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Ukrainian immigrant in Colorado hurts for her family back home

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THORNTON, Colo. — Sitting on her couch with her almost three-year-old daughter on her lap and friend by her side, Oksana Tymoshenko’s heart breaks for her family and friends back in her home country . 

“My pain is because I want to help them, but I understand a lot of people how … everybody wants to [leave] because they [are] scared. They can die there. And my family [is] the same,” said Tymoshenko.

She grew up in a small city in Ukraine called Smila. It’s just south of a larger city, Cherkasy, in the central part of the country. Tymoshenko told Rocky Mountain PBS she lived in Smila her whole life until 2013 when she came to the United States for school. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula that shared a border with Ukraine, Tymoshenko's family told her to stay in the U.S. because it wasn’t safe in Ukraine. So she moved to Colorado where she had other Ukrainian friends.

It was in Colorado that she met her husband, who is also Ukrainian, and built a life here. 

“We love it, living here. We are so happy to stay here and be a part of this country,” said Tymoshenko. But over the course of the last week, her life has turned upside down. “My heart is broke[n] now.”

Her parents, sister and nieces are all currently living in Smila. They are safe for now but are often woken up in the middle of the night to sirens signaling possible air raids. They go to the basement to hide until it’s safe. 

“My mom said … last night, they [went] like 10 times in the night to the basement. And it's not like basement[s] we have in America. It's not like that. It's no lights. It's cold. It's nothing to see,” Tymoshenko described.

Over the last week, Tymoshenko said she checked with her family often, even throughout the night. She is able to text them or call them on Skype every hour or two to make sure they are okay. 

“Every second they can die. Every second from now,” she told Rocky Mountain PBS during the interview on Wednesday afternoon. 

Tymoshenko has already heard too many near-death stories from loved ones in Ukraine. She became emotional telling us how her husband’s parents, who lived in a different town closer to Russia, were faced with fire and bombs at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 when Russia first invaded.

“My husband’s mom, she said, ‘We [are] just running and we don't know, we just take whatever we can and we just go. And we don't know where we [can] go because everything [is] in a fire,’” said Tymoshenko. 

She explained her husband’s parents aren’t really able to go outside their region because of where the Russia military has positioned itself. She also said she’s heard stories from them that soldiers are targeting civilians, which would be considered a war crime. “It's horrible,” said Tymoshenko.

[Related:  International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine]

Despite the incredibly dangerous conditions, many Ukrainians are choosing to stay and finding ways to fight back against the Russian army. 

“They are just saying, ‘We're not going to leave it. We’re going to [keep] fighting ... we are not going to give it [anybody],’” said Tymoshenko.

She also continued to explain she’s heard from family that in their small town, people have taken concrete plates and built makeshift barriers. She said the Ukrainian people try to tell the Russian army to “go home” and “we don’t want you here.”

Tymoshenko’s father is part of a group of men who are now patrolling the area through the day and night, taking shifts. Her mother works at the local train station helping to shepherd people who are hoping to evacuate and leave the country. More than one million people have left Ukraine since the start of this war and many more are expected. 

For now, Tymoshenko’s family is staying put because they are worried there is not enough room for all of the refugees in neighboring countries. On top of that, they are trying to stay as positive as possible. 

An old picture of Oksana Tymoshenko’s mother, who is one of her many family members still in Ukraine.

“My mom said, she called me, she just [told] me, ‘Don't worry. Everything will be good.’ They, like, try to be positive,” said Tymoshenko.

When Rocky Mountain PBS visited her home Wednesday afternoon, Tymoshenko took a moment to again Skype with her mom to check in. Despite being past 1 a.m. there, she was awake after they just had to go to the basement again for the siren warnings. They spoke for just a few minutes and both held back tears, staying strong for one another.

This is the same theme she tries to keep with all of her friends and family still in Ukraine. She texts them and tries to say positive things even when the messages break her heart. 

“He just text me: ‘I'm so scared. I don't know if I'm going to stay alive tomorrow. It's so scary. Everything [is on] fire,’” Tymoshenko said about a friend who joined the Ukrainian army to fight back in the capital of Kyiv. In response, she just tried to be as positive as possible, something her friend was incredibly grateful for. 

“He said, ‘That helps a lot.’ I'm just…trying to, you know, say, ‘You will be staying alive. Everything will be good,’” said Tymoshenko. 

As many of us watching this news unfold have seen, the Ukrainians are not giving up this fight easily. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is staying in the country, famously saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride" in response to an offer to be evacuated from the country.

[Related:  How an actor-turned-president found himself leading Ukraine during war]

“The spirit of Ukrainians [is] so big. And I think just for that, they can stay … strong and a lot of people and a lot of people, they [are] praying and we [have seen] saw a lot of miracles,” said Tymoshenko. 

She talked about moments she’s seen and heard about where cars are hit with several bullets but somehow the people inside aren’t hurt. She believes the power of prayer is helping save lives and can be a great way to support the people of Ukraine. 

While Tymoshenko and her family here in Thornton consistently will check in with loved ones in Ukraine, they also want people to understand how serious the situation is and it will change the world.

“It's not political anymore. It's just people [dying],” explained Tymoshenko. “If you have in your heart to help Ukrainians, somehow you can just share the truth information. You can send the money. You can go to the Poland and be a missionary … Whatever [is] in your heart, please do it because the people, they just needed help.”


Amanda Horvath is a multimedia producer with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at juliosandoval@rmpbs.org.

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