by Amanda Milewski, photography by Nikola Tzenov
Conflict Endangers Family and Friends Of County Residents, Stirs Strong Emotions
The world reacted with shock and disbelief in February 2022 when Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine. The unprovoked act of aggression led to condemnation by leaders of many nations and the UN General Assembly, as well as to sanctions of Russia by the United States, the European Union and other countries and organizations.
For two Carroll County residents, the war in Ukraine hits close to home, literally. Katya Dovgan and Leana Yashchuk are both Ukrainian natives, and although they’ve lived in the United States for some time, they still have many family members and friends living in Ukraine.
Strong emotions, lifelong connections
“It is difficult to describe my outrage, pain and hate to the aggressor,” said Dovgan, who is an art professor at McDaniel College. “I am heartbroken and for a long time felt like I was living in a surreal nightmare.”
Yashchuk, who works in the supply chain/purchasing sector at Knorr Brake, has similar feelings. “I feel heartbroken, helpless and sad,” she said. “So many emotions that change every day.”
Dovgan moved to the United States when she married, and Yashchuk has lived here since she was 15 years old, but both still have parents living in Ukraine.
Yashchuk’s father and his wife still live in her hometown of Odessa, which she said hasn’t been bombed as often as some of the other cities. Still, their electricity is turned off daily and they must shelter behind a fortified wall in their apartment since there are no bomb shelters nearby. They hear rockets fly overhead and explosions sometimes shake their building.
“My mom, Margaryta Dovgan, 92, is a journalist and a prominent dissident,” Dovgan said. “She is very active and doing well. She did not want to move when the war started, saying that she survived World War II and will be fine. She has many friends visiting and helping.” Sometimes when they talk on Skype however, Dovgan said she can hear air raid sirens and explosions.
Dovgan’s two nephews are aviation engineers in the Ukrainian armed forces and her childhood friend is an artillery operator stationed near Bakhmut, where some of the fiercest fighting rages.
“Almost all able-bodied men I know — neighbors, sons of my friends, celebrities like writers, musicians, actors, ballet dancers, opera singers — are either in the territorial defense formations protecting Kyiv or in training to go to the front lines,” Dovgan said.
Assistance from afar
Although they can’t be there in person to support their homeland, Dovgan and Yashchuk have still found ways to aid Ukrainians.
In November, Dovgan was invited to give a lecture on Ukrainian icons at Mount St. Mary’s University as a fundraiser for the nonprofit United Help Ukraine. She also has contributed personally to the organization (unitedhelpukraine.org), which was established in 2014, when the Donbas region of Ukraine was attacked by Russian forces and the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia. The organization focuses on aiding those who have been wounded; providing hospital equipment and first aid kits for service members; providing personal, medical, and survival equipment to civilians; providing humanitarian aid to internally displaced Ukrainians and refugees; and raising awareness about Ukraine’s struggle for freedom.
Likewise, Yashchuk has been involved in humanitarian and fundraising activities to benefit her homeland. Some of those include United for Ukraine (unitedforukraine.org/en-us) and World Central Kitchen (wck.org), which provides food for communities suffering from shortages. She also participated in the inaugural Bmore for Ukraine festival last summer, which was sponsored by the Baltimore-Odessa Sister City Committee and other fundraisers by private citizens, including Amazon wish list purchases of medical supplies.
Other members of the community who have no direct ties to Ukraine have stepped up to help.
South Carroll High School Key Club president Maddie Benfer and the club’s advisor, Louise Scalzi, were inspired to mobilize the community after learning that “the violence in Ukraine created one of Europe’s largest refugee crises since World War II,” Benfer said. “We wanted to do something to help those displaced by the fighting.”
Benfer and fellow members of the Key Club organized a walk to benefit Ukraine in April 2022. Walkers — South Carroll High School students, parents, and local Kiwanis Club members — participated in the three-mile walk at Krimgold Park in Woodbine. Key Club is a partner of the global Kiwanis volunteer organization. Key Club operates in thousands of U.S. high schools and in 38 countries.
The money raised — almost $800 — was donated to the Church of the Brethren Disaster Relief Fund, based in New Windsor. The fund is both a local and national organization with an ongoing commitment to helping displaced Ukrainians with resettlement.
“Not only did the walk raise money,” Benfer noted, “but it was a great way for our community to get together on a nice day and exercise for a cause. In addition, it was an opportunity for South Carroll High School students to feel connected with their local Kiwanis community members and raise awareness for an important cause.”
Additionally, Carroll County Public Schools’ Student Services Department has a “variety of supports in place for students who arrive to the county from Ukraine,” said CCPS spokesperson Carey Gaddis.
Support services include pupil personnel workers, a translation team, and ESOL departments coordinating to help families with the school enrollment process and to educate them about community-based support like housing assistance and food pantries. The CCPS Health Services team also collaborates with the Carroll County Health Department to provide students with vaccinations required for enrollment and connects families with local providers for physical examinations and other medical services.
Gaddis noted that there may be families here from Ukraine that speak English and therefore do not request services. She said CCPS estimates that it has had fewer than10 students from Ukraine receive services.
The human toll
Neither Yashchuk nor Dovgan know anyone personally who has been killed in the conflict. Yashchuk recounted that the son of her mother’s friend is fighting on the front lines and was shot in the chest but was saved by his bulletproof vest. Early in the war, his apartment building was bombed and a 3-month-old baby, her mother and her grandmother all perished. “It’s truly heartbreaking,” said Yashchuk.
Anti-war sentiment is so strong that some Russians have crossed the border into Ukraine to take up arms against their own countrymen. The Free Russia Legion, as the unit of Russians fighting on behalf of Ukraine is called, is composed of several hundred men, and overseen by Ukrainian officers. The conflict is pitting Russians against Russians, even though it is currently on a small scale.
Misinformation is rife during wartime and an accurate accounting of the dead and wounded may take years to calculate after the conflict is over. Even now, the estimates vary widely. Some reports list 100,000 Ukrainian forces killed or wounded and 30,000 civilian deaths. Other agencies report 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 7,000 civilians have died. Chances are that none of those estimates are accurate; many guess that the figures are higher. It is also estimated that 8 million people have fled Ukraine and are living as refugees.
Hopes and dreams
Ways to Help
There are many organizations involved in efforts to support the citizens and armed forces of Ukraine. From booking Ukrainian rentals with no intention of staying, which puts money quickly into the hands of citizens, to contributing to large-scale relief efforts, there is no shortage of ways to help. Below are some organizations to consider.
Brethren Disaster Ministries
Doctors Without Borders
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Save the Children
United for Ukraine
United Help Ukraine
World Central Kitchen
Dovgan was on the square next to the Ukrainian parliament building on Aug. 24, 1991, awaiting the proclamation of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “When it was announced,” she recalled, “the crowd burst out in joyous cries and chanting, songs and tears. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”
Despite her current heartbreak over the war, Dovgan “feels an incredible surge of pride and gratitude to the brave Ukrainian men and women fighting like lions and surprising the whole world with their resilience, bravery, and valor. Ukrainians are being forged into something stronger and more whole as a nation than we used to be.”
“Over three centuries of Russian terror and oppression of the Ukrainian people, their language, literature, freedom, and desire to live in democracy damaged the spirit of the nation,” Dovgan said. She also pointed to the extermination of Ukraine’s intellectual elite in the 20th century and to the Holodomor — a famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s that led to the starvation deaths of 6 to 10 million Ukrainians — that further damaged the nation’s psyche.
Despite living in the United States for some time now, Yashchuk and Dovgan’s ties to Ukraine are as strong as the day they departed. Both return for visits as often as possible and Dovgan was there in the late summer/early fall.
Yashchuk hopes for Ukraine to “win this war, rebuild the cities destroyed by the Russian army and live a free life as a free country.”
Dovgan has the same hopes. “Russia should return all occupied territories, including Crimea,” she said, “return thousands of Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russians and ‘adopted’ into Russian families.” She also wants Ukraine to “form a new government that will fight corruption and adhere to the legal norms of democratic developed countries; and join NATO and the EU.”
“This war has awakened unstoppable forces that I am sure will bring victory and tectonic changes to the better in the future,” Dovgan said. “Also, on behalf of every Ukrainian I know, I want to say that we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the U.S. people and government for the unprecedented moral and military support. We would not be where we are now without it.”