Voices From Ukraine
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Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, millions of Ukrainian residents have fled Ukraine. Russia’s earlier bombing of twelve of Ukraine’s airports created problems for those aiming to relocate cross-continentally. Alternatively, crossing the border on foot to access airports in neighboring countries is troublesome amid Ukraine’s travel restrictions for men fit for the draft. For those that successfully flee Ukraine despite these challenges and relocate to the US, the complexities of the U.S. immigration system add another hurdle to those seeking refuge. When the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) launched the Uniting for Ukraine program in April 2022 to help Ukrainian refugees obtain parole in the U.S., the program committed to providing temporary protective status to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Beyond the statistics and politics that describe the conflict in Ukraine, the people that comprise the Ukrainian refugee population hold various valuable stories and insights, notably those that have successfully fled to the U.S.
Dmytro, 25, proposed to Vira, 25, on November 29, 2021. The engaged couple lived in the Izmail region of Ukraine, but unknowingly had less than three months before their wedding plans would be indefinitely postponed. At five in the morning of February 24, 2022, Dmytro awoke to a call from his father, a Ukrainian military affiliate. The war had begun. Dmytro’s father reported that almost all major cities of Ukraine were under fire by ballistic missiles. “It was relatively calm in our region. In the first few days, explosions were heard from afar. It was very scary, but in other places, it was even scarier,” Vira describes.
The day the war broke out, Dmytro and Vira were visiting Vira’s parents in a village near Odessa. “Everything was much worse there. Airports, airfields, and urban infrastructure were blown up,” Vira details. After receiving the call from Dmytro’s father, Dmytro, Vira, and Vira’s father started the car and drove to the gas station. “By the time we got to it, there was already a huge line of cars,” Dmytro adds. Soon after, the couple returned to their home in Izmail. Along the way, they took in several friends who had lost their homes and provided them shelter for the first few months of the war.
Nevertheless, Vira and Dmytro sensed that the time to flee Ukraine was approaching. “There was no work; everyone lived in fear,” Dmytro explains. On May 3, 2022, the couple and their families gathered for a modest birthday celebration for Vira’s father. Late that evening, a communication tower and an airfield were blown up in a neighboring village. The couple knew that their survival was at stake. “On another wartime day when there was an explosion, we all sat down together and decided to flee,” Vira says.
In the meantime, Vira, Dmytro, friends, and others volunteered to ease the burden of the conflict on the community. They collected diapers, baby formula, and food for elderly people and children who had “nothing to eat,” Dmytro said. Simultaneously, Vira and Dmytro were struggling to buy food for themselves. “We had no jobs at all, but we had to eat,” says Vira.
Vira and Dmytro could not leave the country just yet. Ukraine’s travel ban on men between 18 and 60 posed the logistical challenge of crossing the border. At the start of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law under which draft-eligible Ukrainian residents were prohibited from leaving Ukraine. Russia’s superior military capacity and numerical advantage as a much larger country poses grave threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Thus, the government’s orientation toward military conscription reflects national security concerns. According to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, “While the war is going on, all men should be in Ukraine.”
Eventually, Vira and Dmytro crossed Ukraine’s border into Moldova. Alternative channels had emerged under pretenses for those seeking to leave Ukraine’s borders and avoid conscription. “It took a lot of money to cross the borders,” says Dmytro, “but we had no other way out of this situation.” From Moldova, they embarked on their journey to England. “Since we had already worked in London before, our road led us only there,” says Vira.
In the U.K., the couple quickly sought employment, which they found at James Foskett Farms. Dmytro worked as a supervisor, and Vira was eventually promoted to the boss of the team in charge of harvesting carrots. “When I started working, I wanted to buy a generator so my family could have it. But prices were rising, and my family said they would not need it because it would be too expensive to use,” says Vira. Guilt consumed the couple as their accompanying family members returned to Ukraine. They reflected on the circumstances their family, friends, and pets suffered, particularly without heat or electricity amid Ukraine’s energy rationing. “The lights were turned off for everyone in Ukraine. They were on for three or four hours a day and that’s it,” says Vira.
Vira and Dmytro struggled to cope with their family members gradually returning or still remaining in Ukraine. Consequently, they left the U.K. and went to Italy, where they stayed with some of Vira’s family members for one month before Vira’s parents also returned to Ukraine. Then, they stayed with some of their friends in Bucharest for less than two weeks before deciding to return to Moldova. In Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, the couple sought an apartment to rent, “but no one wanted to rent it to us because they heard we are from Ukraine and wanted twice as much money,” Vira explains. Fortunately, the couple found shelter near Chisinau with Vira’s aunt for one month. Dmytro’s mother visited them. “I saw her there for the last time. Dmytro was very sad, it was so hard to look at,” Vira says. After painfully saying their goodbyes, Vira and Dmytro contemplated their next steps and decided to go to the U.S.
After searching the internet, Vira and Dmytro found a sponsor in the U.S., who then filled out the necessary documents for their immigration. One month later, the couple boarded their flight. On December 21, 2022, Vira and Dmytro landed at Chicago O’Hare Airport. With parole status under the USCIS Uniting for Ukraine program, Dmytro and Vira are prohibited from leaving the U.S. for two years. This requirement for maintaining parole status has become particularly difficult for Vira, whose cousin passed away outside the U.S. on February 14, 2023. Vira tearfully says, “In Ukraine, we call our cousins our ‘brothers and sisters,’ but even in English, he was a brother to me.”
Though the separation between the couple and their families is temporary, the time has passed slowly since their last goodbyes. “We have a very warm relationship with our family; We’ve never separated so long,” Vira explains. “I haven’t seen my father in over a year,” Dmytro adds. The couple hopes to obtain green cards soon, which would allow them to visit their families and return to the U.S.
Since arriving in the U.S., Vira and Dmytro have taken English classes from a local community college, obtained their driver’s licenses, and begun working multiple jobs. Yet, for these two people and thousands of others, “history will not explain how scary this is,” Vira states. The destroyed cities and buildings depicted in the media are often places they can recall fond memories or even pull out recently taken pictures that show unrecognizable scenes and structures. “It’s hard to be here when our family is there; it’s a pity what’s going on in Ukraine, and now I can’t see my family,” says Vira. She and Dmytro found a shred of hope when Ukraine’s electricity rationing lessened in February 2023. “Now, according to my family, there is light at home,” says Dmytro.
Beyond Vira and Dmytro’s stories, millions of others share various iterations of this moment in history and its mechanisms of reorienting their lives. Actors and observers cannot isolate these mechanisms to one nation’s government, nor would one nation’s actions resolve them. As more Ukrainians are continuously displaced, it is ultimately a global responsibility to hear their stories, assist their adaptations to drastically different circumstances, and potentially learn a bit of the Ukrainian language.
*The stories quoted in this article are taken from interviews by the author in the winter and spring of 2023 and are used with the subject’s consent. The subjects’ identities are hidden.