polish people receiving the refugees at the border with tea, taking them into their homes. Incredible. And that makes me a proud European," said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, according to a report in Politico.
But with services in Poland straining to handle a 10% jump in its population in just a few short weeks, other countries around Ukraine also began to take in refugees.
According to the United Nations, Hungary took in more than 650,000 while Romania took in about 600,000. The Czech Republic, which already had a sizable Ukrainian population, had taken in close to 400,000. The United Nations also reported that 13 million people are currently stranded inside Ukraine, unable to leave due to heightened risks amid the invasion. Women and children make up 90% of those who are escaping.
The global community as a whole has been rallying to help as well while many multi-national companies were either pulling out or freezing their activities in Russia.
Amgen, which has a limited presence in Russia with no manufacturing facilities or laboratories, only continues to provide medicines to patients there as they are considered "essential medicines to treat serious illness like cancer and heart disease." Amgen has also suspended all non-essential activity in Russia while also halting enrollment in all Amgen-sponsored clinical trials.
The Amgen Foundation approved two disaster relief grants to the International Medical Corps and Project Hope while also opening the Amgen Foundation Disaster Relief Matching Gifts Program to its entire staff. As of June 1, between staff donations and matching contributions, $300,000 has been contributed to the program.
But some who are closer geographically to Ukraine thought they might be able to do even more.
Sylwia Jaczynska-Kolasza, an Amgen employee based in Poland, was among the many who opened their doors to house refugees after the Russian invasion in mid-March. For her efforts, she said, simply: "All Poles help, not just me personally."
Kralikova decided to speak to her friend, who said he knew of six Ukrainians who needed shelter. Kralikova said she could provide them shelter in the farmhouse and he said he would drive to the Ukraine-Poland border to pick them up after they arrived from Kiev.
"He called me from the border and asked, 'Can you accommodate five more?'" Kralikova recalled. "I immediately said yes."
Farmhouse Comes Alive
Kralikova remembered when the 11 Ukrainians arrived at the farmhouse after a three-day trip from the Poland-Ukraine border in her friend's truck in the afternoon.
"I can never forget their faces when they arrived," she said. "They were shy. Totally lost. We cried together. I didn't know how to act, so I tried to open my arms and I only told them this is my house, but now it is your house and everything is yours."
There were two families that made up the 11, including six children who ranged in ages 6-17. She said they had fled Ukraine so quickly, they didn't have anything on them but their clothes. She went to the shop to get toothbrushes and other essential items. She got food. She made sure the beds had enough blankets. She picked up some toys for the kids, too.
Kralikova lives about a half-hour from the farmhouse and said she would go visit them a couple times a week to make sure they were doing OK. At first, she said, they were shy and reserved – and likely shocked from being displaced by the war. But, she said, as the weeks went by, they began to adapt.
She said they didn't talk much about the invasion or any horrors they may have seen. Kralikova spoke through two who spoke English and learned that they had husbands who were still in Ukraine. She said they were worried, but she didn't press them on details. Kralikova also discovered two of the women were pharmacists and, as fate would have it, there was a pharmacy with two openings.
A quick call led to quick interviews the same day. They were both hired. Kralikova said two of the women were teachers and another had been employed as a warehouse worker. The two teachers landed jobs at a maternity school that was helping refugees adapt. The warehouse worker secured a job as a house cleaner in Zlonin, just about 20 minutes outside of Prague.
She also made sure to get all the children enrolled in the local schools. Kralikova said the children started quickly and have been warmly received by their new classmates.
"It seemed important to get the children into as normal an environment as they could be," she said.
Kralikova said now that it's been several weeks since the families have been settling in, it's nice to see the farmhouse having a purpose again – its roof and walls providing sense of safety and shelter she remembered it providing when she was growing up there.
When she goes to visit them to see how they're doing, she said, they have settled into some routines that wouldn't have been fathomable just a few months ago.
On those visits, Kralikova said she still thinks of her dad coming in from the wheat fields after riding the tractor all day and preparing the crops for eventual sale. She said she remembered how some nights they'd eat around the table, laughing and telling stories and eating traditional meals – heavy on potatoes, onions and meat dishes.
"I still miss my father when I'm there and when the house was totally empty, I felt more sad in it," Kralikova said. "And now there are 11 people there and it's a lot. And I see them cooking in there and talking and I smile because in the farmhouse, there is life again."