February 2022–The phone call interrupted dinner in Oksana’s California home that February evening. “Did you see that there’s a war in Ukraine?” the friend on the other end asked Oksana. What war? Oksana had not yet heard the devastating news of the war ravaging her home country.
Oksana first traveled to the United States as a 17-year-old through an international student program. She spent a brief time in Florida, and, after the program ended, vowed she would one day return to America and live near the ocean.
She now lives with her American husband in California where she works in the hospitality industry. While her parents live nearby, many close friends and relatives still live in Ukraine.
Knowing people she loved were in the crossfire of the brutal attack made the call all the more terrifying. Shock, horror, and the sickening realization that “this is really happening” bombarded her as she turned on the news and scrolled through online reports of bombings and air raids.
Upon receiving the devastating phone call, Oksana immediately called her parents. Together they attempted to contact family and friends in Ukraine, hoping for confirmation of their safety.
Oksana’s main concern was her grandmother, Raisa. Family members helped her hide in a basement of a nearby house when the entire town was instructed to shelter in underground structures. Air sirens alerted the townspeople to hide from the roaring planes overhead, dropping bombs on civilians.
Oksana’s family members are no strangers to war, as they have primarily lived in the Donbas region, where conflict has existed for years. Oksana shares that “the year 2014 was really scary. My grandpa was still alive then and they [he and Grandma] spent months hiding in basements.” Being children of World War II and growing up in poverty had created a toughness about Grandma and Grandpa. Yet, living in hiding during 2014 scarred Grandma, leaving her with a stutter for months. After hiding, Grandpa, a hardened coal miner, didn’t care anymore. No longer afraid or willing to hide, he proclaimed that, “I’m too old to deal with this. Let them bomb us.” Oksana explains that this sentiment is part of the resilient spirit of the Ukrainian people.
Even so, Grandma was now almost 80. From the texts, calls, and social media messages received, Oksana learned that most of the townspeople who owned cars were attempting to evacuate. Yet, the Ukrainian military caravans were entering through the one and only main road, so civilians had no clear escape route. Grandma and family had no choice but to stay, until they received a call from a friend residing near the local oil refinery. A private road, usually gated and locked, runs directly through the refinery. Somehow, the gates and locks were opened now, the friend informed them. He urged them to quickly take this private route through the refinery to exit the town. They hopped in the car and drove.
Grandma, her son and daughter-in-law planned to stay with family in Pavlohrad, which was usually a four-hour drive away. The journey itself was difficult, taking twice as long as usual and having insufficient insulin for Grandma’s diabetic daughter-in-law. Grandma herself was carsick, and with no access to simple drugs like dramamine, she threw up for most of the trek. Long lines at gas stations and little fuel posed problems as well. Unreliable or nonexistent phone reception made communication difficult. After almost eight hours, they arrived to share a small space with nine family members, a dog, a cat, kids and only an outhouse as a bathroom. They were safe for now, but it was less than ideal.
Meanwhile in the United States, Oksana and her parents lived in terror. “Me, Mom and Dad didn’t sleep for days. We were just waiting for terrible news. I kept looking at my phone just waiting for someone to tell me someone died. That Russia destroyed everything. It was just so hard being here and not being able to help them.” Oksana’s voice shakes with emotion. “I would just go to work and put a smile on and pretend to care about people ordering sushi. People kept asking how I was and I would say I was fine. Then on the ninth or tenth time someone asked me I would cry. I would tell them I am actually horrible and then tell them everything about the conflict, including the pictures of burnt kindergarten [classrooms] and dead bodies in Butcha. Most people regret they asked. But none of that compares to what the people in Ukraine are going through. It’s insane.”
Oksana worried about other loved ones as well. “I have friends in Kyiv that were getting bombed and a full scale invasion from the north. I kept getting videos from friends of explosions and sirens.” People were hiding in basements, taking shelter in bathtubs, or finding protection in a corner with pillows, reports Oksana. “My other friend in Odesa just had a baby. She grabbed her baby when she fled and didn’t bring formula. She was calling me, crying, “I don’t know if I have enough milk in my breast. What am I going to do?”’
While many people fled to the border, others were forced to stay. Due to Ukraine’s martial law, men of conscription age, 18 to 60, are not allowed to leave the country. Oksana’s uncle had to stay; his wife refused to leave the country without him. But Grandma could, and would leave.
‘All that kept going through my head was “I gotta get Grandma out..gotta get Grandma out.”’
Oksana needed to get close to the Ukrainian border to help Grandma, but with refugees fleeing to nearby countries like Poland, many crossing points were too congested. People waited in line for close to 20 hours, just trying to reach their loved ones at the border. After some research, Oksana and her mother booked plane tickets to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, which borders the southwestern region of Ukraine.
After the 17-hour flight from LAX, they arrived in Europe and rented a car. They made arrangements to travel the three-hour drive to the Ukrainian border, where Oksana’s aunt would escort Grandma over to Hungary.
“Hungary and Ukraine have an hour time difference, and we didn’t think of that,” Oksana laughs at their mistake. “So we got there and they weren’t there. You’re not allowed to wait at the border so they were packed in buses and taken to a refugee camp somewhere in Hungary.”
The journey had just begun for Oksana and her mother. They had no information or directions about where to find the camp in the village of Beregsurány. “We had nothing. We were just in the middle of nowhere, stuck behind a tractor and a horse and carriage,” Oksana says. Her voice reveals the stress, tension and palpable fear, but then she chuckles at the absurdity. “We would ask people: Ukraine? Refugee? hoping someone would understand.”
They eventually found the camp. Oksana describes the scene as a dichotomy of overwhelming and heartbreaking, generous and altruistic. “I saw all these donations, diapers everywhere, volunteers helping elderly people. Teenagers not knowing what was going on. Kids crying.”
Devastation and hope.
Loss and love.
In the midst of the chaos, through the masses of people, Oksana saw a familiar face.
Her voice is full of excitement and emotion. In hearing Oksana talk, the joy is contagious, causing goosebumps as she shares, “I saw Grandma! I saw her.” One imagines a movie scene, swelling music, tears and embraces.
The elation in the reunion was soon tainted though: “It felt unreal. I haven’t seen her in four years. She didn’t look how I remembered her,” Oksana sighs and is quiet for a beat. “She got older. The trauma of the whole trip. The war.”
The story doesn’t end here, though. “Our adventure just started. We had to register who was coming with us to prevent human trafficking. My aunt was going back to Ukraine to be with my uncle, but we wanted to talk and visit first.” Oksana had not seen her aunt in years; she needed more than a quick hug and wave goodbye before her aunt returned to her Ukrainian home.
“I’m American now, so I said, ‘let’s go out for lunch somewhere,’” she laughs ironically, exuding the humor of the Ukrainian spirit even in the midst of the turmoil and tragedy. “Everyone is looking at us like we’re crazy saying ‘going out to lunch’ in the middle of a war-torn refugee camp.
“But nothing made sense – rescuing Grandma, war – and I was just trying to make sense of it and make things normal.”
A rural, desolate village with minimal stores nearby, Oksana did what most Americans would do in her situation. She turned to Google.
“Google, where is a restaurant nearby? Google is like, eight minutes away,” Oksana says. The restaurant turned out to be a small hotel with security people, important dignitaries and journalists. Oksana felt fearful that this could be a Pro-Russia region. Eventually, the restaurant owner explained that the governor was eating lunch inside. He grabbed her phone and typed something into the search. “You eat here,” he told her. They drove 20 more minutes. The surroundings became more desolate; they turned onto a dirt road. Endless fields consumed them, just as her phone signal died.
“We see a military camp with a guy waving. I didn’t know what he wanted. Does he know we’re Ukrainian? I pushed on the gas in the tiny rental car. Grandma is like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on anymore.’But I still have hope for lunch! We get there and the restaurant is closed! Across the street I see a shack with a martini glass and burger sign. I understand martini and burger. We need that.”
Oksana finally got her lunch, and, over aperol spritzes, she visited with her aunt.
The farewell came too soon, though. “I couldn’t say goodbye,” Oksana murmurs, her humor now gone. “Where she lives is somewhat safe, but nowhere is safe.”
Oksana and her mother had brought suitcases of supplies from Target and Costco for her aunt to take back with her, suitcases of socks, pants and supplies. “We gave her some American dollars and were like, Just take it. There’s no jobs. No homes. They don’t have anything.”
“The outbreak of war was a shock to everyone,” Oksana shares. “Everybody was saying there were [Russian] troops on the border by Belarus, but no one believed it [war] would actually happen. Nobody was really prepared…Nobody thought: I should bring lots of socks and a hair dryer. They thought they would go back home.”
“How do you take your life and throw it in a tiny suitcase and say goodbye to your entire life with a chance you won’t come back or will come back to a hole in the building?” Oksana solemnly wrestles with the thought.
In the dim hours of twilight, the three generations of women arrived at the airport in Budapest, waiting for their flight homebound, grateful to have rescued Grandma. Thankful that several years ago, they encouraged Grandma to open a tourist visit to the US, in case she ever wanted to visit. “I’m scared of flying. I’m not ever gonna do that,” she told them, but they opened it anyway. Now, that decision is the only reason she was able to get into the US so easily and expediently.
The sun had not yet risen, and they waited for the terminal to open. A man invited them to a room where a volunteer group set up food and beverages for incoming refugees. “People were walking around in socks, looking like they haven’t eaten in a while. There was an old guy with a cat in a carrier,” Oksana says thoughtfully.
“These people are full-on refugees. I didn’t feel like a refugee. I was sitting there thinking how cushy I have it in my life. I could just buy a ticket, there was a place for my Grandma to go. These people? Probably not. They’re just hoping for some help from the government.”
Oksana is optimistic though and shares a few anecdotes with happy endings:
A church group drove buses full of humanitarian aid into Kyiv. The bus was empty on the return trip after delivering supplies, so they would fill them with people, driving them to Western Ukraine where they could safely get to Poland. Nadezhda, the mother of Oksana’s godson, was a manicurist with a teenage son. After safely crossing the border, she already has several clients for her nail business. Another friend did a Gofund Me campaign. The friend’s elderly grandfather couldn’t walk; in order for him to escape, they needed to get a car. Through the generosity of people on the internet, they raised $1,200 to drive him to safety. They’re now in Italy. Other friends are safe in Germany.
While the happy endings bring hope, the heartache isn’t erased for Oksana. “Everyone is in limbo. Everybody’s hearts are torn apart. There are days that go by and I’m fine. Then, the other day, I was at work, talking about the daily specials, and I looked at my phone. Someone sent me a video of my school; it was blown up. My school. On fire. Nothing left of it. It’s destroyed.
“I never wanted to go back there, but I never thought I wouldn’t have a chance to go back,” Oksana explains. She says that many of Grandma’s friends didn’t leave Ukraine. Her best friend, 84 years old, stayed. Her children refused to leave. “This is our home,” they said, when Oksana and family tried to talk them out of it.
Grandma is now safe in California, but she talks of going home soon. “She can’t go home,” Oksana explains. “Her windows were blown out. All her plants are dead. All her stuff got ruined. It’s just stuff. But still.”
Oksana reflects on her journey and the suffering of her people. “This is what hell looks like. Look at Ukraine. This is what it looks like.”
The experience has impacted her emotionally and physically. “I’ve aged about five years.”
“The culture and spirit of Ukraine is outstanding. There’s such a long history of being oppressed all the time by everybody. All our soil grows an insane amount of sunflowers and wheat.. Everyone always wanted a piece of us. Look at our President. The humor of the Ukrainian. We can still laugh, but then you see the horror of Mariupol and you don’t want to laugh anymore. But the more you oppress us, the more we will fight back.”
Oksana’s cousin, Elizaveta, fights back with her art. She sells her post-modern creations and aims to use the proceeds to support the Ukrainian armed forces. Another friend and restaurateur, Zhenya, fights back by feeding the army and civilians. Started during the first week of the war, his mission has grown to an entire team and food truck. Even in Long Beach, CA, the Ukrainian community found ways to fight back, partnering with organizations like the Ukraine United Fund and doing local charity functions. Oksana’s grandma recently attended one of the Long Beach events. “Grandma cried the entire time.”
The situation in Ukraine has only gotten worse since Oksana rescued Grandma. The UNHCR has since declared the conflict in Ukraine a Level 3 Emergency, as it is the fastest growing displacement crisis the world has seen since WWII.
When asked how someone can help the Ukranians, she says, “There are so many great charities and funds. Everybody can help. We just have to keep Ukraine in the news, bring awareness to what’s happening.”
Donating to places like Carry the Future can make a great impact to refugees like Oksana’s family and friends.
In the span of a few weeks, Carry the Future deployed over $7,500 to provide life-saving aid including food, water, diapers and hygiene supplies.
Carry the Future has raised $25,000, which will provide long-term funding to our partners–a commitment that is vital due to the nature of conflict. In parallel, we are continuing to seek out effective ways to work with new partners, ensuring that your donations go to meet critical needs of refugee families.
In addition to funding programs to support refugees from Ukraine, Carry the Future is a founding member of the Ukraine NGO Coordination Network (“UNCN”), a coalition of over 32 NGOs and non-profits providing humanitarian assistance and evacuation support in Ukraine. Carry the Future has provided $5,000 to the Dignity Center, used primarily to purchase diapers, wipes, and baby items. We are also fortunate to be able to provide $2,500 in rapid food support to refugees on the Poland border, and in nearby villages in Ukraine in the weeks immediately following the Russian invasion. Our partner, Refugee Biriyani & Bananas, mobilized on the ground quickly and provided food and juice to those arriving at the border, but also those living in nearby villages in Ukraine who lacked access to food.