Home Local Ukrainian mother recounts the horrors of war as she and her son start a new life in Chicago suburbs. For them ‘there is no place to go back to.’

Ukrainian mother recounts the horrors of war as she and her son start a new life in Chicago suburbs. For them ‘there is no place to go back to.’

by staff

Under heavy Russian shelling, Kateryna Shvartsman and her 12-year-old son Oleksandr hastily grabbed a few possessions and ran for cover to the basement beneath their apartment building in war-ravaged Mariupol, a coastal city in southeastern Ukraine.

At one point, the mother briefly left the makeshift bunker to go outside in search of water. A Russian jet whirred overhead, and she watched as it dropped a bomb on her apartment complex. The explosion leveled the 19-floor structure, killing many of her neighbors who were inside.

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“Those who stayed in the building and couldn’t make it out in time, they stayed there forever,” said Kateryna, 38, through an interpreter.

Kateryna and Oleksandr narrowly escaped Mariupol in mid-March, a few days after that bombing. They traveled by car and airplane through a half-dozen countries before arriving in the Chicago area in April.

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The Shvartsmans are among the roughly 103,000 Ukrainians who have taken refuge in the United States since Russia invaded in February, exceeding President Joe Biden’s promise in March to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the war.

The federal government in April launched Uniting for Ukraine, a streamlined process where those fleeing war can apply for admission to the United States under humanitarian parole, a legal status that allows individuals to live and work here temporarily. As of Aug. 3, more than 67,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to come to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine and nearly 31,000 of them have already arrived, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

An additional 72,000 Ukrainians have also come to the United States since late March through other immigration paths outside of Uniting for Ukraine, the agency said.

Homeland Security officials added that Biden’s pledge was never a cap, indicating that more displaced Ukrainians are expected to arrive soon.

“We are deeply proud to help provide refuge for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s unprovoked invasion,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a written statement. “DHS will continue to welcome additional Ukrainians in the weeks and months to come, consistent with President Biden’s commitment.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also vowed to support newly arrived Ukrainians, though it’s unclear how many have arrived locally since February.

Officials from RefugeeOne — a Chicago refugee resettlement agency assisting Kateryna and Oleksandr — said they’ve helped more than 200 cases from Ukraine since the war began, which includes individuals and families. The agency estimated the number of cases equals roughly 650 newly arrived Ukrainians.

More than 200 cases from Ukraine are also on a wait list, according to RefugeeOne.

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“We will continue to support Ukrainian refugees as they arrive to the United States and strongly hope for a just end to Russia’s war on Ukraine,” the agency said in a July report.

The Shvartsmans have been living with a family friend in northwest suburban Wheeling, trying to craft a new life here.

On a recent weekday, Kateryna scrolled through photos on her phone capturing her last few days in Mariupol. One image showed the rubble that was once her home, surrounded by bodies scattered on the street out front.

She said she loves living in the United States.

“Most importantly, it’s safe” she said.

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Kateryna and Oleksandr had tried several times to evacuate Mariupol through humanitarian corridors but were turned away on each occasion, only to return to the basement of their apartment building or other below-ground shelters in the area, the safest places they could find.

They lived underground in various basement structures for roughly 10 days.

“I was begging them to let us out (of Mariupol),” she recalled. “And every time I would get denied. The last time we attempted to get out of the city through a corridor, as we were running under fire for shelter, the people were dropping dead. My son saw it and he stopped. I told him don’t stop, just run.”

One day a rocket pierced the ceiling of a basement garage where they were sheltering, killing and burying others who were seeking cover.

In another instance, during particularly heavy shelling, the mother frantically wrote her child’s last name and blood type on his arm.

“Stay here with me, because I’m really scared,” she recalled the boy saying, as he sobbed and clutched her hand.

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But the mom instructed the child to leave her behind, if necessary.

“If anything happens to me, just leave me alone,” she told him. “Just run and seek from help from other people.”

The Shvartsmans were finally able to flee by car on March 16, taking country roads through Russian-controlled territory to get to Lviv in western Ukraine. They were driven by a friend, because Kateryna’s car had been blown up during a previous attack.

The only place she thought to go was the Chicago area, where her mother’s best friend had moved some 30 years ago, when Kateryna was a child.

Over the course of several weeks, the mother and son continued driving until they got to Italy; from there, they traveled by airplane to Spain, then Colombia and finally Mexico, where they were helped by Ukrainian volunteers at the U.S. southern border. The nearly monthlong trip totaled more than 10,000 miles.

Kateryna showed border patrol agents her passport — her only document that wasn’t destroyed in the war — and gave them her family friend’s name and contact information. She was granted humanitarian parole, allowing her to stay in the United States, according to her passport stamp.

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Her mother’s friend traveled to greet them at the border, where they all embraced and cried.

Ever since Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Kateryna said, the sounds of war were a part of daily life in Mariupol.

Although the port city had generally been safe over the years, it’s located just a few miles from fighting along the eastern front, which had been controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

“We’d been living on the border area, on the border of the war zone, the war that’s been going on since 2014,” she said. “We would hear the firing and shootings. We were kind of used to it.”

The Feb. 24 Russian invasion took her by surprise.

“Nobody expected the full-blown attack, full war,” she said.

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The city awakened before dawn to massive explosions, she recalled.

“We realized the threat and we came out of the building,” she said. “The whole city was in chaos.”

She and her son spent the first 48 hours trying to figure out how to reach relatives on the other side of the city, but Russian forces blew up the bridges that connected parts of town.

“Right after that, they blew up the railroad,” she said. “There was no way to leave the city by train. Anyone who tried to escape in a car would go under heavy shelling and a lot of people were dying.”

Kateryna worked as a nurse before the war. During the siege, she said she tried to give first aid to as many of the victims as possible, when it was relatively safe to do so.

“I was basically a field nurse,” she said. “I was trying to save as many people as I could. People were literally dying as I was holding them. I was holding their hands as they were bleeding out and dying, just to support them in their last minutes.”

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After the mother and son fled, the carnage in Mariupol only intensified.

On March 16, the day the Shvartsmans evacuated, a Russian airstrike of a theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering killed an estimated 600 people, according to The Associated Press.

“This is one big mass grave,” one survivor told the AP.

Amnesty International in June called the attack “a clear war crime” by Russian forces.

“The theater … was a hub for the distribution of medicine, food and water, and a designated gathering point for people hoping to be evacuated through humanitarian corridors,” the nonprofit said. “Locals had also written the giant Cyrillic letters — Russian for ‘children’ — on forecourts on either side of the building, which would have been clearly visible to Russian pilots and also on satellite imagery.”

After a nearly three-month siege, Moscow claimed to take full control of Mariupol in late May; its capture completed a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula eight years after its seizure from Ukraine.

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Before the war, the population of Mariupol was around 450,000. By May, only about 100,000 people were estimated to remain, and many were trapped without water, electricity or heat, AP reported.

Millions have fled Ukraine since late February. More than 6 million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded in Europe, many settling in neighboring Poland, Slovakia and Moldova, according to the United Nations.

As for the Shvartsmans, Oleksandr has been taking English classes and attending a summer camp. Kateryna has been trying to get the proper documents so she’ll be authorized to work in the United States, a process that typically takes six months or more, according to officials at RefugeeOne. She would like to get a job in nursing one day.

Although Kateryna and Oleksandr are here and safe, the emotional scars of war remain.

Whenever an airplane flies overhead, Oleksandr automatically ducks and covers his head with his hands, shaking.

Kateryna said the boom, crackle and popping sounds of fireworks around the July Fourth holiday were particularly terrifying for her.

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“I cried, because I’m scared,” she said. “I can’t even control it. It’s just a shock. It’s like, instinctive.”

She said it’s a sense of fear that others can’t comprehend.

“They don’t get it,” she said. “Nobody understands.”

Despite these moments of anxiety, Kateryna said she has been able to relax more since they’ve been out of harm’s way. She hopes to remain in the Chicago area permanently, thousands of miles from the war front.

“I would love to stay here,” she said. “Because there is no place to go back to.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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