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A year after leaving Ukraine, humanitarian refugee reflects on life

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Posted at 2:31 PM, Mar 01, 2023

Growing up in Donetsk on the eastern border of Ukraine, Kate Pozdniakova was used to the constant shelling by Russian forces in her home country.

Yet nothing could have prepared her for the shock of her life — the full invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She was in Turkey when the attacks unfolded, and her family was in Ukraine. She knew she couldn’t go back.

Last March, she applied for the Green Corridor program, joining 100,000 humanitarian parolees allowed into the United States. She bid farewell to her father and mother, with her 59-year-old father joining the war efforts as her mother was left home alone.

It’s been a year since Pozdniakova, 25, left everything she knew behind to start anew in America. Through the kindness of a Turkish friend she studied with at Kyiv University, she is now settled in New Jersey. Yet she yearns to be home with family and loved ones, wondering when the conflict will end.

As the war in Ukraine marches on with no end in sight, Ukrainians such as Pozdniakova are reflecting on their own David and Goliath battle, with Ukraine continuing to fend off the mighty Russian army. Ukrainians are hoping for peace, but they understand the realities that lie ahead.

March on Washington

On a frigid cold Friday night, Gene Sydor boarded a bus from Buffalo, New York, to head to Washington, D.C., battling heavy winds. The 74-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel born in Ukraine knew it was a trip he had to make.

“We had to make sure we had a good turnout, not just a few hundred,” Sydor said of the Ukrainian rally held Feb. 25 in Washington, D.C.

At the Lincoln Memorial that afternoon, Sydor met 13-year-old Alex, who lost his lower left leg during the war in Ukraine. Sydor knew then he made the right decision to attend the rally for Alex, and all the Ukrainians left wounded.

Back home in Walworth just outside Rochester, Sydor and his wife Mary have taken in her cousin Tatiana Ganusiak and her two children from Ukraine. They are humanitarian parolees who are due to return to Ukraine in May 2024 under the conditions set. The family has integrated with the Ukrainian community in Rochester, one of the largest in the country.

With over 42,000 people of Ukrainian descent in the Greater Rochester region, it is home to the third-largest Ukrainian community in the U.S., behind Chicago and Sacramento, according to St. Josaphat’s Church, where the parishioners worship. They pray for the war to be over soon.

“They would like to go back to Ukraine, but go back to what?” Sydor asked rhetorically.

Keeping the faith

Pozdnikova misses her family and her friends. She video chats with her mother Luda almost daily. Always the stoic one in the family, Luda never lets on her pains of living alone. Instead, she talks to her daughter about life in Ukraine.

As her father Hennadiy just turned 60, he was able to retire from fighting. But Pozdniakova’s uncle Andrew is still fighting in the war. And that keeps the family up at night.

The eastern region of Ukraine is split into three camps: Ukraine independence supporters, Russian sympathizers and those who are ambivalent and unable to leave, Pozdniakova said. Politics is very much on the minds of the informed citizenry. Her own family initially did not vote for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but have become ardent supporters.

“We are very proud of him,” she said. “He didn’t flee. He stayed for Ukraine.”

Ukraine stood up to Russia, continuing with the resistance a year later, she said beaming with pride. That’s resilience Russia didn’t expect. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine expecting to take over in a matter of days. It is now over a year.

New life in America

It takes a village to welcome a new person. In New Jersey, Pozdniakova found a comforting community with Turkish Americans. The entire Turkish community pulled through for her, helping her get a job at Onal Gallant & Partners law firm in Elmwood Park as an assistant and helping her find a studio apartment in Garfield for $900 a month.

She spent her first American Thanksgiving with the Turkish community, dining on turkey and stuffing. Not being able to drive has been difficult, but she takes Uber and public transportation to sightsee and shop.

Tall and lithe with wavy dark blond hair, Pozdniakova talks about her love of fashion.

“I like to thrift. I like vintage,” she said. “That’s something you would never find in Ukraine.”

The concept of thrift shopping is very uniquely American. Pozdniakova enjoys spending hours looking for bargains at resale shops and outlet stores, noting the Tommy Hilfiger flag sweater she is wearing came from an outlet.

While she does splurge on bargains, the money she makes goes back to Ukraine to help with the independence effort.

“I wish Americans would understand that helping doesn’t mean you have to give $50, or $20. It could be as little as $5,” Pozdniakova said.

The future of resistance

Fighting on is critical not just for Ukrainians, but for the world, Sydor, the retired U.S. Army colonel, said. If the world allowed Russia to take over a country when it wants to, what does that mean for the democracies of the world? Sydor asks.

“We cannot win without assistance from the U.S.” he said.

The Ukrainian community of upstate New York is currently helping about 800 Ukrainian refugees who are living in various parts of the state. The nonprofit ROCMaidan has been raising money and sending packages to Ukraine in the form of warm blankets, hats and scarves and medical supplies to help the victims.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and troops have died on both sides, though there are no official figures a year later.

The uncertainty is something Pozdniakova lived with since she was 9 years old. Back then, she didn’t understand the propaganda of being told that Ukrainians are killing civilians. But having attended Kyiv University, she has a grasp of the war with a different lens. Russia said it invaded Ukraine on the premise that Russian citizens have been subjected to genocide in eastern Ukraine and sent its army to de-nazify the region. Ukraine and its allies have refuted the claims.

Amid the constant raids and shelling, people are trying to live normal lives, Pozdniakova said. The economy is suffering due to the war, jobs are scarce. She would like to return home, but doesn’t know what will be left to return to when the war is over.

“To me, Ukraine is the best place in the world,” Pozdniakova said.