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Stateside Podcast: When your family lives in Ukraine

A beam of sun comes down a dark staircase in a cellar in Ukraine where Anton Bondarenko
Anton Bondarenko
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Irina Bondarenko's cousin Anton and his family were forced to hide for several days in a cellar near Kyiv as Russian troops invaded the city. Anton took this photo on Thursday morning. Shortly after, the family was able to escape from hiding and make their way to a safe location as Anton's wife Valentina and their two children prepare to leave the country.

As Russia presses on with its invasion, Kyiv native and Ann Arbor resident Irina Bondarenko joined Stateside to share her perspective. She is a Ukrainian American with loved ones stuck near her hometown, the middle of a dangerous conflict.

Bondarenko, who works as a ceramic artist and lead statistician at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has family and friends in Ukraine who chose to stay amid the invasion. “I worry the most about my cousin, Anton, his wife, Valentina, and his two children, Maria and Matthew,” Bondarenko said. “They [have been] caught in the cellar since Saturday in the front line and the epicenter of fighting, not far from Kyiv.”

Bondarenko recently learned that Valentina and the children were able to make it safely out of hiding and head toward the western border of Ukraine on Thursday. But it has been a harrowing few days for the family and for Bondarenko. Her cousin and his family lost power, which meant conserving their phone batteries for emergencies. Bondarenko would check in and give them brief updates every day.

“Imagine being caught with kids in [the] dark with two other families in a very tiny space for three days. And without communication, no news, not knowing exactly what's going on the ground about them, right? So for them, time is moving, but it's not moving.”

Bondarenko has been involved in efforts to support Ukraine since the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014. Back then, she and a group of Michigan artists put on a fundraiser for United Help Ukraine, a nonprofit that provides aid to Ukrainians. The day after Russia launched its invasion, Bondarenko drove to Washington D.C. to rally with other organizers and push lawmakers for more aid in Ukraine.

“Every day, people were coming by the White House and standing there and rallying from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and asking for adequate support for Ukraine. They asked for economic sanctions. We asked for more arms to help Ukraine, to defend itself and to cover Ukrainian skies.”

She noted that the Ukrainian community is very grateful for the support from the U.S. government, but says it isn’t enough to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Bondarenko — and the government of Ukraine — wants to see the U.S. and other NATO countries help protect Ukrainian airspace.

“Because Ukrainians can defend themselves on the ground, and they show it. You know, they're very brave. They actually defend not only their families, not only their cities, not only their country — they defend Europe, they defend you and me.”

So far, NATO countries and the U.S. have been unwilling to implement a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine, fearing that it would escalate the conflict with Russia and increase the possibility of a nuclear attack. But as Bondarenko sees it, the possibility of Putin following through on his threats would still remain in the event that Ukraine is overtaken.

“He will still have this power. If you want to be on the safe side and just watch, you may need to do a lot of watching in the future.”

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Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

If you like what you hear on the pod, consider supporting our work.

Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.