Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
To understand where Ukrainian soldiers get their inner strength, all one has to do is look at 43-year-old Nataliya Yushchenko.
Born in Ukraine, but now an American citizen with a home in Rio Rancho, Yushchenko returned to her native country in January to care for her ailing stepfather in Kyiv, who was battling colon cancer.
He died two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, and 16 months after her mother died from COVID, isolated in a Kyiv hospital.
Yushchenko managed to get out of the country as the Russian military assault intensified, but she returned to the region just weeks later to rescue a friend’s teenage daughter who had fled to Poland, escorting the child to the United States via a circuitous journey through Europe and into Mexico before heading to the U.S. border.
And all this unfolded as Yushchenko was being treated for aggressive skin cancer.
Yushchenko and her husband, Scott, are currently living in Washington state, where he now works for the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site. He worked previously at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The couple met in 2010 when Scott was in Ukraine on vacation and both were spectators at an independence day parade. A long-distance romance followed and, in 2014, Yushchenko moved to the U.S. with her daughter, Sasha, now 23, from a previous marriage. Shortly after, Yushchenko and Scott were married. Sasha still lives in the Albuquerque area.
In Kyiv, Yushchenko worked as a manager for a rental property company; in New Mexico, with limited English speaking skills, she took jobs in cafeterias and in fast food restaurants, and, later, as her grasp of the language improved, at Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino.
“I am very social and I like to be around people, and talk to them a lot,” she said, sometimes struggling to find the right words. “Everyone ask me about my accent and was interested in where I am from. That’s how I start to learn English.”
When Yushchenko traveled back to Ukraine to help her stepfather, she was still there when Russian tanks rolled into the country.
With her stepfather’s death from cancer and the removal of his body to a morgue, Yushchenko left his apartment building for a seemingly safer hotel in Kyiv, where she discovered that members of Project Dynamo were staying. The nonprofit Tampa, Florida-based organization of civilians and veterans works to extract people from war zones and other hostile environments. Thus far, they have helped rescue more than 550 people from sites across Ukraine and sent them to the relative safety of neighboring countries, according to several websites chronicling the war in Ukraine.
Yushchenko explained her situation and, within hours, Project Dynamo had her on a bus for a two-day ride, passing through Moldova and into Romania’s capital, Bucharest. From there, she was able to purchase airplane tickets to Istanbul, Turkey, then Chicago and, finally, Seattle.
Despite the arduous nature of the journey, Yuschenko was soon headed back to the region.
Having communicated with two friends in Ukraine, Olga and Alexander Golinko, a married couple who are both in the military, she learned that their 13-year-old daughter, Sofia, was relocated to Poland, but there was no one there to care for the child. Yushchenko stepped up and offered to get the girl and bring her to live with her and her husband in the U.S.
“I say to Scott, ‘let’s bring her to America, get her into school and make a stable life for her until the situation in Ukraine gets better and the war is finished,’ ” said Yushchenko, who expects to return to New Mexico after her cancer treatments are completed.
She subsequently learned through Ukrainian community social media groups about the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ humanitarian parole program, which can be applied for at the U.S.-Mexico border. The program allows applicants to enter the U.S. temporarily for urgent humanitarian reasons.
Deciding this was the best option, Yushchenko flew to Poland to take custody of Sofia. Together, they flew to Amsterdam, Mexico City and Tijuana, where they entered the U.S. and Sofia was granted humanitarian parole status. From there, they took a bus to San Diego and, after a few days, flew to Seattle.
“There was just no choice,” said Scott. “The way I look at it is, if you have the ability to help somebody who’s in a desperate situation, you have a moral obligation to do so. There was really no discussion. We just had to figure out how to do it.”
As for his wife’s tenacity, “I know how she is and I know how Ukrainians are, so it’s not surprising,” Scott said. “Ukrainians are some of the toughest people you are ever going to meet. They get their mind set on something and that’s just the way it is, and once Nataliya makes up her mind, that’s it. So, the fact that she did it is not surprising to me at all, even though the amount of effort that it took was pretty incredible.”
Despite that toughness and single-mindedness of purpose, Yushchenko grieves for her native Ukraine and remains concerned about young Sofia, who she said is sick with worry, and misses her parents and her country.
Ukraine has been independent from Russia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but it has always maintained its own culture, language and identity, making the Russian invasion and scorched earth tactics even more incomprehensible, Yushchenko said.
“I am American now, but I am also Ukrainian and it breaks my heart to see what is happening,” she said. “Everyone I talk to there has lost jobs, homes, everything they worked for their whole lives – destroyed. Parents have lost children, children have lost parents. Russia does not want NATO close to Ukraine, so they tell lies and propaganda. They say Ukraine is run by Nazis. I don’t know what they’re talking about. (Ukrainian president Volodymyr) Zelenskyy is Jewish. I think maybe (Russian President Vladimir) Putin wants to build the Soviet Union again. He is a sick, crazy person. He is not thinking right.”
All of which leaves Yushchenko saddened to the point where, she said, “I have never before cried like I cry now. Constantly.”