“I saw those tanks. I saw those soldiers armed, like, fully armed. They started destroying all the houses. And I was afraid for my life and for the life of my family.”
Three months ago, Luida escaped the war in Ukraine with her son.
Now she lives in Durham with a host family through Uniting for Ukraine, a federal program that assists Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion to resettle in the United States. Announced by President Joseph Biden in April 2022, the program allows eligible individuals to temporarily join a sponsor in the U.S. who has offered to financially support them for up to two years. Under Uniting for Ukraine, Ukrainians are granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay in the country temporarily due to urgent humanitarian reasons.
These are the stories of two Ukrainian women, Lyudmyla Skorlupina, 43, and Yulia Sytnyk, 36, who both fled Ukraine with their young children and now reside in Durham through this federal program.
Lyudmyla, who goes by Liuda, has short brown hair and brown eyes set in a round face. She speaks English exceptionally well, only occasionally pausing to find the correct word to express her thoughts. Even through a computer screen, her demeanor exudes a calm warmth — a friendly tone and a gentle lilt in her voice.
Liuda is from the city of Bucha, Ukraine, around 20 miles away from the capital Kyiv.
Bucha has been most recently recognized in the Bucha massacre — the widespread killing and torturing of civilians by Russian soldiers in their fight to occupy the city. When Russian troops retreated from Bucha at the end of March, Ukrainian authorities found hundreds of bodies, many of which they are still struggling to identify.
In Bucha, Liuda taught English at a secondary school. She lived with her husband and her son, Zhenia, 11.
On Feb. 21, Liuda woke up, did her makeup and was ready to head into work when she heard the drone of fighter jets flying overhead.
“I didn’t want to believe it … I thought it was a joke and everything would stop. But it wasn’t,” she said.
“I was very lucky that my house is still there. But our neighbors were not so lucky,” Liuda said.
Two weeks after the war began, Liuda left Bucha with Zhenia to go to her parents’ home in eastern Ukraine, which she said was comparatively safer at the time. She stayed with them for two months but returned in April once the city was liberated by Ukrainian troops.
However, conditions were still dangerous. The fighting had left unexploded mines, and as they detonated, Liuda’s home was jolted by the tremors of intermittent explosions.
‘Every mother would do this'
In June, Liuda’s old friend and previous coworker Zoua Yang invited her to come stay in her home in the U.S.
Zoua had been a Peace Corps volunteer at Liuda’s school four years ago, and the pair had stayed in touch ever since, exchanging communication about the Russian invasion. Zoua and her boyfriend decided that they could support Liuda and her son in their home in Durham.
Liuda would have to leave everything she knew, including her husband and her parents, to come to the U.S. In Ukraine, male citizens from the ages of 18-60 are banned from exiting the country so that they can contribute to the war effort.
But to her, it was worth it for her son and his safety. Although Russian forces had retreated from Bucha, Liuda felt that the trajectory of the war was still unclear. Bucha was not the safe city she once knew it to be.
“I decided that it will be safer for me to come here. And my child will have the opportunity to study in a safe place … I think that every mother would do this if she had this opportunity,” she said.
The journey to the U.S. took five days.
Because much of Ukrainian transportation has been destroyed in the war, she and Zhenia first took a bus to Moldova, and then to Romania. Then a flight to Amsterdam, and another to Atlanta, Ga., finally arriving in the U.S.
Editor’s Note: Because Yulia is not fluent in English, The Chronicle corresponded with her over email. Yulia used a translation tool to send her responses in English.
Yulia has straight chin-length strawberry blonde hair and icy blue eyes. With youthful energy, she takes selfies and often wears ripped jeans and chokers. Diana, her nine year old daughter, has brown eyes and the same strawberry blonde colored hair as her mother, often pulled back into a braid or ponytail.
The two are from Kherson, Ukraine, the main city of the formerly Russian-occupied Kherson region. At the end of September, Russia claimed to formally annex Kherson, along with three other regions in Ukraine. This annexation was widely rejected and condemned on the global stage and sparked a new wave of international sanctions against Russia.
In November, Russian troops retreated from Kherson, leaving the city joyful but facing a growing humanitarian crisis.
In her home city, Yulia headed a nonprofit organization called The Future of Kherson Region, which works to develop solutions to community safety through cultural development and historical preservation.
On Feb. 24, she woke up at 5:00 a.m. to the sound of airplanes and explosions around the city. She shook her daughter awake, gathered their valuable items and documents and set up a shelter in the basement.
“I tried to stay calm so as not to scare my daughter … For the next few weeks we lived in the basement and slept in our coats and shoes,” Yulia wrote.
In the basement, she made a promise to her daughter — if they managed to get out alive, she would buy her anything she wanted.
On March 1, Russian forces broke through the city’s defenses and initiated a full-scale invasion of Kherson. According to Yulia, there was no general evacuation; instead, people started leaving the city in their own cars.
As days passed under full-scale Russian invasion, Kherson became increasingly dangerous, according to Yulia.
“Russian checkpoints searched cars and took away valuables. Any symbols of Ukraine in the phone, found by the soldiers, could cost a person's life,” she wrote.
For over three months, Yulia and her daughter lived under occupation. Food and medicine disappeared from stores, banks and cash machines closed, and one day, the mobile connection and Internet disconnected.
“We started going out and talking to strangers. That's how you could find out the news. [Ukrainians] communicated with neighbors and acquaintances using notes in mailboxes,” she wrote.
At night, Yulia and her daughter fell asleep to the sound of explosions and shootings.
“Sometimes before going to sleep, my daughter would say to me: ‘Let's go to sleep as soon as possible so that we don't hear the explosions.’ She was good at it. But I could stay up all night,” Yulia wrote.
One morning, Yulia and Diana attempted to escape in their car but were unsuccessful. After driving for many hours, they were barred from leaving the country at a Russian checkpoint and had to return home.
According to Yulia, the process of evacuation in Ukraine is solely organized through public initiatives and non-profit organizations. Yulia worked with her nonprofit to help coordinate evacuation corridors for other Ukrainians looking to leave the country.
“There are no official corridors for the evacuation of people and there have never been. The situation is very difficult, due to constant shelling and fighting throughout the entire route of departure,” she wrote.
On their third attempt to escape, Yulia and Diana finally managed to leave through an organized evacuation bus.
After they left, they lived in Krakow, Poland for a few months and Berlin, Germany for a few weeks. However, getting a job in a foreign country was not easy, Yulia wrote, and they struggled to make enough money to rent an apartment.
In June, Yulia’s cousin Anya Yakovenko invited Yulia and Diana to come to the U.S. and live with her.
A new life in Durham
Liuda and her son Zhenia have been living with Zoua and her boyfriend in Durham for over three months.
They live in a gray-shingled house nestled in a small neighborhood in Durham. The house has large windows that allow in natural light, brightening up a cozy living room with a piano and fairy lights hanging from the ceiling. Outside, a few large trees stand in the front yard, littering the grass with an array of different colored leaves in the fall.
Zhenia is the spitting image of his mother with the same kind brown eyes, short brown hair, and round face. He’s shy, standing behind his mother and occasionally offering a tentative smile.
The pair can stay in the U.S. for up to two years. Liuda is currently obtaining legal documents, such as a Social Security number, work authorization and food stamps.
In Anya’s home in Durham, Yulia and Diana live with Anya’s sister and her two children, who also escaped the war and are part of Uniting from Ukraine. In the fall, steps leading up to their home are decorated with pumpkins, potted plants and fake bright orange and red leaves.
Like Liuda, Yulia is currently waiting for legal documents so that she can work in America. While she waits for these processes to happen, she has continued to maintain contact with Ukraine through The Future of Kherson Region.
Yulia wrote that Durham reminds her a lot of Kherson.
“I know that Durham is actively engaged in revitalization and is developing in the field of culture: like art, music and documentary cinema,” she wrote.”I really want to know this city more.”
Like Liuda, the main reason Yulia decided to leave Ukraine was for the safety of her child.
In their free time, Yulia and Diana watch movies and TV series together in order to learn English. When they can, they walk around Durham to get to know the city better. Their family attends church on Sundays. Diana has joined a childrens’ groups at church in order to connect with other American children. And she constantly reminds her mother of the promise she made in the basement.
Diana is studying online at a Ukrainian school until she is able to enroll at an elementary school in Durham. Liuda’s son Zhenia attends elementary school in Durham, and Liuda says that he has been adjusting very well to their new life in the U.S.
Liuda, on the other hand, has faced more challenges adjusting to life in America. Because she and her son are humanitarian parolees, she must navigate the government bureaucracy before she can truly begin her life in America. Parolees cannot get work authorization as quickly as refugees, she said. As she waits to receive work authorization, she has spent some of her time volunteering at her son’s school.
“I want to have the opportunity to support my family and to get some money for some work but I don't … because I'm waiting for all those documents,” she said.
‘I hear my heart beat fast’
Although she’s thousands of miles from Bucha, Liuda still feels the trauma of experiencing war firsthand.
In Bucha, the hum of war airplanes and helicopters over the city filled every waking moment. Now, in Durham, it’s the noises of planes flying to and from the Raleigh-Durham airport that frighten her.
“I hear my heart beat fast when I hear [the planes],” she said.
Liuda still speaks with her parents and her husband in Ukraine everyday. But it’s heartbreaking for her to be far away from home.
“I cry almost every day when I read the news from Ukraine… the biggest thing I want and I dream about, of course, is to go back to Ukraine,” she said, her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears. She reaches above her desk to grab a tissue, dab her eyes, and takes a few moments to compose herself.
Yulia faces similar struggles to Liuda when it comes to adapting to a new life she didn’t choose.
“We are not immigrants. We were forced to leave our homes and country,” she wrote. “It is very difficult not to feel frustrated and depressed every day. It is very difficult to start life from the beginning in such a situation.”
Despite the circumstances, Liuda is grateful to be able to live in the U.S.
“Durham is absolutely different … it’s a really nice experience for me. I’m a teacher, and I have something to compare from my Ukrainian educational system to this,” she said. “There are lots of things that Ukraine can take and can learn from Americans on how to do it.”
Yulia similarly expressed optimism about the opportunity to live in and explore the U.S. She wants to see the “famous places and feel the history of America.”
And, she added, she wants to see the ocean.
“Maybe the ocean will give me the power and inspiration to start a new life,” she wrote.
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Sana Pashankar is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.