One Year Later: Ukraine

It is hard to believe that it has already been one year since the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. The impact on the people of Ukraine has been devastating, for the 8 million people who have since fled the country and left their possessions behind and for those staying in the country as it continues to be bombed and attacked. More than 18,000 civilian casualties have been reported since February 24th, 2022, and there is seemingly no end in sight to this war.

As IOR looks back on the last year, one thing is clear: people have always been, and will continue to be, our prIORity. In March 2022 we launched a program to provide pro bono Cultural and Language Training to companies with employees who had to leave Ukraine because of the war. This initiative has been spearheaded by two IOR employees who are from Ukraine and still have family and friends in the country: Olga Collin (Senior Advisor, Intercultural Solutions) and Cristina Bondari (Senior Program Manager, Language Training). IOR has led several group programs since that have helped over 100 employees and their families. Our team also acted quickly to support organizations coordinating relief efforts for Ukrainians in need, from donating to national organizations like CARE and the Ukrainian Children of Heroes Foundation to participating in local drives collecting clothes, blankets, and hygiene products. IOR has continued our pro bono work and charitable efforts throughout 2022 and into the new year as the violence in Ukraine has continued, and today we are pledging $500 towards CARE’s humanitarian relief efforts.

On this tragic anniversary, Olga Collin, Cristina Bondari, and Destination Program Manager Maia Zhelezniak share their experiences, thoughts, and encouragement on how to continue supporting Ukrainians in this crisis.

“I was born and raised in Ukraine and still have my family living there. This past year has been filled with fear, anxiety, and lots of pain. I realize that my experiences differ from those who live in the conflict zones. For them, it has been a question of life and death. Many of them lost their homes, their family members, and their lives. But what all Ukrainians have in common today is confidence. They are 100% sure Ukraine will win the war. What they need though is our help, the support of the democratic world. Let’s make sure we help every way we can – by reaching out to your communities to help Ukrainian refugees in your area, donating money to fundraisers started by Ukrainians, and simply by being updated on the current news and sharing them to let everyone know about the continued Russian aggression.”   -Cristina Bondari

How is your family back home? What do you think about the situation in Ukraine? Those are the questions I am typically asked when people learn I am from Ukraine. And the answers depend on the day, the intensity of air strikes, ability to connect with my friends and relatives, internet access, blackouts, or functionality of the phones with Ukrainian numbers. One thing that remains constant is a strong belief that we, the Ukrainians, will prevail and win this senseless war. My hometown is on the occupied territory, 20 some miles north of Crimea and about 90 miles south of Kherson. It’s one of the oldest and largest biosphere reserves in Europe, recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine. It is also a part of the world network of UNESCO’s biosphere reserves. A place once filled with tourists and researchers is now filled with russian soldiers forcing people out of their apartments, with schools and the only hospital closed. By March 1 the remaining locals are to exchange their Ukrainian passports for russian ones, the Ukrainian currency is out of circulation, Ukrainian cell phone numbers don’t work, and local teachers are to be “re-educated” in russia to then teach the Ukrainian children “proper” history. In the summer all grain from the surrounding fields was taken to russia, farmers were forced to leave half the harvest on the ground as occupiers feared an offensive from the Ukrainian forces. This is “russian peace”. In 2014 we’ve seen a precursor of what it means: putin took Crimea as the world looked on. Most of my immediate family is here, in the US, having moved in 2014 – some friends and relatives left and went either abroad or to the other parts of Ukraine since the full-scale invasion started. A few are on the front fighting. And a few others remained, unable to leave for various reasons. Daily life is only about survival, not life. It’s about continuously adjusting, it’s about perseverance, hope, and belief that the victory is near. And that it is ours!”   -Olga Collin

“February 24th, 2022. I remember that day vividly. It was around 9pm in Chicago and I was reading a book in my bed when I got a message from my sister that said “We are under an air attack. The war has started.” I could not believe my eyes. I ran to the next room and told my husband as both our families live in Ukraine. With shaking hands I dialed my mom’s number but she did not pick up. I started to text and call her but got no answer for 30 minutes. It was the longest half hour in my life. That day 41 million Ukrainian hearts found out something that they weren’t supposed to. They saw things that no one should ever see. They heard sounds that caused pure fear. For most it was their first bomb shelter, first loss, first decision to leave the country for their children’s sake, first decision to stay and fight against evil. Life has no been split into “before” and an endless “after.” That day, 41 million Ukrainian hearts learned that war is real, missiles are ruthless, freedom has a high price, heroes can die, unity is our biggest strength, and February can last a year. Slava Ukraine!”   -Maia Zhelezniak