For my assignment as a war correspondent in Ukraine, I had the privilege of working with Yaroslav, who was my videographer and also provided security for my team. Towards the end of my work, I had the chance to visit his hometown of Berezhany near the Polish border. I had dinner with his family and fell in love with smetana, a kind of Ukrainian sour cream. His wife Nataliia made it fresh, and I originally thought it was a soft cheese sauce. As we ate, we talked about a future where the family might have to flee to America to escape war. That future arrived for some of them on July 20.
Since President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared martial law at the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible for military service and banned from leaving the country, with some exceptions.
This policy meant that Yaroslav could not yet leave Ukraine, but Nataliia and their two children could. After careful consideration and the difficulties associated with their separation, the approaching school year was a decisive factor in their decision. Nataliia took their children to America while Yaroslav stayed.
Two months after we met in Ukraine, I met Nataliia in Milwaukee.
“I came to Milwaukee with my children to escape the war. We wanted them to be somewhere where the bombs weren’t flying over their heads,” Nataliia explained, from her sister-in-law’s quiet home in the suburbs.
President Joe Biden announced “Unite for Ukraineon April 21, 2022. The program was created to offer Ukrainian nationals who fled their country following Putin’s brutal invasion a chance to come to the United States on “humanitarian parole.”
The program also required the support of a sponsor in America. Because Yaroslav’s sister lived in Milwaukee, the process of bringing them over was relatively quick once they made the decision to leave.
“In the beginning, the ‘Unite for Ukraine’ process was quite difficult. It took a whole month to collect all the papers and verifications. But now they’ve made it so much easier that it didn’t take too long. For us, it was actually an easy process,” Nataliia said.
She remained hopeful that the restrictions in Ukraine would ease and that Yaroslav could join them soon in Milwaukee. But until then, their children had to start school in the fall. And even though Berezhany’s school buildings weren’t destroyed by Russian artillery like those in Irpin’s sister city of Milwaukee, access to education was still a daunting challenge.
“Even though where we live in Berezhany was not close to the fighting, the children still suffered. They lost the ability to socialize with friends, as communications were virtually impossible. You can’t let them play outside because there are sirens and we have to take cover every day for possible airstrikes,” Nataliia said. “Sometimes there are sirens for four hours straight. And most of our shelters aren’t real bomb shelters, just cold cellars with dirt floors.
Nataliia said most airstrike alerts come at night, so sirens sound between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. The night terror tactic was part of Russia’s psychological warfare against the Ukrainian civilian population, which specifically targeted families and children. Living on the fifth floor of her walk-up apartment building, it was no quick exercise for Nataliia and her children to seek safety each night.
“During COVID, we had at least some online learning. But with the war, ten million Ukrainians had to flee for their safety. Even where teachers have stayed, it is still not possible to be online for lessons. When families have to escape to a bomb shelter, we are often behind a few thick walls to protect ourselves from explosions. WiFi cannot reach us. There are also no electrical outlets to power laptops or mobile devices for so long,” Nataliia said.
July 24 marks six months since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which sought and failed to capture the capital Kyiv. But the Russian-Ukrainian war had already been triggered by Russia in February 2014, following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, which resulted in the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia had focused the first eight years of the conflict on the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. The rest of Ukraine was able to return to an illusion of normality, which was finally shattered with the invasion to take over the entire independent nation.
“For many years the war was in and out of our thoughts. Humans can get used to many conditions, and being at war has become normal,” Nataliia said. “So there were always people dying, friends we lost or people we knew who were killed in war. But the invasion really brought the full magnitude of the war to all of Ukraine, and no one was safe anywhere.
When the invasion took place, many people were still caught off guard. There, massive crowds waited in pharmacies and grocery stores for supplies.
“In Berezhany, there were long lines of vehicles to the border. Our streets were full of cars. People were coming from eastern Ukraine and they had to pass through our city to reach Poland,” Nataliia said. “Usually our streets are quite empty. But for a long time we had terrible traffic and traffic jams as people tried to escape.
Nataliia hasn’t experienced the culture shock of moving to America yet, as she’s still only a new arrival and it feels like vacationing with relatives in a home environment. But that is slowly changing as her children take placement tests in school, and necessity drags her deeper into the local Milwaukee community.
Once her children are settled in school, Nataliia said she might think about going back to work. But that’s not even an option for a while, as it can take up to six months for the US government to issue him a work permit.
Until then, Nataliia remains hopeful that Yaroslav can join them soon, and grateful that her children can finally sleep in a bed each night uninterrupted by the traumas of Putin’s unprovoked invasion.
“I want Americans to know that the war is not over. And in reality, it is thanks to the American people that the luminous invasion planned for a few days has been spread over a few months. Russia did not quickly crush our country. We remain independent. And America has provided the help we need to defend ourselves. So the war continues,” added Nataliia. “But every day we maintain our freedom has a cost. We all continue to pay a price, either with our lives or with the quality of our lives.