Voices from Ukraine

Posted on Tue, 11/01/2022 - 12:30pm

Personal accounts shared by Malibu East families

The devastation, death and unspeakable hardships being endured by the people of Ukraine are casting their pall here, close to home. Members of two families born there, and with relatives involved in the battle for the survival of their homeland, feel the chill of their loved ones’ fear every day. Two of our writers, Tracy Poyser and Ron Cohn, have gotten their stories, and share them here with readers of the Dialogue.

Penyshkevich-Zahorylyak family: In pursuit of American dream

As told to Tracy Poyser

The Penyshkevich-Zahorylyak family’s story is one of hope and hardship, with three generations now living in our building. Their quest for the American dream is embodied by their youngest member, Markiyan (Mark) Zahorylyak, a remarkable young man who was happy to share a journey that began 20 years ago. That’s when his grandparents, Mariya and Volodymyr Penyshkevich, left their native Ukraine in search of a better life in Chicago. They wanted to escape from the economic hardship and corruption rampant in the country, then still in the grip of Russia and President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB operative who’s now the longest-serving Russian leader since the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Given that our metropolitan area hosts the second-largest Ukrainian population in the nation, with more than 54,000 people now identifying as having Ukrainian ancestry (up from 45,000 in 2000), Mariya and Volodymyr felt at home almost immediately. They soon found permanent and well-paying work in eldercare/nursing within the Ukrainian community, which didn’t require much knowledge of English. “It’s a difficult language, especially for older people who don’t have access to English in school, plus they have to learn a different alphabet,” Mark explained.

The Penyshkeviches’ first apartment was on North Marine Drive close to the lake and parks, even though their commute to work on Chicago’s South Side was a long one. They became U.S. citizens as soon as they were eligible. And, in 2015, they purchased their ideal retirement home in Malibu East, hoping that other members of their family in Ukraine could join them.

So, just about the time when current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced his candidacy in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election with the promise of tackling corruption in the country, Mark’s immediate family – he and his parents Yaroslav and Olha Zahorylyak and older sisters Evelina and Anna Mariya – was granted U.S. immigration visas as asylum seekers.

After a few weeks staying with relatives, the family was able to rent a home in Malibu East a few floors up from the grandparents. Mark’s dad now works as a dental technician in Rolling Meadows. The entire family will be applying for U.S. citizenship very shortly. They were eligible to do so after two years, but the pandemic slowed the process.

Mark was 16 when they arrived, and was enrolled in Senn High School right away. “The first three months were terrifying,” he said. Even though he had taken additional English classes in Ukraine, his classmates’ American slang baffled him, especially idioms very different from the British English he had studied. But, he persevered and graduated, and now – at only 19 – he’s a real estate broker with Century 21, helping people find homes in those big buildings that wowed him and his family so much the first time they saw Chicago.

But, now that Putin’s war against Ukraine has been raging for eight months with no end in sight, the Zahorylyak and Penyshkevich families are deeply worried about relatives and friends in their home country. Mark’s aunt and his cousin Tatyana (Tanya) live in Sambir, a lovely old town of about 45,000 in the Lviv district in the western part of Ukraine. It dates back to the 13th century and, before the war, was considered one of the best places for tourists to visit. Now, the situation there is precarious, especially with the unpredictable attacks by Russia.

Tanya is a 29-year-old ophthalmologist with a four-year-old daughter. She loves travel, and last month was able to visit with the Zahorylyak family in Malibu East, as well as her other set of grandparents in California. She’d love to bring her daughter to live with the California grandparents until the war is over, but her husband – a volunteer in the defense of Ukraine – is not allowed to leave, and they’re trying to figure out what’s best for their little girl.

Mark has been texting with Tanya, asking for some comments on her situation for this article, but she’s reluctant to do so out of an abundance of caution. When I recently asked her grandparents (they live on my floor) about her, they had tears in their eyes and made helpless gestures of sadness. Adding to their worries is the random series of“kamikaze”attacks across Ukraine in recent weeks, striking civilian infrastructure and sowing terror in Ukrainian cities far from the front lines of the war, including the Lviv district.

Not many people want to leave Ukraine without family,” Mark said. But, he added, “Ukrainians are very strong people, mentally and physically. Our capital, Kyiv, is just one example – they’ve been hit over and over again. And, Ukrainians stood their ground in the 2014 uprising against Russian attacks resulting in the annexation of Crimea, although the corrupt (Ukrainian) government between 2014 and 2019 still didn’t care and did business with Putin.”

So, what would Mark do if he still lived in Ukraine, I asked. “Fight, of course,” he responded without hesitation. “I want people to know that Ukrainians are good people who do not want war. People say, ‘If Russia stops fighting, the war will end, but if Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine will end.” He finds it ironic that most of the Russian media’s reporting is the polar opposite of Ukrainian media. When there’s a posting about Ukraine gaining the upper hand somewhere, there’s a Russian posting within minutes, declaring the exact opposite.

The story of the Penyshkeviches and Zahorylyaks is just a small window on how close distant war-torn Ukraine can be to us. Read on to see what another neighbor from Ukraine shared with the Dialogue

Iryna: Sharing her family’s fear for son on front line

As told to Ron Cohn

Iryna, a Malibu East resident for nearly 20 years, was born and raised in central Ukraine, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, prior to its collapse in 1991.

There was no money, not enough food, and it was difficult to survive,” she said. “They just devastated the country completely.”

Iryna stayed on and completed her studies in her homeland, before coming to America in 1999. She first made her way to Warsaw and then flew directly to Chicago, where she has lived ever since.

A health-care professional, Iryna told the Dialogue she did not want her last name used in this story.

This is not about me. I am an American, a United States citizen,” she explained. “I never went back to Ukraine; I never really thought much about the political situation until now. I have family there – my brother, his wife and their two sons. I’ve always communicated with them, but now things have changed.

Although there is no fighting around them in the middle of the country, there are sirens every day and they’ve had some bombing of railways in the area, as well as a drone strike that hit close to them,” Iryna said. “They heard the explosion and said there was damage causing problems, but they are not allowed to say what it was, for fear of giving the enemy information they could use.

My brother can’t leave, under the law, and could be required to fight,” she went on. “But their 25-year-old son is fighting on the front lines. So, they are afraid all the time, under stress, and life is difficult for them.”

We asked her about her family’s reaction early in the year, as threats of the invasion escalated with Russia’s massive troop build-up along the border.

“The war had been going on since 2014 (in the annexed provinces), and they always kind of knew that (Putin) wouldn’t stop,” she said. “They told me they were afraid when we talked, but they thought that this time he would not go forward – with all the institutions in the world, the United Nations, and all the other countries watching,” she continued. “They saw all the troops and equipment, the hospitals and everything on the border, but they were in denial, and when February 24 came, they went into complete panic.

“They just hadn’t wanted to know,” she went on, “because they didn’t know what to do. They had no place to go. Some of the relatives in Ukraine believed that I would take them. They don’t understand how life is here, how they can survive here. They don’t have the language or skills to find work.”

Over the past eight months they have survived day-to-day, she said. Her brother’s small metalworking business has gone on, not without problems, but their level of fear and stress is dictated by their uncertain contact with their son. “He can’t communicate from the front,” she said, “but they bring (the fighters) home (from time to time).” The parents are deeply distressed by their son’s gaunt, sickly appearance and state of mind, she reported, and are very glad they were able to send his brother, 14, to relative safety at a school in Israel.

Iryna feels that the resolve and commitment to the war by Ukrainians is virtually total, as is the approval and support for President Zelensky, his office and their military. “I think they are doing exceptionally,” she said, “an amazing job.”

She has frequent communication with her family via phone, Zoom and even FaceTime, and says that they and the people of Ukraine are united in fighting the threat to their existence as an independent nation. She says they are proud of their heritage and “aggrieved with Russia” for having subjected them to the horrors of war – the death and destruction that is the latest, most violent manifestation of the turmoil that has been ongoing for decades.

She voiced her opinion regarding the Kremlin’s objectives for the invasion, saying, “None of this was about territory. It was about exercising power. All of this started many, many years ago. The Kremlin wanted to be in a position like America. They were trying to gain control in Europe, in parts of the Middle East and Africa – to be a power player like the United States.”

Such global and political views are not part of the everyday concerns of her family and the people she knows in Ukraine, Iryna said. “They don’t want to talk about these issues – there are still people around who are paid by Russia, as well as people who believe the Kremlin’s propaganda. It is not a stable situation,” she went on. “There are sirens a few times a day and they’re concerned about kids, they’re concerned about food, and electricity, and heat.”

They are focused on their immediate situation, she said.

“The only way to survive is to fight.”

Watch the Dialogue for updates to this story

The Dialogue is grateful for the emotion-provoking telling of your stories, Mark and Iryna. We are certain they will fill in the personal corners of the picture the media present of the war in Ukraine. If any of our readers have other neighbors who are refugees from dictatorships or war-torn countries, encourage them to approach the Dialogue with their stories at Dialogue@MalibuEast.org.