Home Local Newly-arrived Ukrainians recount escaping war, finding haven in Chicago. ‘No child should have to live through this.’

Newly-arrived Ukrainians recount escaping war, finding haven in Chicago. ‘No child should have to live through this.’

by staff

Each time a police siren wailed or an airplane whirred overhead, Olena Raczkiewycz would relive the terror of her last few days in Ukraine, when Russian tanks and bombs besieged her country.

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This sensation lasted for the first month or so after her late February escape from Kyiv. The everyday innocuous sounds that might mimic an air raid alert or rockets launching could plunge her into a state of turmoil.

Although she’s now in Chicago and safe, the trauma of fleeing her home amid war still lingers.

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“I feel panic inside,” said 43-year-old Raczkiewycz, closing her eyes and shaking her head as if to rid the brutal images from her mind. “I’m strong. I can try to control it. But it impacts your psychological and emotional state.”

On March 10, she arrived here with her husband, two young sons and a few pieces of clothing and possessions, the only vestiges of their old life. The family is among the more than 6.7 million Ukrainians estimated to have fled their country since Russia invaded in February, spurring an ever-increasing diaspora in Europe and overseas.

President Joe Biden has pledged to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russian aggression to the United States, as the war continues into its fourth month.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also vowed to support those seeking refuge in Chicago. It’s unclear how many Ukrainians have already settled in the Chicago area since the war began, in part because there are various paths to enter the country. Some have come on visas, reuniting with family and friends. Others have arrived through Mexico, seeking asylum at the southern border.

Raczkiewycz recounted her family’s perilous two-week journey from Kyiv, speaking in a mix of English and Ukrainian, with the help of an interpreter.

“You live all your life, your beautiful life, in the same city,” she said. “You have your friends. You have your relatives. You go to your job … and now some country decided to bomb your city. What do you do? You have one hour to run away. What do you do? It’s horrible. Horrible.”

Blasts from Russian missiles rocked the Ukrainian capital on Feb. 24. Air raid sirens blared at daybreak.

“Go to the bath,” Raczkiewycz recalled screaming at her sons.

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The boys — ages 11 and 6 — jumped in their apartment’s bathtub and covered the back of their heads with their hands, she said.

The family tried to evacuate that day, but the streets and trains were so congested because everyone else was trying to escape at the same time. They initially returned home.

“You don’t know what you must do,” she said. “Run? Where run? In which direction do you run? Stay? With kids?”

The next day, she read social media posts from a neighbor who spotted tanks on the street. Russian tanks.

The family got into their car and left for good, with bombs exploding behind them at a distance.

They saw a tank up ahead. Then another. And another. Raczkiewycz recalled holding her breath, wondering which side the military vehicles were on.

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“This was Ukrainian tanks,” she realized, relieved, though the site of the caravan still frightened her sons in the back seat.

They drove for 22 hours to Lviv in western Ukraine — a trip that normally takes a third of that time — arriving around 7 a.m. on Feb. 26. At first, they thought they might be able to stay there in the apartment of a friend or perhaps soon return to Kyiv. They hadn’t planned to go to the United States. But after a little over a week, there were no signs the fighting would dissipate.

“It was too unpredictively terrifying,” she said.

A friend drove them to Ukraine’s western border. They left their car in Lviv. On foot, they traveled five or six hours, walking into Poland on March 8.

“It was cold,” Raczkiewycz said. “With kids. It was all women and children.”

Two days later, they flew into Chicago, where they have extended family.

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She entered the United States on a visa approved prior to the invasion. Her husband is an American citizen and was born and raised in Chicago; the two met while he was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, near the university she attended.

His grandparents — like many Ukrainian immigrants — came to the United States as refugees after World War II, Raczkiewycz said. She made a circular motion with her finger, indicating that history is repeating itself through the current war and refugee crisis.

“A lot of people remember World War II and what happened,” she said. “So, they have this genetic memory. It’s the same, all over again.”

The White House last month announced a streamlined process for displaced Ukrainians to apply for humanitarian parole, allowing them to travel here with a sponsor and, if their case is approved, stay for up to two years. The U.S. also plans to accept more refugees from Ukraine, a separate immigration process and status.

Jims Porter of RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency in Chicago, said his organization has assisted 134 displaced Ukrainians since the Feb. 24 invasion .

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“We don’t really know at what level we’ll be welcoming Ukrainians right now,” he said. “But we are bulking up our staff.”

After staying with relatives for a few weeks, the Raczkiewycz family recently moved into their own small apartment in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, where yellow and blue Ukrainian flags wave outside so many of the homes, businesses and churches.

They’ve had tremendous help from relatives and strangers alike, Raczkiewycz said. But starting a new life is still hard.

“Mentally, we are in Ukraine,” she said.

In the middle of the night, Tamara Kachala logs onto her computer and lectures a class of Ukrainian university students remotely.

The economics professor fled Ukraine with her 14-year-old daughter in late February and arrived in Chicago on March 6. They’re staying in the downtown home of Kachala’s older daughter, who attended Roosevelt University and has been living here for about seven years.

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By day, Kachala cooks for her family, learns English and is trying to get the proper documents approved so she can work in the United States, and has been searching for a job in anticipation. She’s also raising money to buy protective gear to send back to her city, Cherkasy, in central Ukraine.

By night, she does her best to hold classes online , lecturing while everyone else in her household sleeps due to the eight-hour time difference.

Some of her students are still in Cherkasy, which has been safer than other areas of Ukraine so far. But her courses are often disrupted by the blast of air raid sirens there, which also interrupt the internet signal.

“Students can’t study when there’s an air raid alert,” she said, also with the aid of an interpreter. “They can hear all of the missiles and the rockets. … They run to shelter and take cover.”

Many of her students are scattered in countries such as Latvia, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Portugal and others.

“My first concern, on an emotional level, is are all my students there?” she said. “Have they survived? Are they alive?”

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Kachala and Raczkiewycz met in Chicago and became friends while taking their children to St. Nicholas Cathedral School in Ukrainian Village, which has become a haven for kids who have escaped the war.

The elementary school has enrolled more than five dozen children from Ukraine since late February, said Principal Anna Cirilli.

Before the Feb. 24 invasion, about 80% of students were of Ukrainian ancestry and many spoke the language, she said. The school quickly devised a buddy system where each new arrival from Ukraine could be paired with another student, who serves as an interpreter and helps with acclimation. Staff offer extra English classes after school, to give Ukrainian students additional help, she said.

The school will also be hosting a special summer camp for Ukrainian students, with a focus on English language learning. A parent group assists arriving families with finding housing and furniture; students from Ukraine are also provided school supplies, she said.

“The focus is on providing an environment that’s stable,” Cirilli said, adding that the children from Ukraine “are regularly communicating with people who are in bomb shelters. They’re regularly communicating with their dads who are in trenches.”

The school has had to be flexible in some situations.

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For example, cellphones aren’t typically permitted.

“But when one of the kids walks into the building and they’re FaceTiming with their dad who is dressed in fatigues, you let them finish the conversation,” she said. “And maybe take a moment to pray with them that their dad and their family will be safe.”

Cirilli noted that many Ukrainian families are trying to live dual lives — starting anew here while simultaneously maintaining connections abroad.

Kachala’s daughter is an eighth-grade student at Cirilli’s school.

During spring break, her mother tried to have her log on to remote classes at her school in Ukraine, an attempt to keep up with lessons there.

But air raid sirens kept going off, the same way they impede Kachala’s lectures.

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“That’s what the reality is of Ukrainian life today,” Kachala said. “Even for people who don’t live where the fighting is. It’s stress.”

Raczkiewycz’s younger son is in kindergarten at St. Nicholas Cathedral School.

She described him as “older in his mind than this age.”

His teacher once commented that he’s such a serious child, and that he frequently talks about politics, bombings and the war.

The mother said when they first arrived, the boy drew all his pictures in black. Now he’s using an array of colors once again.

“He’s only a child,” Raczkiewycz said. “No child should have to live through this.”

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To help alleviate stress and anxiety, Kachala and Raczkiewycz have started painting.

They meet at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Ukrainian Village, turning blank canvases into artwork that reflects their war experiences and survival.

Raczkiewycz painted blue and yellow flowers shaped in the likeness of the coat of arms of Ukraine.

One of Kachala’s paintings depicts silhouettes of her and her daughter holding hands as they leave Ukraine.

“We paint so we don’t have to cry,” Kachala said.

They recently attended a local protest against the Russian invasion and were appreciative of the thousands of Chicago-area residents who came out to support their country. Around 200,000 people of Ukrainian descent are estimated to have lived in Illinois before February, according to Chicago Sister Cities International. Chicago and Kyiv have been Sister Cities since 1991, when Ukraine gained its independence.

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Both Kachala and Raczkiewycz said they long to return to Ukraine.

One night during class, a female student asked Kachala when they would be able to go home.

The question brought tears to the professor’s eyes.

“Of course, we’ll go back,” she recalled responding. “But right now, you need to go to the university, take your papers, your documents and enroll in the university and matriculate. Yes, you will go home. But right now, you have to keep your life going. … It is important in the moment.”

Yet Raczkiewycz sometimes wonders what will be left when the fighting is over.

“Our apartment’s still there but I’m scared to talk about it,” she said. “Because I don’t know how it will be tomorrow.”

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Her husband is a journalist and wants to go back soon to cover the war. She understands that he needs to do his job but worries about remaining in a foreign country with two children, without him.

Despite the devastation of war, Kachala and Raczkiewycz said they believe their country will prevail.

“We still have hope that Ukraine will be OK,” Kachala said. “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine and the USA.”

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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