Volya Baziuk looks down at her phone, and a signal from Ukraine indicates to her that her uncle is still among the living there. She looks for him to log in to Facebook, he disappears for a couple days and she thinks the worst. Then he returns.
“Looks like my uncle is online,” she says. “Hey, he’s alive today, this is good.”
He’s in his 70s, a duck hunter, a sweet and peaceful man. He belongs in a lawn chair, relaxing in the latter years of his life, not in the streets with a gun, she says.
From Bainbridge Island, she keeps in touch with a network of extended Ukrainian family members over Instagram and Facebook, checking in and asking what they need periodically. A cousin in Lviv, in western Ukraine, is helping to care for a large group of orphans at a school where she sits on the board of directors. A friend of Baziuk’s in Poulsbo has a mother who is hidden away in Kyiv, the country’s capital city.
Baziuk looks at the news, wanting to hear some note of positivity, but then has to tear herself away.
“It’s very hard to work right now, because it’s always on our minds, if you have family there,” she said. “Life has to go on here, you have to feed your kids. But it’s very, very hard to get anything done, because it’s always on your mind and waking up four times a night because of the time difference to check the news or check on messages to see if everyone is OK.”
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Shrinking areas of safety
As war in Ukraine has stretched out for more than a week, those in Kitsap with ties to the eastern European country have looked on in horror as the Russian assault has continued.
The last time Natasha Pugh checked, one of her relatives in Ukraine was in a town occupied by Russian soldiers with no water, electricity and natural gas. On top of that, rockets shot overhead, Pugh was told.
“They’re alive right now, but they also have air raids, so the situation can change at any minute,” Pugh said. “It’s just very, very concerning.”
Originally from Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine, Pugh came to the United States about 30 years ago to study at South Kitsap High School and ended up building her own family in Kitsap County. Today, she watches as the Russian invasion has sent missile strikes, tanks and planes into her home country. She’s been contacting her relatives and worries about their situation.
“They have tanks. And, yes, they can see the Russian soldiers,” she said.
Kimberley Dolges, of Port Orchard, couldn’t stop thinking of her former students in Ukraine who may be fighting in the war for their home. Dolges served as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in southern Ukraine from 2011 to 2013, she said.
Last week, Dolges saw news of explosions in Ochakiv, on the Black Sea, less than a mile from an apartment where she had lived for over two years. She also learned that the basement of the school where she’d served in a nearby village is being used as a bomb shelter.
After following news of the war closely, Dolges couldn’t sit in her house anymore. She went out to the intersection of Sedgwick and Bethel roads to show her support for Ukraine and held a flag in her hands. She received a good bit of support while she was there.
“It was really nice to know that in this little town, people are aware and care,” she said, adding that people need to know what Ukraine is experiencing. “They’ve done nothing wrong to be invaded.”
Dolges plans to stand at the same location again in Port Orchard at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. This time, Dolges won’t be alone. Pugh reached out to Dolges over social media and said she and some of her family friends will join Dolges. Pugh plans to make anti-war signs for the gathering, she said.
“I just want to show our support for Ukraine,” Pugh said. “I don’t know if there are going to be other people. I hope so.”
Eli Oldfield, of Bremerton, has been in touch with a Ukrainian friend, Liubov Matveichenko, who was a foreign exchange student at Oldfield’s high school in Texas. Matveichenko and her husband had been in Kyiv and sent their children away to a safer area in the run-up to the conflict but recently took a bag of belongings and left the capital for another city. Oldfield notes though, “As the forces advance, the areas where they can remain safe will become fewer and fewer.”
Like Oldfield, Matveichenko has been engaged on political and social issues and has taken up the cause of rallying friends and family in the United States and around the world to reach out to elected officials to continue to request support for Ukraine.
“We’ve all seen the real strength and bravery of the Ukrainian people, but strength and bravery can only go so far when you’re up against one of the largest militaries in the world,” Oldfield said.
Baziuk, on Bainbridge Island, and others are left to follow the war from afar, waiting for news. She now thinks of preparing her property to house a refugee family.
“They’re very, very proud over there,” she said. “They’re still believing that they can overcome this, and they want support, but they don’t really necessarily want sympathy. They want people to stay optimistic and positive.”
Kitsap sends aid
On Tuesday morning, the Kitsap-based nonprofit Empact Northwest deployed an assessment team to aid the Ukrainian refugees pouring out of the country. The team left for Warsaw, Poland, and will work primarily at the border between Poland and Ukraine.
“There’s not a lot of good specifics coming out yet,” Jake Gillanders, Empact Northwest’s executive director, told Kitsap Sun on Monday. “The only information we’re getting is that they need as much help as they can get.”
Empact Northwest provides immediate humanitarian support in the wake of disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. The group has previously deployed teams to Haiti; Sierra Leone; Japan; the Philippines; Nepal; Oso, Washington; Louisiana and the Bahamas to provide disaster relief. Now they’ll work with Ukrainian refugees. The United Nations reported on Thursday that 1 million refugees have fled the country over a seven-day period.
This week, Empact Northwest sent the team composed of a paramedic, rescue providers and logistic managers, to focus on determining where the greatest need is for humanitarian support for refugees, as well as setting up for a longer-term humanitarian operation and establishing plans with local partners, Gillanders said.
“Once we return this small four-person team, we’ll start rolling in larger teams of relief workers,” he said.
To support Empact Northwest’s operations, visit EmpactNorthwest.org.