Russian Day storm into UkraineUljana Zamaslo has struggled with the same decision that millions of other Ukrainians are grappling with simultaneously: should she risking her life to stay at her house Or run away without knowing when she will come back?
The 48-year-old longs to stay in her cozy apartment in Lviv, western Ukraine, with all its amenities. But then received a call at 4:15 am from a Ukrainian friend.
“The bombing started,” she said.
It was a terrifying turn to a journey that had begun three decades earlier for the New Jersey native. Zamaslo grew up in a Ukrainian family. She visited her ancestral homeland for the first time in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine was emerging from decades of dictatorship control. In 2008, she decided to make her home there, excited to be a part of the country rebuilding itself.
But two weeks ago, the Russians returned. The invasion brought Zamaslo, her 9-year-old daughter, and a group of refugees together on a perilous flight to the Polish border.
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Recounting her journey to NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, this week, Zamaslo said she considered what would be best for her 9-year-old daughter, Dzvinka, as well as for a guest staying with her in Lviv, an elderly American with health problems. If the air raid sirens went off, she feared, he wouldn’t descend the four flights of stairs in her building to the bomb shelter.
“Things are not going to get any better, and I’ll tell myself in good conscience if something bad happens,” she told herself.
So she decided to leave. Zamaslo will not sleep from sunrise on Thursday, February 24, when the Russian invasion begins, until two days later.
She packed a few bags into her car. But in her haste she neglected to get the food, a surveillance that would be felt during the arduous two-day journey to the Polish border.
They left in the night but still found the road busy. “We were stuck for hours outside the border,” said Zamaslo. “It took us three hours to get to the first kilometer and it just kept getting worse after that.”
Along the way, the trio watched two mothers walking along the sidewalk with their young children. They went to Sweden. With empty seats in the car, Zamaslo thought, she might as well help others flee to safety.
“I thank my friends who have stayed with me all this time and kept texting me so I don’t fall asleep behind the wheel,” she recalls.
Zamaslo left Vladimir Putin’s shelling behind but perceived more danger ahead.
“Local mafia robbers have made border crossings their personal money machine, and every few miles we run into one of their roadblocks,” she said. Some try to crash their car into hers, hoping to damage it and then force her to pay for their transportation.
The group survives those threats, but at the border finds more criminals delaying travel.
“People will pay to get them over the fence faster because they’re scared to death. Basically, to get across the border is a bribe. They drive cars into my street and try to hit me from the side. after. It took me 37 hours to get to the real border. A lot of people walked that 10 km [6.2 miles]. ”
Back in New Jersey, Peter, Zamaslo’s father, tries to stay in touch, even though his daughter’s phone is constantly out of power.
“Of course I worry for her, but there aren’t many options,” he said. “She was seeing fighter jets overhead. If she stayed, she would be locked in there. ”
Zamaslo’s father said he and his wife were the children of Ukrainians forced into forced labor during World War II and were born in Germany. They immigrated to the US but still maintain a close connection with their parents’ culture, they teach their children the Ukrainian language and return home often.
After arriving in Poland, Zamaslo had nowhere to stay. Through friends, she found a local who would take them over the first night. Another friend helped her find permanent housing in Warsaw.
IMAGE:Voices from Ukraine
“The hotels in Poland are full,” she said. “The first hotel with vacant seats is more than 80 kilometers from the border.”
The Polish people “are amazing,” she said. “They have welcome stations at each border gate with basic essentials like soap and shampoo. They have shuttle buses to pick up people.” Some refugees have places to go and simply ride horses while others need shelter equipped with kennels and food.
Zamaslo studied political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and later became a registered nurse. After paying off her student loans, she set off for Ukraine.
“I think it will be interesting to see the birth of this new, modern country in a context where they have been forced to conform to Soviet thinking for so long,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone realizes the amount of psychological, collective trauma the Soviet regime left on people. You can’t sit on the couch in New Jersey to witness this.”
Zamaslo, who is divorced, finds that she and her daughter can’t live on a nurse’s salary in their new place, so she starts working as an English teacher and translator. She also volunteered to be a nurse on the side.
“Life here isn’t much different from life in America,” she said. “Before the invasion, this place was quite peaceful. The people here are resilient. It is one of the positive legacies left by the Soviet Union. You will be hard-pressed to find people without loved ones being taken into the pit. buried or not.” t suffered something terrible. ”
She spoke to a reporter this week from Warsaw and said her daughter is adjusting well to her new surroundings. “She’s doing pretty well. She tends to see things in a positive light. She’s trying to learn Polish.”
Meanwhile, she is working odd jobs to support herself, helping other refugees and dreaming of one day she can return.
“Our plan is to get back to Ukraine as soon as possible and help rebuild.”
Follow Deena Yellin on Twitter: @deenayellin