Putin’s war leaves Ukrainian family stranded in San Francisco

‘The devastation right now is impossible to fathom for me and for my parents’

Anastasiya Rutus and her parents, Tetiana and Viktor Sergiyenko, keep a morning routine that they have repeated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

Rutus, 37, Tetiana, 59, and Viktor Sergiyenko, 60, begin each day by phoning loved ones living in Ukraine.

“We want to know that they’re alive, that they’re okay and what is going on around them,” said Tetiana Sergiyenko, speaking in Ukrainian while Rutus interpreted.

“Continuously our cities are being bombed, the kids are being bombed and they’re intentionally being targeted and killed,” added Rutus.

As violence escalates, protection from the war has dwindled for the family’s loved ones. “They’re still alive, so that’s the only good thing right now,” Rutus said. “Can I say that they’re safe? No. Right now, nowhere is safe.”

Rutus belongs to the nearly 20,000 Ukrainians that reside in the Bay Area. Julia Sirotina, a volunteer with Nova Ukraine, says that the Sergiyenkos’ situation is emblematic of the country’s wartime struggles.

“It’s a very common story,” said Sirotina. “Since the planes do not fly to Ukraine due to war, people who left Ukraine before the war, they can’t quite go back.”

The Sergiyenkos arrived at the end of January to visit Rutus, who lives with her husband and their three-year-old daughter, and intended to leave at the beginning of March.

“We weren’t planning for this. Otherwise we would be probably better prepared,” said Rutus, whose parents now take their living situation in unfamiliar land day by day.

Before the invasion, life in Ukraine “was very peaceful, it was wonderful. It was full of hope and promises. And while COVID stopped a lot of things, life was coming back to some relative normalcy,” according to Rutus.

Now, rubble and debris mark where buildings once stood and are in stark contrast to the family’s memories.

Major cities like Odesa, Kharkiv and Mariupol, areas which typically teem with life, are being attacked by Russian forces. “The devastation right now is impossible to fathom for me and for my parents. Even when we watch the videos and everything,” said Rutus.

With 6,000 miles of separation, the trio has tried to kept up the spirits of those still in Ukraine by sharing war developments with “our relatives and friends who have, by different circumstances, less access to information,” said Viktor Sergiyenko, who also spoke in Ukrainian while Rutus interpreted.

Some relatives, like Rutus’ grandmother, don’t typically use the Internet, while other family members are limited in what channels they can view on television.

“We can call them and give them some more good news and more hope because there are a lot of situations in Ukraine where Russians are trying to create fake news,” said Viktor Sergiyenko.

Though they are dealing with an onslaught of emotions, Rutus and her parents try to remain calm when communicating with loved ones back home so as to not add additional stress and worry to their circumstances.

Attacks have forced some of the family’s loved ones into evacuation. One of Rutus’ cousins escaped Hostomel, a suburb near Kyiv whose airport was attacked by Russians. “It was very traumatic because for 12 days out of 14 days, they were sitting, he and his family were sitting, without electricity in a village full of tanks. No electricity, no cell reception, nothing.” said Rutus.

Rutus hasn’t kept up with the war through U.S. cable news because she feels some stories are “shortened to fit the narrative that needs to be told by certain channels,” she said. Also, it can be hard to stomach a steady stream of wartime images that chronicle the loss of life.

Viktor and Tetiana Sergiyenko mostly watch and follow Ukrainian news agencies to stay up to date on the war.

To ensure that they are not circulating Russian misinformation or propaganda to their readers, Ukrainian newspapers, such as the Ukrainska Pravda, have cited their sources below their headlines to promote transparency and veracity to readers.

Most reporters in Ukraine are finding their information through Telegram, a platform used as the main method of communication for Ukrainian government officials and authorities.

Viktor Sergiyenko frequently visits Russian-speaking forums online to understand how Russians are depicting the war and speaking about it in their circles.

Rutus has “encountered some people who don’t think Russians in general should be held accountable for Putin’s actions and decisions” and believes that “being silent in this situation is considered as support of (Putin’s) actions,” she said.

“For us to be heard, there still has to be a critical mass of people reaching out and saying that they support Ukraine, that Ukraine needs more physical arms, that Ukraine needs more money to be dealing with all of this,” said Rutus.

At the invasion’s onset, Rutus felt like staying in The City wouldn’t serve her country. Now she understands that her role in this war is speaking with others and telling “the story of my family, telling the story of my country and making sure that the voices of Ukrainians are not shadowed by Russian disinformation and propaganda,” she said.

Though Rutus and her parents do not know what life after the war entails, they believe that “there will be a great opportunity to rebuild Ukraine into an even brighter place,” said Rutus. “The devastation right now is impossible to fathom for me and for my parents. Even when we watch the videos and everything, the amount of work that needs to get done is huge.”

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

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