Ukrainian refugees in Albert Lea share heartbreak of war, kindness since coming to the community

Published 6:33 pm Friday, June 2, 2023

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About eight months after they first arrived in Albert Lea, two Ukrainian families say they are grateful for the support they have received after fleeing their war-torn country and arriving in the community.

Oleh and Nataliya Borysova and their 1-1/2-year-old daughter, Nika, and the family of Andrii and Iryna Kulachek and their two children, Polina and Miroslava, didn’t know each other until they boarded a plane last September in Frankfurt, Germany, to come to Albert Lea.

The Borysovas and Kulacheks were from different cities in Ukraine but both were sponsored to come to the country by Tetyana and Alan Nielsen of Albert Lea, who helped with paperwork and found them an apartment and furnishings.

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Though both couples are optimistic for their futures and are grateful to be somewhere safe, they miss their country and have endured many hardships to get them to where they are today.

Trapped in Ukraine

When Russian troops began invading Ukraine in February 2022, Oleh and Nataliya Borysova were separated because of COVID-19.

Their daughter, Nika, was only 3 months old at the time, so when Oleh contracted the coronavirus, they decided he would isolate at their home in Mykolaiv, while Nataliya and Nika would spend some time at her parents’ house in Kherson, about an hour away.

Little did they know what was about to take place.

The morning of the invasion, Oleh said he awoke at about 4 a.m. to the sounds of explosions.

The young parents called each other, and Nataliya in a panic wanted her husband to come get them and take them all to Poland.

As he drove from Mykolaiv to Kherson, however, Oleh said he got a glimpse of just what was happening — he noticed the Russians were bombing the airports first.

Though he made it to his family, they were not able to flee before battles began happening closer to a major bridge in Kherson, leaving them trapped in the city.

With the Ukrainian army on the north and the Russians on the south, many days were spent seeing helicopters, planes and rockets overhead. They spent much of their time in the basement of her parents’ house, not knowing if something was going to fall on their house.

They tried to monitor as best they could which country had taken over the bridge, and they wanted to time their escape to when the Ukrainians had control of it.

They said one day, when the shooting died down, they made an attempt to leave with other relatives and got a bigger view of the devastation that was taking place around them. There were blown-up Ukrainian and Russian tanks and other military vehicles, as well as civilian cars.

Shortly after, a plane flew by and dropped a bomb less than 100 yards from where they were walking, so in a panic they turned around and fled back to Nataliya’s parents’ home. They realized the Russians had taken over and went on to spend months in the basement of the home.

Oleh said under the Russian occupation, everyone was so stressed out that for days they didn’t want to eat, even though they had access to food.

They couldn’t understand what was happening

Andrii and Iryna and their daughters were living in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine when they woke up the first day of the Russian invasion in February 2022 to military planes overhead.

They turned on the television to see attacks on the capital of Kyiv.

Andrii said they couldn’t understand what was happening even after seeing it on TV and at first he decided to continue to go to work.

When he went out to start delivering car parts in other cities in the region, he saw the explosions and craters where the bombs had fallen and turned around.

After only a few days, they decided to go to one of their friends’ homes in Germany. The problem was at that time, however, only women and children were being evacuated, and the family was separated as Iryna and their two children left on the train and Andrii had to stay behind.

They said a train cabin that usually fits four people was filled with 12 to 16 people, and children slept in the corridors — many crying because they didn’t understand what was taking place.

In the months that followed, Andrii assisted the Ukrainian military until he was relieved from duty and was reunited with his family.

‘We don’t know when this will all stop’

Though it is painful to recall what they have witnessed since the war began and what their friends and families left behind still endure, both couples are adamant that people know the stories of what is taking place in their native land.

Nataliya spoke of a couple she knows who were trying to pack up their belongings when soldiers came in and started shooting at their feet. The soldiers stole whatever they could and destroyed the rest, even slaughtering their animals.

She has known others who had shirts with Ukraine or the Ukrainian flag on them who were beaten simply because of the clothes they wore.

The father of one of her best friends was on his phone one day when Russian soldiers thought he was sending coordinates of their location. He was taken to a prison and beaten there in a room next-door to where other soldiers were raping women.

They said the Russians destroyed Ukrainian language and history books, as well as Ukrainian icons, schools and museums. Most other things they would steal.

Andrii said over the years he has seen pictures of the war in Syria and Iraq, but never really knew how horrible war was until it began happening in his own land. They continue to regularly hear of more destruction and of more people who have died.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he showed a picture of a grandfather whose granddaughter was killed just this week.

They all gave stories of friends and relatives who were killed in the war — some who fought in the Ukrainian army, others who tried to help maintain the country’s infrastructure and yet even others who were innocently just trying to survive.

“We don’t know when this will all stop,” Andrii said.

‘We met many good people’

While Andrii has worked at Cargill and his wife, Iryna, has worked decorating cakes at Hy-Vee in Albert Lea, they will soon leave the city to move to Chicago, where he estimated there are as many as 200,000 Ukrainians. What they do after that depends on how long the war continues.

The Kulacheks said their children have loved the schools here, and they would like their children to get their education in the United States.

Iryna spoke of the support they received in the school system, the grocery store and throughout the community.

They said the people they encountered were good and kind and they were especially grateful for the Nielsens, the Rev. George Marin at Grace Christian Church, the staff at Brookside Education Center, United Way Executive Director Erin Haag, District 23A Rep. Peggy Bennett, and Leonid and Kathy Skorin, who were the first generations of their families to be born in the United States after their parents emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. in the 1950s.

Iryna said there are many others who they don’t know the names of who have also helped them. Her husband said many people have asked them what they needed, and all those needs were filled by people in the community. One time they were overwhelmed with gifts for their children from members at Grace Christian Church.

The Borysovas plan to stay in Albert Lea at least for the immediate future as Oleh works to get his commercial driver’s license. Because they know Chicago is a more expensive place to live, they hope to be able to save more money before they take that step.

The couples said they were grateful for the support their people and their country have received from the U.S. government and the prayers that have been said on their behalf.

“Here we met many good people,” Iryna said.