Sergey Kushnarenko remembers seeing roughly 10 residential buildings bombed in his hometown of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, a city 450 miles east of Kyiv, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24.
In the first few days of the war, the 28-year-old remembers waking up every night next to his pregnant wife, Sofia, 22, and their daughter Ellen, 2, in their apartment to the sounds of explosions, sirens and low-flying planes.
“The panic was immense,” he said.
Initially, Kushnarenko intended to wait out the war. He had recently established his dental practice, and now he was raising a family. Leaving Ukraine was the last thing he wanted to do, and he figured it would only be a matter of time before things settled down.
“This is 2022,” he said. “Wars are not supposed to happen.”
But as days turned into weeks, and as more and more buildings turned to rubble, Kushnarenko realized that he needed to get his family to safety. He began calling friends and relatives in other parts of the country only to learn that they were being bombed, too.
Two weeks into the war, the family made the decision to flee despite having nowhere to go.
Thanks to the help of hundreds of volunteers they encountered along the way, the family made their way from Ukraine through Moldova to Romania. Some volunteers drove the family for hundreds of miles. Others offered meals and support along the way.
After arriving in Romania, the family took a train packed with refugees to Budapest. There, they secured a flight to Mexico. After crossing the border at Tijuana, they made their way to Vancouver, where they are now rebuilding their lives thanks to the help of a local community at The Father’s House Church in central Vancouver.
“Everywhere throughout this whole transition, somebody wanted to help,” Kushnarenko said.
Shortly after arriving in Vancouver, Sofia Kushnarenko gave birth to a healthy boy, David, at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
“One of the reasons why we needed to flee Ukraine is because my wife was about to give birth,” Sergey Kushnarenko said. “Praise God, the birth went very smoothly, and we are so grateful to the staff and the hospital for how it all went.”
The family made the decision to come to Vancouver after getting connected with ministers at The Father’s House Church who wanted to assist Ukrainian refugees. A church in Ukraine connected the family with The Father’s House Church, and church members began corresponding with the family through Signal — an encrypted instant messaging service — as they made their way to the U.S.
The church was able to secure the family a home in the Minnehaha neighborhood, and now they are helping the family with documents, visas, food and more.
“Documents and the language barrier are our biggest challenges right now,” Kushnarenko said through a translator. “The church community has been helping us with that. We just want to get everything squared away.”
After his documents are in order, Kushnarenko said, he hopes to find a job so he can support his family and establish roots in Vancouver.
For now, the family is catching its breath. Kushnarenko still wakes up in a panic when he hears low-flying planes, and he worries constantly about his mother and his father-in-law, who are still in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Because medication and medical supplies are scarce throughout the country, he worries about their health and safety.
“It feels good to be here, but at the same time, it’s painful,” he said. “Our family is still in Ukraine, and there’s not much that we can do for them here.”
Kushnarenko said he is grateful for The Father’s House Church community who helped bring him and his family to safety in Vancouver, and for the fact that Sofia was able to give birth in a hospital.
“We are very thankful to the community that pulled through and gave us this opportunity,” he said.
Volunteers in Eastern Europe
As the Kushnarenkos traveled across Eastern Europe, they were assisted every step of the way by volunteers who had flocked there from all over the world.
Clark County resident Veronika Kuzmenko was one of the thousands of volunteers who arrived in Eastern Europe shortly after the war began.
Kuzmenko was born in the Donbas area of Ukraine, and she spent her childhood there before her family fled to America in the early 1990s during the fall of the Soviet Union.
In early March, Kuzmenko saw videos on Instagram of volunteers in Poland assisting refugees, and she decided she wanted to help. She spoke to one of her ministers at her church in Vancouver, Church of Truth, who told her that translators were needed in Romania.
Despite not knowing anyone outside of Ukraine, Kuzmenko bought herself a plane ticket, and she arrived in Romania on March 9.
“I work part time doing Grubhub, which is how I was able to take the time off to go,” she said.
Once in Romania, she paid for a hotel room, where she met other volunteers. Soon after, she was traveling across Romania by Uber with a group of female volunteers. Together, they assisted refugees at shelters, schools, gyms and churches.
“At some places, there were hundreds of refugees, at others, maybe 25,” she said.
The volunteers traveled from shelter to shelter from morning until night.
“We were meeting people and helping them,” Kuzmenko said. “There’s a lot of need, not just for translation, but for emotional support, somebody to listen to them, a shoulder to cry on. These people have had to go to other countries, and they’re trying to figure out where to stay, because they can’t stay in the shelters for long. They’re traumatized. They need somebody to care for them. Some places don’t have translators, so just talking to somebody, letting them tell their story, giving them a shoulder to cry on — it’s very emotional. They’ve been through the war, they’ve seen bombs, some of their friends and family are dead. It was challenging for me as a volunteer, but it doesn’t compare to what they’re going through.”
As she volunteered, Kuzmenko wondered if she would eventually find her uncles and cousins who live in Ukraine.
“Their lives are in danger,” she said. “I don’t even know where they are right now. They’re afraid to speak on the phone. It’s very dangerous for them.”
Kuzmenko returned to Vancouver on March 24, and now she’s saving up to volunteer again. This time, she hopes to assist refugees at the Mexico border in Tijuana, where the Kushnarenko family made its crossing into the U.S.
“It was very hard work, but it’s worth every minute,” Kuzmenko said. “They’re desperate for volunteers and translators.”
Kuzmenko said her experience as a volunteer gave her hope.
“The refugees, a lot of them came up to us with tears in their eyes, thanking us. They were crying, saying how grateful they were that volunteers were receiving them well and helping them and getting them food, clothes and other necessities that they needed, as well as a place to sleep. Seeing all those volunteers, it gave me hope for sure.”
A GoFundMe page to support Kuzmenko’s volunteer efforts can be found at www.gofundme.com/f/help-veronika-serve-ukrainian-refugees.
Need for medical supplies
Like Kushnarenko, Kuzmenko is also worried about the lack of medical supplies and medication available in Ukraine.
“In Romania, we saw different teams were bringing in medical supplies, which we were grateful for,” she said. “Some of the refugees didn’t have anything at all.”
Multiple organizations in Clark County are working to send medical supplies to Ukraine. Alex Moskal, vice president of the Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington, is at the forefront of those efforts.
Shortly after the war began, Moskal worked to mobilize the local community and coordinate efforts to send financial assistance and supplies to Ukraine.
Donations started pouring in induring early March, including a $10,000 donation from Vancouver-based Riverview Community Bank, where Moskal works, a $50,000 donation from Camas investor and philanthropist David Nierenberg and multiple donations from Ukrainian churches in Clark County including Ukrainian Baptist Church and Church of Christ the Savior, both of which collected small donations from the community for the organization.
Those donations were used to load a shipping container with medical supplies for Ukraine.
The Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington coordinated with other organizations to transport the donated medical supplies, and on March 28, a cargo plane filled with 32 tons of medical supplies left theSeattle-Tacoma International Airport for Ukraine. The donated cargo was worth $3.5 million, and at least $100,000 worth came from Clark County, according to Moskal.
The items included surgical supplies, medical machines, general hospital supplies, medication and more.
“We have been overwhelmed by the support of donors domestically and abroad,” said Liliya Kovalenko, president of the Ukrainian Association of Washington State, who is currently in Poland helping to distribute supplies across Ukraine. “People from all walks of life have earnestly answered the call to action. Without the support of this community, none of this would be possible.”
Moskal thanked the Oregon-based nonprofit Medical Teams International for donating medical supplies and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, for her support of the organization’s efforts. He said the Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington has received an outpouring of support from across Clark County.
Now, the organization is working to fill another shipping container with medical supplies, especially as the need for such supplies grows. Moskal knows that medical supplies are needed, because his daughter is currently assisting refugees in Poland and is seeing the need firsthand.
“The goal is to fill another plane,” he said. “This is our priority, because this is what people need in Ukraine.”