Texas Family Among Many in the US, Western Europe Taking in Ukrainian Refugees
By Jennifer Errico
Diana Mykoliv woke up early on the morning of Feb. 24 for flight attendant training in the United Arab Emirates. Her hair clipped back and uniform pressed, she headed out her apartment door when she received a text from her mother.
“It’s happening, daughter.” The message in Ukrainian stopped her in her tracks.
“My heart just fell from my chest,” Mykoliv, a Ukrainian native, said. “The worst fears I could have ever imagined of the situation were just brought to light. I couldn’t believe it.”
The same morning at 5 a.m. in Kyiv, Mykoliv’s fiancé Oleksandr awoke to explosions of ballistic missiles. In a frenzy, he packed documents, money, some clothes and a Stephen King book, then headed to the train station to flee the city among the sound of alarms.
“I couldn’t sleep for three days,” Oleksandr said. “Air alarms sound every day, sometimes for hours and it just leaves me shaking.”
Mykoliv, 3,000 miles away from her home, felt hopeless as Russian forces marched into her country, uprooting and threatening the lives of her friends, family and fiancé. According to the BBC, President Biden and the policymakers in the European Union responded by issuing severe sanctions targeting four of Russia’s largest banks, its oil and gas industry, and Western exports (especially technology) to the country.
The Russian invasion has thrown Mykoliv’s family to the winds of war, leaving them in a constant state of fear as they worry for one another’s safety. Her fiancé remains separated from his parents, who stayed in Kyiv. Mykoliv remains a bystander to the tragedy feeling helpless. Mykoliv’s mother, father and sister fled to the Western city Lviv, sheltering in friends’ basements as their home and flower shop in Kyiv were reduced to rubble.
“Putin shows no sign of restraint,” Mykoliv said. “And each day more people die, more people flee and my country falls to ruins.”
Mykoliv’s mother and sister are two of the 11 million displaced people, and more than 5 million refugees have fled Ukraine. Her mother decided to send her sister to Houston to create long-term stability in a state of constant change.
Mykoliv attended Klein High School as an exchange student for two years. Her sister will live with Mykoliv’s host family.
Spencer Walker, a government junior at the University of Texas at Austin, said her mother is currently in the process of becoming Mykoliv’s sister’s guardian. Walker’s mother can then make legal decisions on Mykoliv’s sister’s behalf when she arrives in the U.S. As a minor, she will leave Ukraine and her family in July and start her junior year of high school in August in suburban Houston.
Russian troops now leave significant cities such as Sumy, and Ukrainian forces push back to reestablish control. The war is entering a stalemate phase where both sides limit offensive operations while the devastation of human suffering continues, according to Andrius Tursa, an advisor at Teneo Intelligence, a global security consulting firm.
Valeriia, a friend of Mykoliv’s, said there are mass graves in every city, and most of Eastern Ukraine is impossible to live in. Cities such as Mariupol and Kherson are on the verge of a humanitarian disaster as civilians are murdered each day.
“At first, it was hard to believe that such things could happen in the 21st century,” Valeriia said. “Eventually, you get used to the sirens and bombs and learn to live an ‘ordinary’ life in (a) war zone. At some point, you start to be afraid of the silence.”
Another friend, Yevheniy, said he and his wife fled to Western Ukraine, living with his wife’s parents and grandparents. His mother, grandma and brother remain in Sumy, which is 31 miles from the Ukrainian-Russian border.
“The biggest fear is to find out something awful has happened to my family,” Yevheniy said. “I recall a moment when my brother wrote me saying that their city was under attack and there were continuous explosions. It is impossible to put what I was feeling into words.”
Yevheniy said there are three things Ukraine needs right now: weapons, humanitarian aid and sanctions on Russian policymakers and citizens.
He expresses the sanctions are insufficient to stop the war—for instance, the E.U. continues to pay around €1 billion per day for Russian oil and gas. But, if they implemented similar embargos that the U.S. and United Kingdom invoked, Putin’s regime would tank financially.
President Zelensky addressed the Grammys on April 3, pleading for support for his country’s war efforts as Russia now targets non-military and civilian infrastructure through aerial, missile and artillery bombardment warfare.
“What is more opposite to music?” He stated in the pre-recorded video. “The silence of ruined cities and killed people. Our children draw swopping rockets, not shooting stars…”
Russian forces commit numerous war crimes such as murder, torture, rape against Ukrainian women and looting. After the atrocities recorded in Bucha, President Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and called for a trial against him.
As of May 3, the number of civilians killed was approaching 3,000, with more than 200 being children. But the United Nations has expressed an underestimation in their analysis, saying the statistics don’t capture the full impact of the war.
Parisian native Natasha Bacac said scars from World War II are reopened.
“You see who is willing to help and who is not,” Bacac, a finance junior at New York University, said. “Those who have been oppressed or have suffered in the past are the first to help. Other western nations not so affected by the past are more… limited with their assistance.”
Twitter #Polandfirsttohelp is trending all over social media. Polish native Walter Bera said her family was refugees during World War II who fled to America. Now, an Austin resident, she said she and her family back home are united with Ukraine.
“War does not discriminate,” Bera said, quoting the #Polandfirsttohelp homepage. “Ukraine is just the beginning, the Baltic states are next, and then Poland… (We) are watching Europe (and) world democracy disappear.”
Bacac is Jewish and said her family were Allie fighters and survivors of WWII. Her family in Paris said they are willing to house refugees, but other Parisians aren’t so kind.
“There is more sympathy if you’ve experienced atrocities firsthand,” Bacac said. “Those who suffered during World War II know the pain of having no help. Of course, those whose lives weren’t and aren’t affected are less willing to help, and sadly that’s most of Western Europe. They can impose policies and sanctions, but sometimes you need human-to-human help.”
Although on the other side of the globe, Ukrainians in Austin have gathered and protested to support their families fighting back home.
Rally attendee and Ukrainian native Polina Shabarova said people can help by spreading the facts, showing the atrocities on their social media pages and sharing links for donations to help refugees and soldiers get supplies.
Shabarova said the war doesn’t just affect Ukraine.
“We’ve seen the domino effect of war once before,” Shabarova said. “It starts with the invasion of one country and ends in a world war.”
Shabarova, Mykoliv and other Ukrainian natives have said they are grateful for the help of Europe and the world, and even though each day the fighting gets worse and worse, they see their people rising above, becoming stronger and stronger.
“I’m very proud of my country, of the courage of our army and our people. I am proud to say Ukraine is my home and I am Ukrainian,” Mykoliv said. “Slava Ukraini.”
Editor’s Note: The last names of sources for this story are removed to protect loved ones still in Ukraine.