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Olga Fedorenko, a nurse practitioner at a primary care office in Warwick, came to Rhode Island from Ukraine in 1991 to be with her partner, who had been living here for a year and a half at the time. They married, became citizens, and raised two kids who are now 28 and 20.
But Olga’s family – including her mother, her father until he passed away a few years ago, her sister, her sister’s husband, her nephews aged 32 and 18, and her sister-in-law – still live in Ukraine. And for more than a week, their city of Kharkiv has been under siege by Russian troops.
The good news is, so far Olga’s loved ones still have heat, water, electricity, phones, and internet. And she has been able to reach them to see how they’re doing. But things are deteriorating. They, and she, are scared of what’s happening.
“The first couple of days they tried to keep brave faces because it wasn’t so bad,” Olga tells me. “But then the bombing got closer and closer – and closer still. I’m sure you saw the video of the bombing of Freedom Square in Kharkiv on March 1st. That’s a 10-minute walk from their apartment building.”
Olga explains how Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, functions like New York, with residents getting around by public services such as subways and buses. “Cars are expensive, and many Ukrainians don’t need them,” she explains. But when the shelling started, the transportation stopped running – and it hasn’t resumed.
“You can’t leave the house if you need to go shopping; you can only go to a store if it’s in walking distance,” she shares on what her family faces every day. “If it’s closed, you can’t really get around to other parts of the city.”
With no transportation, strict curfews, and the constant threat of artillery, going to work and school ground to a halt in Kharkiv. Olga’s sister was teaching economics at a local college, but learning took a back seat when the country was invaded.
Her sister’s husband, on the other hand, has been VERY busy at work these past two weeks; he’s an ambulance driver. He is constantly bringing wounded people to other cities, and local people can still get sick or hurt and need to call rescue.
Olga’s older nephew has dedicated his time to helping out at the family’s local church. “There’s a message board there, where people who can’t get to the store post what they need. He and other helpers buy food and try to deliver supplies to them.”
The messages on those boards turned heartbreaking three days ago. Due to residents of Kharkiv being forced to flee an increasingly deadly situation, a nursing home with 40 residents lost its staff. Volunteers like Olga’s nephew and sister are desperately trying to help feed, change and care for the abandoned residents, doing their best to keep them alive and safe.
But Olga’s sister has finally agreed to leave the dangerous city herself. “They’re hearing the bombs all of the time now, and they’re getting closer and closer. It’s only a matter of time before they hit the apartment,” she tells me. I’m impressed with how calm she’s trying to stay at the thought.
Tomorrow morning, Olga’s sister, mother, and younger nephew will try to get on a train to Ukraine’s western city of Lviv. Her brother-in-law and nephews aren’t allowed to leave the country, as Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are barred from leaving its borders, and her sister doesn’t want to leave her family behind, so everyone will remain in Ukraine. Lviv is a compromise, where she and her teenage son will be out of immediate danger but still in the country’s borders. She hopes to be able to stay with relatives until it’s safe to return home – if there’s still a home to return to when the shelling stops.
Her husband and older son will stay behind in war-torn Kharkiv, one helping people in need such as the nursing home residents, the other driving the ambulance to help the wounded seek care.
Meanwhile, Olga is trying to get her mother over here to Rhode Island, but that has proved frustratingly difficult so far. Although Governor McKee informed President Biden back on February 28th that Rhode Island will welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, there don’t seem to be any measures in place to accept them, and no refugees to Olga’s or my knowledge have yet arrived here.
Olga has been running around trying to figure out the process to get her elderly mother safely to Rhode Island, and she has not been able to get an answer on how long the paperwork will take to go through. “It’s frustrating to have conflicting information,” she reveals. “Our Governor said we’ll welcome them, but how do you welcome them if the central government won’t grant them visas to actually come here? They’re not trying to permanently move here. They just need a safe place to stay until they can figure out what they’re going to do next.”
She was also disappointed to discover that the United States will only grant visas to refugees who are parents or who are under 21 years old. This automatically discounts not only her older nephew but also Olga’s sister-in-law, who doesn’t happen to have children. Instead, her sister-in-law is attempting to get to Germany, where she hopes to be able to stay with friends.
In the meantime, everyone healthy enough to walk is using Kharkiv’s abandoned subway tunnels to get around. “It’s safer than walking on open streets under Russian attack, but it also takes a lot more time. My family recently went to the local store, but it took an hour to walk each way using the tunnels,” Olga says. Plus, the entrance to the subway is locked at 6 p.m. every night for curfew under martial law, so you could get stuck there if your errand takes too long.
Olga is relieved that her family has enough food for now and supplies, but their situation is deteriorating. “There aren’t any city services right now, so no one is collecting garbage. They live in a high-rise, so it’s becoming a real mess. Around them are homeless animals because many people fleeing the bombs had to leave their pets behind. There’s lots of litter, and lots of things are broken. Most people don’t go out unless they have to. It’s not safe.”
As for dealing with the stress of her family being in a danger zone nearly 5,000 miles away, Olga oscillates between gratitude and frustration. “I see how much people care here in Rhode Island, and the support is so appreciated. People I haven’t seen for years are reaching out, asking how we’re doing, saying they want to help. But while average people are being there to help and to share your pain, the bureaucratic government has its own agenda on what that help looks like.” She hopes that refugees like her mother will be cleared to come to Rhode Island soon.
Meanwhile, when I asked what’s the best concrete way Rhode Islanders can help people like Olga’s family right now, she spoke proudly of her daughter Vera, a full-time National Guard member, who is organizing a drive for shoes/boots, military uniforms/camouflage clothing, backpacks, and rain gear to send to Ukraine. “The U.S. just made a slight color change to its military uniforms a couple of years ago, so a lot of recent members have old-code uniforms just sitting around,” Olga tells me. “We’re asking them to donate anything they don’t need.” Although the temperature is beginning to warm up in Ukraine, decreasing the need for winter gear, those trying to defend cities from Russian troops are still sitting outside in the rain and need appropriate gear.
Olga’s voice catches a bit when she speaks of the brave Ukrainians attempting to stop the overthrow by Europe’s largest military. “They are doing their best, but they’re just so outnumbered,” she laments. “In my city, they pushed them back toward the Russian border, but the Russians have regrouped, and right now they’re surrounding the city and are cutting off supplies.” No wonder her sister, mother, and younger nephew are trying to leave.
As for how we Rhode Islanders can help, she advises, “Any help is appreciated, but also be careful about donating on social media,” wary of scams and of organizations that pocket donations. When I asked where she recommends sending donations, she noted that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Woonsocket has been collecting items and is collecting online PayPal donations to help Ukraine. “The situation changes so quickly,” Olga says. “If we all do a little in the end, it’ll make a big difference.”