By Alaa Elassar, CNN
Bohdan Andrukh was on his way to meet friends for dinner at a San Francisco restaurant last Wednesday when he received a phone call from his mother in Lviv.
She was crying; the sound of a nearby explosion had woken her. The war has begun, she told Andrukh, who was far from home and unable to help her find safety.
He did his best to assure her that everything would be alright, but in his heart knew that tragedy was fast approaching.
“I knew I was lying and I am way too helpless to make such promises but I had to,” Andrukh, 26, told CNN. “She is mom, she should never cry unless it’s tears of joy.”
Like Andrukh, Ukrainian Americans across the United States are closely monitoring Russia’s violent assault on Ukraine.
They fear for the lives of family and friends, worry the destruction will render their beloved country unrecognizable, and curse Russian President Vladimir Putin for instigating the conflict. Some also feel betrayed by Western governments, who they say abandoned Ukraine in its time of need.
Here’s how they feel and what they want the world to know:
‘The world is not going to do anything’
Mariya Soroka has not been able to stop thinking about her last visit to Ukraine.
On the last day of her trip, she spent the evening at a friend’s “fairytale” home on the outskirts of Lviv, where she was surrounded by loved ones, delicious food, and stunning nature.
She recalls dancing in the garden and stargazing on the roof, consumed with joy and love for her homeland, culture and people.
Soroka, 33, was born in Yavoriv, but immigrated to the United States at the age of 15. Despite the many years she’s lived away from Ukraine, she says no day goes by without her longing to return.
“What I love most about Ukraine is the people. And the food,” Soroka told CNN. “I think a lot about Kyiv. It is so beautiful, home to amazing shops and concerts and streets and buildings full of history. Now I wonder when or if I’ll ever see those places again.”
Soroka learned of Russia’s invasion following a dinner with friends at her apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her heart immediately shattered into pieces, she said.
“I asked my friends to pray. We held hands and we just prayed and prayed,” Soroka said through tears. “An hour later we saw the news and I just kept trying to reach my dad [in Kyiv] but he wouldn’t pick up. I stayed up all night, trying to hear his voice.”
Eventually, she reached her father, who was safe but had decided against evacuating in order to let families with children leave first.
Soroka fears Ukraine’s allies have abandoned it, but remains hopeful for a victory.
“My biggest fear is that the world is not going to do anything, that the war is going to continue and it’s going to destroy my country and my people,” she said. “But the spirit of the fight in Ukrainians is very strong. I don’t think the Russians can fight as hard as we can, because goodness and justice is not on their side.”
She also warns that if Ukraine falls, the impact could be felt across the world.
“You can’t just say Ukraine is not my problem,” Soroka said. “Right now Ukraine is fighting to keep the world order. And if the world leaders won’t get involved in a serious way, a world war will be on their conscious.”
‘Your concerns aren’t enough’
Yuriy Babak is fed up with expressions of concern and promises of unity. He wants to see quick and decisive action to defend Ukraine.
“Even though it’s everywhere on the news, there’s still a group of people who think it’s not their problem because it’s not touching them,” Babak, 37, told CNN.
“But Russia will not stop at Ukraine. If the rest of the world doesn’t show strong will to support us against Russian aggression, tomorrow it will be the rest of the world and they will only understand that when it’s too late.”
Babak was born and raised in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine, before immigrating to the US. Today, he lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, where he owns a business and serves as the vice president of Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Georgia branch.
“Even though Georgia is home right now, Ukraine is my homeland. I can’t let go of my memories, my childhood, my first school, my first relationship, my first sports, my first days at college there,” Babak said. “I wish I could relive them, but now I have to imagine that those places in my memories could be destroyed. It makes my heart squeeze, it’s a really heartbreaking situation.”
Babak was just about to go to sleep when he received an outburst of messages and calls alerting him of Russia’s attack.
Since then, he has been frantically calling family and friends, who he says are hiding in basements and makeshift bomb shelters trying to stay safe.
“The worst part is this feeling of being helpless, especially when I call and can hear the ringing and they’re not answering, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s too late, if I’m never going to hear from them again,” Babak said.
To help, Babak has been advocating, protesting and raising awareness on Russia’s invasion, while encouraging others to do the same.
Although he appreciates all the messages of support he’s received, Babak says people need their actions to match their words.
“For someone like Putin, your concerns aren’t enough,” he said. “Express your concerns, but he will still come to our house at 5 a.m. with missiles and rockets and take everything from us. So we’ve had enough of you expressing your concerns.”
‘It is surreal to witness war’
Elizabeth Dolgicer was born and raised in New York City, but says she’s Ukrainian to the core.
So when Russia lay siege to her family’s ancestral homeland, she felt fear and anger coursing through her veins.
“I am anxious and can’t focus on work. How can I? It seems too insignificant. It’s hard for me to sit still, and I feel some sense of guilt for being so far away,” Dolgicer, 27, told CNN.
She stays in close contact with her family, who are split between Slovyansk and Kyiv. Their stories worry her: days that begin and end with loud explosions and gunfire.
“On the eve of the invasion, my relatives who live in an apartment building closer to the town square refused to leave,” she said. ” ‘This is our home,’ they said, ‘if we die here, so be it on our terms.’ “
They were one of two families who chose to remain in the apartment building, she said. But when they heard Russian troops were shelling civilian areas, they also fled.
Her family is currently hiding in an underground cellar, Dolgicer said. It’s the same cellar where she spent summers helping relatives stock homemade jam and homegrown fruits and vegetables.
Dolgicer wants to help, but doesn’t know what she can do. “Re-tweeting and spreading the word to my friends on Instagram feels a bit performative, even though it feels like it is all I can do to spread awareness. It is surreal to witness war,” she said.
Along with her fear for Ukrainians, Dolgicer feels sadness for ordinary Russians who opposed the invasion but had no power to stop it.
“As far as I am concerned, Putin’s government has taken its people hostage and robbed them of their future. And the saddest part is that they looked to Ukraine these last few years as an example of what could be,” she said.
“In my mind, that is a big reason why Putin invaded Ukraine to begin with — Ukrainians wanting a better future, and making strides to that reality, are a threat to his power,” she said.
“Anne Applebaum [of The Atlantic] had a good byline the other day. She said: ‘For if Ukraine were to succeed in its decades-long push for democracy, the rule of law, and European integration, then Russians might ask: Why not us?'”
‘This is a slaughtering of Ukrainians’
Oleg Opalnyk is paralyzed with fear for his homeland and loved ones, whom he worries will be killed in the Russian invasion.
“It’s been a terrible couple of days. I’m a big man, I work out, and I’ve been crying for two days. I just don’t know what to do,” Opalnyk, 45, told CNN.
“There is no more gas, the food is gone, there’s no public transportation. They have no way to escape but walking or hiding in a basement. They are running out of time, there is nothing left to do.”
It’s a far cry from the Ukraine he remembers as a child: “I remember the peace, the beauty of my country. During the time of harvest, big fields of orchids and wheat turn into waves in a yellow ocean under the bluest sky, just like our flag.”
Opalnyk, along with his parents and brother, live in Portland, Maine. But the rest of his family — including a nurse who was drafted to the Luhansk region to help the war effort — remain in Ukraine.
“I’m afraid she’s not going to come back to us,” he said of the nurse. “This is a slaughtering of Ukrainians.”
Opalnyk says his community feels helpless and betrayed, especially by Russia, with whom many Ukrainians feel a close connection.
“No one was ready for this…Ukrainians are hitting themselves in the chest seeing what the Russians are doing to them, like you were our brothers. How can you do this? How can you bomb us like this?”
Opalnyk’s grandmother told him she was recently wakened by the sounds of rockets fired over her home. Russian planes were flying so low, he said, that his family members could make out faces of the pilots.
“It’s the 21st century. People just want to be free to live their lives, to have families, to grow old in their homes. But this thug Putin is sitting in the Kremlin, threatening the world and no one is doing a thing to stop him,” Opalnyk said.
He wants world leaders to do more than impose economic sanctions on Russia. Military support and a no-fly zone, he says, should be the priority.
“We don’t care about economic sanctions,” Opalnyk said. “We need actions physically, help the military so Putin will feel the punch. Do something that will make a difference.”
‘We need actual help’
Andrukh left a lot behind when he emigrated from Lviv to San Francisco.
“Ukraine is in my blood, my memories and my heart. Ukraine is the country that gave me all the values I cherish now: kindness, compassion, unity and love for culture, my own as well as others,” Andrukh told CNN.
“What I miss the most is what I remember the most — people. Ukraine is it’s people,” he added.
Since that heartbreaking phone call from his mother, sweet nostalgia has been replaced with intense fear for his family and anger over the situation.
“I have a constant feeling of anger, helplessness and injustice mixed into a shot of poison I have to take every morning when I wake up and read about more and more tragic events, see more and more watery eyes of my friends and family,” Andrukh said. “My home is burning, my homeland is bleeding, and therefore I am.”
The international community isn’t doing nearly enough to stop the death and destruction, he says.
“It is cute to see you guys lighting up your buildings with blue and yellow to support Ukraine, while it’s being lit up with bombs and bloody red by Russia,” Andrukh said.
“Imagine if your doctor treated your condition with a ‘get well’ postcard. You would probably burn this postcard and yell at him demanding actual help. This is how I feel when I see these absurd, weak sanctions being applied against Russia, who could care less. We need actual help.”
In between calls to check on his mother, Andrukh says he stays glued to the television and internet, where he watches videos of the devastation — including some that show the killing of civilians.
“Putin has to be stopped or he will simply not stop,” Andrukh said.
“He wants blood. Over the past few years, he spilled plenty in different countries, including his own. Today he is spilling Ukraine’s blood. Tomorrow it might be yours.”
‘We will fight back’
Katya Pavlevych felt something terrible was coming long before the first explosion. But upon hearing news that Russia had begun bombing Ukraine, she still found herself in disbelief.
“I saw a CNN reporter catching the sounds of bombing live. I didn’t believe it. During the revolution we went through many informal provocations and I learned not to rush to conclusions based on one source,” Pavlevych, 28, told CNN.
“But when I saw a post on Facebook from some person saying, ‘I woke up from bombing sounds. Do you hear them?’ and saw people replying, ‘Yes,’ I lost it.”
She immediately began calling family and friends in Ukraine to ask if they were safe. Some said they had heard explosions and were already trying to flee. Others had to stay behind to care for their parents, who refused to believe Ukraine was really under attack.
Pavlevych, who lives in New York City, said she feels “anxiety, fear, extreme anger, desire for justice and revenge, absolute helplessness and even a bit of guilt for being here, not there.”
After witnessing human rights violations during Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and inadequate response from international leaders, Pavlevych says she doubts help is coming.
“The Western world has been sugarcoating the subject of invasion for a long time, calling it ‘rebellions, separatists movement, Russian influenced movements,'” Pavlevych said. “Every Ukrainian knew what it was for real: It was an invasion, starting from 2014.
“I want the world to know: Ukraine is a peaceful nation but will not tolerate the Russian invasion. We will fight back. Unlike some other nations, we know the feeling of freedom and it’s too sweet to give it up. We also know the price of it.”
That price, she worries, may be the lives of her friends and family — or the destruction of her beloved city, Kyiv, where she met and fell in love with her husband.
“I’m afraid to lose my favorite city to the occupiers,” Pavlevych said. “I’m afraid and unwilling to lose even one person to this ongoing war.”
Asked if she has one message to share with the world, Pavlevych offered a stark warning:
“If we don’t stop it now, they’ll come after you, they will start World War III. It seems impossible now. But yesterday, I was convinced that it’s impossible for Russians to bomb Kyiv. Yet, here we are.”
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