SOUTHINGTON – A bomb blast across the street convinced Iryna Hizhytsa that the safety of her children required her to leave her home in Odessa, Ukraine.
The port city on the shores of the Black Sea had been a haven for Hizhytsa’s family a century earlier as they fled the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Now Odessa has been hit by Russian missiles, inundated with refugees from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, and rendered nearly uninhabitable by inflation and unemployment.
“It’s pretty hard to stay in a place where bombs are flying everywhere,” Hizhytsa said through her daughter Alexandra Anderson, who translated.
As fighting spread west from Russian-held Crimea towards the city, Hizhytsa brought her daughter Yevheniia Sheremet, her 11-year-old son Misha, and their cat to the Slovakian border. Anderson, a Southington resident who had been working to persuade her mother to leave Ukraine, flew to Europe in May and began taking her mother, siblings and cousins to Southington, where they now live. Anderson came to the United States in 2005 and has lived in Southington for years.
Anderson’s relatives are among a group of Ukrainians who came to Southington following the Russian invasion earlier this year. The refugees have connected with family, friends, and other Ukrainian-Americans to begin rebuilding their lives, getting homes and jobs, and learning English.
A new home
Anderson’s sister arrived in May, her mother and Misha in June, and her cousin Mariia Antonenka and son Illiia earlier this month. These relatives have joined Alexandra Anderson and her husband Mark and their two daughters in their home. With five additional people in the house, sleeping and living space is tight, although there are beds for everyone.
“No one (sleeps) on the floor. We’re kicking each other a bit,” said Alexandra Anderson.
Housing is their top priority. Her plan is to get a nearby apartment for Antonenka, as well as an apartment for her mother and Misha. Sheremet, who attends Tunxis Community College, will stay with the Andersons.
In search of housing, Alexandra Anderson said she also tried to find vehicles for family members. After that it will be a job hunt.
Southington residents who are aware of the family’s situation have donated clothing and offered to help find homes without a commission. Alexandra Anderson said local residents have been very supportive and support for Ukrainians locally and internationally has not wavered.
“Everyone in Southington stuck with it,” she said. “The people in the city have consistently stuck with it.”
She described a recent medical supplies drive as “great” and a benefit to Ukrainians with critical items that are now hard to find in the country.
While translating for her mother in the living room on Friday, Mark Anderson explained to family and friends how American welfare systems work. The group arrived from Southington Community Services that afternoon after stopping at Southington Community Cultural Arts, where they discussed an art exhibition planned for September.
Diann Thomson, executive director of SOCCA, said the exhibition is still taking shape but will focus on Ukrainian women artists.
“September will be her month at the gallery,” she said.
One of the artists is Olga Tsyfanski, who came to the USA in 2008 and lives in Avon. She learns the intricate embroidery seen on traditional Ukrainian clothing and has applied these regional designs to bracelets and other items. Tsyfanski plans to use all proceeds from art sales to fund critical supplies and military equipment such as body armor and tactical gear for soldiers.
concern for relatives
She was among the Ukrainians at the Andersons’ home on Thursday and said her concern is for her father, who is in Ukraine.
When fighting started in Donbass in 2014, Tsyfanski’s 61-year-old father tried to join the army. Although he had combat experience with the Soviet Army during the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, his age kept him away from the front lines and he drove a truck.
When the Russians invaded earlier this year, Tsyfanski’s father was near Kyiv and again offered to fight. This time the situation was so desperate and his combat experience so in demand that he was placed in a unit of Afghan war veterans fighting to hold the lines west of Kyiv.
“Everyone was old (but) everyone knew what to do,” Tsyfanski said.
Her father fought in Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel Airport. During this time he was unavailable for three days. Text messages went unread, which worried Tsyfanski.
“Those were the hardest three days,” she says.
Though her father was unharmed in combat, the cold nights triggered a lung problem he’s had since he was shot in the chest in Afghanistan. He is recovering in a hospital and Tsyfanski hopes he and her mother will be allowed to visit him.
Most men are not allowed to leave Ukraine because they are needed in industry or the military.
Tsyfanski has tried to get her 93-year-old grandmother to leave Ukraine, but she has refused.
“She said she wouldn’t move. She didn’t move when the Germans came (1941),” Tsyfanski said.
reluctant to go
It took the war that came almost to her doorstep to convince Hizhytsa to leave Odessa with her children. The city had been a haven for her Jewish-Ukrainian family, particularly during World War II when it was under Romanian rather than German occupation, like most of the rest of Ukraine.
The family lived in shared apartments based on the Soviet model until 1984, when they no longer had to share a kitchen and were given their own private apartment. It was this apartment that left Hizhytsa in March with nothing but a backpack.
She told of the chaotic train ride with thousands of other refugees to the Slovakian border. There they met Alexandra Anderson, who had flown in from the United States to help them find somewhere to stay in Europe until they could come to Southington.
Alexandra Anderson had her own story of how she got lost trying to find the right border crossing, stumbled across a military camp and received help from local Slovaks. She found her mother and siblings near bonfires set up by the soldiers to warm refugees from sub-zero temperatures.
“Everyone is cold, everyone is hungry. It was an emotional reunion,” said Alexandra Anderson.
connection to the homeland
Sheremet was the first family member to fly to the United States. She said the transition from wartime Ukraine to the US is difficult to describe.
“I know I’m in a safe place and things are going well, but I miss things from Ukraine. My father is there, my brother is there,” Sheremet said. “Every day I call them, I text them.”
She hopes to return to Ukraine this summer but doesn’t know if the situation will allow it. Though the war is ongoing, Sheremet fears it has slipped from view for many Americans.
“The war is not over yet. We need some help to finish this thing,” she said.
Hizhytsa said the fighting was a tragedy for Ukrainians, Russians and Europeans. Many countries bordering Ukraine are inundated with refugees and face shortages and economic problems due to the war.
She still loves Odessa and hopes to return.
“One day. No for the moment,” Hizhytsa said. “It’s my homeland, it’s my country.”