Ukrainian Star Sang About Her Ancestor's Deportation—Now She Is a Refugee

When Ukrainian singer Jamala won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016 with her ballad "1944," she never expected the lyrics to take on new meaning. The song was inspired by her great-grandmother, who was driven from her home by Soviet forces nearly 80 years ago.

Now Jamala is a refugee herself. She fled Kyiv with her sons, ages 1 and 3, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, escaping to Turkey, where her sister lives. Her husband stayed to assist in volunteer activities for the Ukrainian Army.

"In 2022, history repeats itself," Jamala told Newsweek. "This is not my personal story anymore, this song is the heartache of the entire Ukrainian nation."

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began, according to the United Nations.

Jamala—whose real name is Susana Jamaladinova—wrote "1944" about the mass deportation of 240,000 Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim Turkish-speaking minority, at the hands of Joseph Stalin. Her great-grandmother Nazylhan, then in her mid-20s, was deported along with her four sons and daughter. Nazylhan's daughter did not survive the journey.

"She died on the train while being transported," Jamala said in 2016. "And when she told the soldiers, asking if she could bury the tiny body at the next stop, they just grabbed it and threw it off the train. It was just like garbage for them."

Ukrainian Eurovision Winner Now a Refugee
When Ukrainian singer Jamala won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2016, she never anticipated her ballad "1944" would take on new meaning. Here, Jamala celebrates with her trophy after winning the Eurovision Final on May 14, 2016. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / Stringer/AFP

After the Eurovision contest, the singer described how her great-grandmother was loaded onto a cattle train at 4 a.m. in May 1944. 80 years later, Jamala's husband woke her up at 5 a.m. February 24 to tell her the Russians had invaded.

The chorus of "1944" is in the Crimean Tatar language, using words from a folk song.

The English lyrics say: "When strangers are coming, they come to your house, they kill you all, and say we're not guilty, not guilty."

Jamala's Eurovision victory came two years after Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Russian politicians were outraged over the political song and some called for a boycott of the following year's contest.

Now Jamala is using her platform to tell the world about the "unprovoked war" in Ukraine, she said to Newsweek.

Jamala (Eurovision) flees Ukraine with kids
Photo of Jamala fleeing Kyiv with her sons, ages 1 and 3, after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Courtesy of Jamala. Jamala

The singer performed at Bucharest's National Arena on Sunday for "We are One," a benefit concert organized to support Ukrainian refugees. The show raised almost 1 million euros for the Romanian Red Cross.

Jamala posted a clip from the concert on her Instagram account, holding a Ukrainian flag throughout the performance.

"Just yesterday I had a plan to make a new music video, present a new song, and then in May to introduce you to a new incredible project," she captioned the post. "There were so many new opportunities and dreams but today I'm singing '1944' again. Honestly, it hurts because 'Never Again' is happening again."

Update 03/18/22, 7:55 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this article said that Jamala's husband was fighting in Ukraine; he is a volunteer for the Ukrainian Army.