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To understand where Ukrainian soldiers get their inner strength, just look at 43-year-old Nataliya Yushchenko.
Born in Ukraine but now a US citizen with a home in Rio Rancho, Yushchenko returned to her native country in January to care for her ailing stepfather in kyiv, who was battling colon cancer.
He died two days before the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and 16 months after his mother died of COVID, isolated in a kyiv hospital.
Yushchenko managed to get out of the country as the Russian military onslaught intensified, but she returned to the region a few weeks later to rescue a friend’s teenage daughter who had fled to Poland, escorting the child to the United States via a circuitous journey through Europe and into Mexico before heading to the US border.
And it all happened while Yushchenko was being treated for aggressive skin cancer.
Yushchenko and her husband, Scott, currently live in Washington state, where he now works for the Department of Energy’s Hanford site. He previously worked at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The couple met in 2010 when Scott was vacationing in Ukraine and both were onlookers at an Independence Day parade. A long-distance romance followed, and in 2014 Yushchenko moved to the United States with his daughter, Sasha, now 23, from a previous marriage. Soon after, Yushchenko and Scott got married. Sasha still lives in the Albuquerque area.
In kyiv, Yushchenko worked as a director of a rental real estate company; in New Mexico, with limited English skills, she held jobs in cafeterias and fast food restaurants, and later, as her language fluency improved, at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino .
“I’m very outgoing and like to be around people and talk to them a lot,” she said, sometimes having trouble finding the right words. “Everyone asked me about my accent and wondered where I’m from. That’s how I started learning English.
When Yushchenko returned to Ukraine to help her father-in-law, she was still there when Russian tanks entered the country.
With her stepfather dead from cancer and his body moved to the morgue, Yushchenko left her building for a seemingly safer hotel in Kyiv, where she discovered members of Project Dynamo were staying. The Tampa, Florida-based nonprofit of civilians and veterans works to extract people from war zones and other hostile environments. So far, they have helped rescue more than 550 people from sites across Ukraine and sent them to the relative safety of neighboring countries, according to several websites reporting on the war in Ukraine.
Yushchenko explained his situation and, within hours, Project Dynamo had him on a bus for a two-day journey through Moldova and the Romanian capital, Bucharest. From there, she was able to buy plane tickets to Istanbul, Turkey, then Chicago and finally Seattle.
Despite the arduous nature of the trip, Yuschenko quickly returned to the region.
After contacting two friends in Ukraine, Olga and Alexander Golinko, a married couple who are both in the army, she learned that their 13-year-old daughter, Sofia, had been transferred to Poland, but he was not there was no one to take care of him. the child. Yushchenko intervened and offered to take the girl and bring her to live with her and her husband in the United States
“I say to Scott, ‘let’s bring her to America, put her in school and give her a stable life until the situation in Ukraine improves and the war is over,’” said Yushchenko, who hopes to return to New Mexico after his cancer treatments are completed.
She then learned through Ukrainian community social media groups about the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services humanitarian parole program, which can be applied for at the U.S.-Mexico border. The program allows applicants to temporarily enter the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons.
Deciding this was the best option, Yushchenko flew to Poland to take custody of Sofia. Together they flew to Amsterdam, Mexico City and Tijuana, where they entered the United States and Sofia was granted humanitarian parole status. From there they took a bus to San Diego and, after a few days, flew to Seattle.
“There was just no choice,” Scott said. “In my opinion, if you have the ability to help someone who is in dire straits, you have a moral obligation to do so. There really was no discussion. We just had to figure out how to do it. »
As for his wife’s tenacity, “I know how she is and I know how Ukrainians are, so it’s not surprising,” Scott said. “Ukrainians are some of the toughest people you can meet. They focus on something and that’s it, and once Nataliya makes up her mind, that’s it. So the fact that she did it doesn’t surprise me at all, although the amount of effort it took was pretty incredible.
Despite this tenacity and determination, Yushchenko mourns his native Ukraine and remains concerned for young Sofia, who she says is worried sick and misses her parents and her country.
Ukraine has been independent from Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it has always retained its own culture, language and identity, making the Russian invasion and scorched earth tactics even more incomprehensible. , said Yushchenko.
“I’m American now, but I’m also Ukrainian and it breaks my heart to see what’s going on,” she said. “Everyone I talk to there has lost their jobs, their homes, everything they’ve worked for all their lives – destroyed. Parents have lost children, children have lost parents. Russia does not want NATO to come closer to Ukraine, so they tell lies and propaganda. They say Ukraine is ruled by Nazis. I don’t know what they are talking about. (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy is Jewish. I think maybe (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union. He’s sick, crazy. He doesn’t think well.
All of this leaves Yushchenko saddened to the point where, she says, “I’ve never cried the way I cry now. Permanently.”