Home Front: After a year of war, local Ukrainians share their stories
Local Ukrainians filled the pews at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead Sunday to hear Mass in their native language. In their home country, war raged. There were prayers for the country many in attendance had fled from after the Russian military attacked on Feb. 24, 2022.
Some joined relatives already on the North Fork, others arrived not knowing anyone, leaving behind their lives and their belongings. They came with what they could carry. Here, they had to find homes to live in, jobs to bring in income. Several said they are working cleaning houses. Some have children, who speak only Ukrainian, attending local schools. Challenges abound as beginning anew is never easy.
To a person, they said they are grateful to be away from the destruction of their country. Many said they would go back when – and if – peace finally arrives. They follow developments in the war on Ukrainian-language news outlets on the internet. Nearly all said they have relatives in harm’s way in Ukraine. They call them as often as possible.
“Are you okay?” they ask. “Can you get away? You must get to safety. Come here if you can, you can stay with us.”
One year after the start of the war, Times Review Media Group interviewed a number of local Ukrainians. One said she hoped the land of her birth would rise from the ashes of destruction, a land awash in grief and heartbreak, and become “a bouquet of flowers.”
These are their stories, in their own words, edited only for space and clarity.
Roma Hedz is from a city outside of Kyiv, where she was born in 1955. She is staying in Riverhead, in the church rectory with her son, Father Bodhan Hedz, and his family. Father Hedz is the spiritual leader of the Ukrainian community in the area and the pastor of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church.
“I am 68 years old. War is not new for Ukraine. My parents were there during World War II when it was German-occupied and then Russian-occupied. After that Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union until 1991. My parents lived through that war; I lived through nearly the first year of this war before my son brought me to Riverhead to be with my grandchildren.
“On that first day, I was at home. My son called me. I was already asleep. He said, ‘Momma, the Russians are invading.’ I got an emergency kit together in case I had to evacuate. My town was not bombed, but I heard bombs going off at the nearby power plants and I saw the missiles flying overhead.
“I didn’t think they would do this. I was a history teacher for 45 years. I know the history of my country. There are family connections and friendship with people in Russia. And our friends on the other side of the border, they were shocked too. No one expected this.
“My son was calling. ‘Please, come here, be with us.’ But I was numb, in shock. Then it quickly sank in how real this was. Every day the TV told me what was going on; I learned on the internet, I read the newspapers. And soldiers, our volunteers, they were coming from the front lines and telling us what was going on.
“So many cities have been destroyed. In towns where the Russians have gone, people were massacred. There are mass burials everywhere. I don’t know if it will be normal again, not with all the war crimes committed.
“Please don’t make the mistake than I am a refugee. I came to be with my family. I didn’t come when the war first started because my country needed me to stay and support the people. I would pick up a weapon and fight.
“Ukraine will not give in. I am a patriot. I have been here since November, but I will go back in May. The way I got out, a lot of people are ferrying people across the border to Poland and on to Warsaw.
“Being a teacher of history, I can see the Russians created an enemy on the outside instead of looking inside at their problems. Ukraine started to develop and be a democracy. We started to build a better country. The Russians were afraid their people would want the same. So they had to try and crush Ukraine.
“What is my hope? I hope Ukraine will become a bouquet of flowers.”
Three sisters – Slava Smilanin, Lubow Bagriy, and Maria Molodylo, live in Maria’s tidy home in Riverhead, on a street near the high school. Ms. Molodylo came to the North Fork 20 years ago; her two sisters fled Ukraine last August.
Slava: “I was born in western Ukraine in 1967. Then we were part of the Soviet Union and we have no freedom.”
Maria: “There are seven kids in our family. In those days, we can’t go to church. The communists closed the churches. There was a church open in another village, and we walked to it. I didn’t have Communion in those years.
“During the time the Germans occupied Ukraine, my grandmom, my father’s mother, took food to a Jewish lady and her two kids who were living in the forest. I don’t know if they survived. When the Russians came during the war, my mom’s two brothers were killed.”
Slava: “They were shot.”
Maria: “I was here in Riverhead when the war broke out. Slava was in her village. Lubow was in Odessa. I was here and heard on the news the war had broken out. I couldn’t sleep all night. I kept calling to try and reach my sisters. When I got them, I kept saying, ‘You must get away. You can come here.’ ”
Lubow: “When the fighting started, it was very loud. Guns and bombs were going off. People everywhere were going to stores to buy whatever food they could get. Houses were destroyed, buildings were destroyed. A bomb killed a mom, her daughter and a 4-month-old child. People were leaving, just getting away. That was okay if you had somewhere to go. People went west. For us, we slept in our car every night.”
Slava: “I could hear the bombs going off. But I stayed in the house by myself.”
Maria: “I was watching the Ukrainian news on the internet. I kept calling, calling, calling. I kept telling them, ‘Please leave, don’t stay. Get away.’ ”
Lubow: “We left everything behind. All I had was my passport, some money and a sleeping bag.”
Maria: “I called every single day, telling Slava to leave. She cried on the phone. ‘I can’t leave, I can’t leave.’ ”
Slava: “My sister said you have to leave. I had some money, and I went to Slovakia. Maria bought the tickets for the bus. We have another sister in Prague, Oksana. I left Ukraine in August to come here. I left everything behind. By the time I left, everyone on my whole street was gone.”
Maria: “Every day we watch everything on the internet for the news. We watch Russian news too to see what they are saying. We have many cousins in Ukraine. We talk to them. We have two young nephews in the army. They are 22 years old.”
Slava: “When this war is over, I want to return to my home.”
Lubow: “I want to go back too, but I love this country very much.”
Maria: “I love America. I will stay. I worry about the people of Ukraine. How many will be killed? It’s so terrible. I work very hard. I go to the bank here in Riverhead and I send money to Ukraine to help them. We buy supplies and take them to the church. I send money because this is my people and my country. I don’t want the Russians there. I want Ukraine to be free.
“Ukraine is a beautiful country. My dream is to go home, take my shoes off, and walk through the grass in front of the house where I was born.”
Shelter Islander Natalie Sticesen grew up in a Ukrainian community in Connecticut and speaks, reads and writes Ukrainian. She still has family living in Ukraine, and she’s been active in organizing relief and donations. She told her story to contributor Charity Robey.
“The hardest day for me was watching what was going on with the opera house in Mariupol. All the people were hidden underneath it and written on the roof in Russian and Ukraine was ‘Kids.’ The Russians bombed it anyway.
“The biggest concern I have is for the children. It’s become the norm to hide in a bunker and be told that life goes on and they’re singing songs and nursery rhymes and they can hear bombs falling. An entire generation is being traumatized. What are the effects of that down the road?
“I’ve been in frequent contact with family and friends. A lot of my family went from eastern Ukraine to central Ukraine to western, but now there are attacks on western Ukraine as well.
“I helped two teenagers get their paperwork to stay in the U.S. Their mother is a doctor at the main hospital in Kyiv, and she was afraid for their safety. My friend Natalya is now in Austria and working to bring in equipment for soldiers, trying to help boots on the ground. Other friends, Natalie and her husband, Yevgeny, have also been instrumental in getting supplies to soldiers.
“It’s sad. We are here a year later, and yes, Ukraine has support from all these countries, but they don’t have enough support. You have 90% of Russia’s army currently in Ukraine causing all this havoc. Thank God the U.S. is helping, but everyone is afraid of World War III.
“People on Shelter Island have stopped me in town or come to my house to ask how they could help. They want to help, even in a tiny community far away from Ukraine.”
If you would like to share your stories on the war in Ukraine, please email [email protected].