Tetiana Doiun was watching movies with her husband at home in Highlands Ranch when Russia’s president began an invasion in Ukraine last month.
Without skipping a beat, Doiun called her elderly mother and aunt, who live together in Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine. When her mother finally answered the phone, it was about 6 a.m. there and she was shocked to hear that the war had begun.
Doiun’s mother and aunt are not planning to flee because both are in their 70s and have health issues. They would struggle to carry luggage and don’t want to leave their cats behind.
Dnipro has not yet suffered from the harshest attacks by Russia. However, on Sunday, Ukraine’s top security official said the Russian army is planning to encircle the city, as it works to cut off access to the southern Black and Azov seas and capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, about 300 miles from Dnipro.
Each night before going to sleep, Doiun calls her mother and aunt to ensure they’re still alive. “It feels like the worst days of my life,” she said. “I feel ashamed, honestly, to complain because I can’t imagine how my loved ones and everyone else in Ukraine feels.”
Pockets of reprieve
Since Feb. 24, Russian forces have attacked Ukraine from the north, east and south, with focus on cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and the port city Mariupol. As the world condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin for starting the war, and as officials continue imposing hefty sanctions on Russian businesses and oligarchs, Putin is doubling down by targeting Ukrainian civilians trying to escape the conflict zone. The invasion has created the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II and has united the world in solidarity against Putin and in support of Ukraine.
But even amid world condemnation, Ukrainians in Colorado are still feeling helpless and isolated as they watch their country’s infrastructure being destroyed each day. They’re trying to follow the movements of their loved ones amid spotty cell service and bombing in different regions, and they’re keeping tabs on their friends’ and families’ safety from afar as the world tries to make sense of a yearslong conflict that came to a head last month.
A map of Ukraine with purple showing the locations of Coloradans’ loved ones and red showing cities targeted by Russian forces.
“I’m just in so much pain and feeling hopeless. That’s the worst pain I feel like there is,” said Tatiana Christofferson, who lives in Boulder. “I think of me helping, as speaking out for them,” she said of people still living in Ukraine, as she began to cry.
Ukrainians in Colorado said even amid the devastation, they find pockets of reprieve when they’re able to contact friends and family stuck in the war zone.
When family members support the invasion
However, lately conversations between Christofferson and her father are brief. Her father, who lives in Donetsk, part of the disputed Donbas region, supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Parts of Donbas are controlled by pro-Russian separatist groups, and there is often intense fighting in the region.
Christofferson, who was estranged from her father, met him five years ago after 25 years apart. She fears they might again lose contact over their opposing beliefs about Russia, she said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but my dad does not let me speak of mine in front of him,” she said in a tearful interview.
Oleg Soloviov, a student studying political science and economics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said his grandparents, who live in Moldova, share a similar viewpoint and also side with Russia and support reuniting the former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991.
Oleg Soloviov, a student at Colorado State University, said his parents were in Moldova when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. They consider themselves lucky that they were not able to return home to Ukraine.
“I don’t think they actually see what Russia is doing,” he said. “The only thing they hear from is Russian news, and I believe that’s a big reason why they support it. It’s upsetting and I feel powerless because I can’t really do much.”
He’s considered returning to Ukraine since the war started to volunteer or even fight alongside fellow Ukrainians. If his family finds themselves in danger, that would be the deciding factor. “I wouldn’t just sit here,” he said. “I would just go at that point.”
Taras Overchuk, who has family in Ukraine, spoke from Denver International Airport on Friday as he waited to board a flight to Poland. He planned to buy an old car there before driving to Lviv in western Ukraine. He decided to return to Ukraine because he couldn’t bear watching the war unfold while his family members bore the brunt of it and while his brother is fighting with the Ukrainian army.
Overchuk plans to spend a few weeks in Ukraine identifying areas most in need of foreign aid. He will soon report those findings back to the local group, Ukrainians of Colorado, which is offering a support group for Ukrainians in the state, while collecting medical supplies to send to Ukraine.
“The situation changes really regularly, so in order to be effective you need to understand every day, what is going on,” Overchuk said Friday. It took 12 hours for him to cross the border between Ukraine and Poland this weekend, as he and thousands of others waited there in the snow. He has tried to persuade his family members to evacuate, but they will not leave Ukraine.
Refusing to leave
“People are really patriotic there, and when you leave and flee, you’ve worked so hard to prove to the rest of the world and to Russia that you can be a successful country with an economy and educated people,” said Lisa Savchenko Ripa, who lives in Highlands Ranch and has family across Ukraine and Russia. “Fleeing is kind of giving up all of those things.”
Benito Mares is another Coloradan traveling to Ukraine this week to offer help through his nongovernmental organization Refugee Direct Aid, which he started in the 1990s during the Balkan wars. On Wednesday, he’s making the trek to Poland, where colleagues driving in from Kosovo will pick him up and then they all will travel to Lviv. The small group is taking $20,000 in cash and medical supplies, such as heavy-duty gauze bandages, that they’ll distribute when they reach Ukraine. They’ll focus on supporting single women whose husbands are fighting in the war and children, Mares said.
“This small amount of money and this small amount of material won’t last long,” he said. “It won’t be hard to find deserving targets.”
Vlada Petraglia was at a Ukrainian Catholic Church in Denver on Monday afternoon, offering advice to Mares before his trip and connecting him with Ukrainians on the ground who could use the organization’s help. People in the army are most in need of warm clothes, portable chargers and money, she said.
A few days ago, Petraglia’s parents had left their devastated city, Kharkiv, as Russia escalated attacks on residents there. Petraglia’s family finally made their way to Ternopil, in western Ukraine. The drive would normally take about 13 hours, but as many people evacuated alongside her family, it took about three days before they reached safety. As they drove, Petraglia’s family feared bullets, or a bomb, would hit their car.
Until then, Petraglia’s family had been taking cover in a bomb shelter, only visiting their nearby apartment to feed their cat. The family won’t leave Ukraine. Petraglia’s father would likely be recruited to fight alongside the Ukrainian army if he tried to leave the country, but he is too ill to fight, Petraglia said. And Petraglia’s mother refuses to leave Ukraine without her husband, so the family is stuck in Ternopil. Petraglia feels a sense of relief — for now — that her family is relatively safe. “But who knows when Russia is going to reach there,” she said of Ternopil.
A bomb recently destroyed the preschool where Petraglia’s mother was working, so she has no job to return to after the war ends. Photos show that about 75% of the homes belonging to Petraglia’s loved ones in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, have also been destroyed. There’s often no internet service or electricity there, even as temperatures dip below freezing at night, she said.
“My city doesn’t exist anymore,” Petraglia said. “They’ve bombed almost each civilian building. Every other building has a bomb in it. They’re doing everything for Kharkiv to disappear.”
What helps her feel less lonely is being able to help friends and family navigate their way out of their towns under siege, she said. Her loved ones trying to escape are not able to think clearly while in shock, so Petraglia is offering encouragement while providing literal directions.
When Petraglia makes contact with friends in Ukraine, they often ask when President Joe Biden and other world leaders will call on NATO to implement a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, which would limit attacks from Russian warplanes. Western leaders have firmly rejected the request, fearing it would lead to conflict between U.S. and Russian fighter jets, which could create an even more catastrophic conflict, or World War III.
“If the world does not get involved, Putin will take the countries surrounding Ukraine, because he’ll feel no one has enough power to stop him,” Petraglia said.
“If Ukraine loses, it will be dangerous to everybody,” she continued. “I’m not feeling safe in Colorado. I’m all the time telling my husband to look and see how far bunkers in Colorado are and where they are on the map because (Putin) is insane. And if you’re thinking that it’s a war between Ukraine and Russia, it’s not anymore.”
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow discussed the war with the Colorado Sun on Thursday. The Centennial Democrat, who is a member of the House Armed Services and House Intelligence Committees, said many are calling on the U.S. to move from imposing sanctions to a more aggressive boots-on-the-ground approach. But the threat of a nuclear conflict with Russia makes that unlikely.
Putin has dreamed about recreating the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence since its collapse in 1991, Crow said. Annexing Ukraine is the most important step to rebuilding that empire, Putin believes, and now he’s using force to absorb Ukraine, which he considers Russian, Crow said.
He’s cutting off food and electricity supply now, while bombing the country until it either surrenders or collapses, which is a war crime, Crow said. He said Putin will likely not agree to a ceasefire because that would be viewed as weakness.
Now, Ukrainians in Colorado are doing whatever they can from afar. Soloviov, the student at Colorado State, said he already had plans to become a diplomat or ambassador to Europe.
“Now with the war going on, I want to do it even more, because clearly, we didn’t work hard enough and fast enough to make Ukraine a part of the European Union and NATO,” he said. “And now people are having way more struggles and it could have been stopped.”
Doiun gets offended when Americans incorrectly call her country “the Ukraine” or when they pronounce the silent “K” at the front of Kharkiv. But one glimmer of hope during the conflict, she said, is that Americans are becoming more educated about Ukraine and the aggression it has faced from Russian leaders for years.
The war has challenged every aspect of the life of Victoria Katsuba, a Colorado State student whose family is from Rivne, Ukraine. But the war has made her more proud of being from Ukraine. She said she hopes xenophobia against Russians does not increase, because the war was waged by their leaders, not Russian civilians.
“It’s complex, and I think when people lose their humanity and just focus on one thing besides focusing on a lot of perspectives, it gets hard,” she said. “A lot of things can happen at the same time. Just being knowledgeable and doing your research and doing better for your community, I think, is going to be a step up.”
How to help
• Humanitarian groups, such as the local Ukrainians of Colorado and Razom for Ukraine are collecting medical supplies to send to Ukraine.
• Nova Ukraine is assembling care packages for people in Ukraine.
• United Help Ukraine and Sunflower of Peace are groups providing first-aid backpacks to paramedics, doctors and others on the frontlines.
• Voices of Children is helping to provide psychological support to Ukrainian children affected by the war.
• The Kyiv Independent is working to support local journalists covering the war from neighboring countries.
• On March 31, Colorado State University is hosting a documentary and panel discussion about post-Soviet corruption, among other topics.
This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.