Ukrainians living in Northland reflect on one-year anniversary of Russian invasion

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 10:38 PM CST
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) -- One year ago, the world watched as Russia invaded Ukraine, marking a major escalation in the Russo-Ukrainian war, which began back in 2014.

That invasion saw cities bombed and destroyed, with millions of Ukrainians, forced to evacuate.

Some have taken refuge in the United States, including in Duluth.

“So February 23rd, it was just a usual day, Rita met her friends, they spent a lot of time together, had fun, and they were talking about war, because at that time, everyone in Ukraine was talking and said ‘War will never start,’ and At 4 a.m. on TV, Putin announced that he began his special military operation and then in 15 minutes, Mariupol was bombed,” said Denys and Rita Shkapa.

They and their daughter Alisa were a young family living in the seaside city of Mariupol, Ukraine.

They saved up enough money to build a brand new home, where they’d hope to start their life.

But just weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine and their brand new home was destroyed.

The family soon evacuated to Poland, before seeking sponsorship to come to the United States.

“When they got here on August 6th to the airport, 8 people with Ukrainian flags met them and they were really excited, and it was very emotional,” said an interpreter for the family.

In April of last year, President Joe Biden launched the Uniting for Ukraine program, allowing a pathway for Ukrainian citizens to seek refuge in the United States via the support of an American sponsor.

Currently, under that program, Ukrainians can stay in America for up to two years.

It’s through that program the Shkapa family, as well as Mila Mostova and her kids, were able to retreat to the U.S., specifically to Duluth.

Mostova’s family lived 50 miles south of Kyiv in Vytachiv.

She remembers the morning of the invasion vividly.

“Metal screeching, those sounds, my bed was shaking, my house was shaking. Somehow my first thought was, it must be war because it can’t be an earthquake. We don’t have earthquakes in Ukraine. And yeah, because of the sounds and the feelings, the feelings of an earthquake. They weren’t like anything I’d ever experienced before. That’s why I’m like what’s the craziest thing that can happen? It must be war,” Mostova said.

She lived in Duluth as a teenager as a foreign exchange student.

More than 15 years later, she stayed in contact with her host family, who she says didn’t hesitate to sponsor her and her children when Mostova decided they needed to leave Ukraine last year.

“I talked to Sue, to my friend in America all the time. And she was the first person offered,” Mostova said. “She said hey, take your kids and come over you’ll be safe here, you’ll be alright. You won’t have missiles flying over your head. So then this program launched which is called United for Ukraine, and we decided to take this chance.”

For their first few months in the U.S., Mila and her two kids, Veronika and Severin, lived with their sponsor.

After Mostova was approved to work, they were able to move into their own apartment.

She said her kids are thriving, but the effects of war are always there, even while playing at the park.

“We heard the train you know the train approaching and it made these really loud sounds and my kids ran up to me with eyes this big eyes, like ‘Mommy is this air raid siren do we need to hide? Do we need to run away to the basement somewhere? Do we need to go somewhere do we need to run?’ and it just broke my heart and I realized how still even not living in Ukraine during the war for a long time, it’s still the worst, still has affected all of us very much and my children still remember that forever. And I don’t want them to ever experience this fear again,” Mostova said.

While Mostova and the Shkapa family are finding a new home in Duluth, Paul Maccabee, a Ukrainian native, has lived in the United States for almost two decades.

Now in Superior, Maccabee moved to the US with his mom and stepdad after graduating high school.

A few years ago, he became a citizen.

He watched from halfway across the world as his hometown, Mykolaiv, and his family faced the invasion.

“It’s a stress, it’s a fog in your mind. You can’t really think very straight, you call and try to connect with them, immediately,” Maccabee said. “I could hear the explosions and I could hear my niece’s crying and that was very stressful.”

Maccabee said the separation from his family and friends during the first few weeks of the invasion was especially difficult, so he needed to take some time off from work to cope.

“I grew up in Ukraine and I went through two revolutions. I knew that Ukrainians will be responding, I knew that Ukrainians will be resisting and fighting,” Maccabee said.

Looking to the future, Maccabee, Mostova and the Shkapa’s all wish for the war to end.

But their dreams go beyond just peace for Ukraine.

For Maccabee, he hopes for continued support and awareness.

“My biggest hope is that the global society and the American population and Europeans, they understand what is at stake in this war, it’s not just Ukrainian freedom. It is about international law, it’s about the principles of our international system,” Maccabee said. “My biggest hope is the support to Ukraine doesn’t fade away.”

For the Shkapa’s, they hope for building a new life in a new home.

“They lost everything, and there is nothing to go back to because the city is destroyed, so they hope to stay here because the United States is a country with big opportunities,” an interpreter for the family said.

For Mostova and her children, they dream of a life of laughter.

“I want my kids, just like every mother, to have a good future, to have access to education, to the kinds of activities of childhood,” Mostova said. “Not running around and not going into the basement every time we hear air raid sirens.”

Even after one year of invasion, they all have a lot of hope for their future.

“I hope for a brighter future of Ukraine,” Maccabee said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said there is no limit on requests for the Uniting for Ukraine program and that the government is committed to providing pathways for displaced Ukrainians.

To learn more, click here.