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'I'm Heartbroken': Bay Area Residents With Ties to Ukraine Fear for Their Loved Ones

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family with children carrying bags stands next to an open door on a passenger train
Ukrainian civilians wait to board a train out of the Donetsk region on Feb. 22, 2022, after Russia's decision to recognize the Donetsk region as an independent state and send in what it calls 'peacekeeping' troops. The White House is now calling Russia's troop deployments an 'invasion' after initially being hesitant to use the term.  (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Many Ukrainian Americans living in the Bay Area are worried for their families and friends after Russia sent military forces into Luhansk and Donetsk — the two regions in eastern Ukraine, known collectively as Donbas, that Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized as independent states on Monday.

As Putin sends in troops under what many diplomats believe to be the false pretense of “peacekeeping,” members of the Bay Area Ukrainian community are checking in on their loved ones in the country, and many are preparing for the worst. Still, they say that the Ukrainian people are resilient and determined to defend their country.

Nick Bilogorskiy lives in Santa Clara, but his family lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which is only 35 miles from the Russian border and 100 miles from the Donbas region. He said they don’t have any plans to relocate.

“I think they don’t want to leave behind their livelihood, their friends, their work, their houses, their pets,” he said. “It’s really difficult to be internally displaced. They don’t want to take that step until it’s absolutely necessary.”

Bilogorskiy is co-chair of Nova Ukraine, a nonprofit that provides resources to Ukrainian communities in the United States and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.


On Sunday, Bilogorskiy helped organize a rally at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Around 300 Ukrainian Americans and their allies gathered to express their fears for the safety of their loved ones and called on local and state officials to demand harsher sanctions against Russia and more economic aid for Ukraine.

The White House is now calling Russia’s troop deployments in eastern Ukraine an "invasion" after initially being hesitant to use the term. Around the world, leaders condemned Putin and prepared to hit Russia with sanctions.

“We think this is, yes, the beginning of an invasion, Russia’s latest invasion into Ukraine,” said Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser for the Biden administration. He said “latest” was important. “An invasion is an invasion and that is what is underway.”

At home in San Francisco, writer and journalist Zarina Zabrisky said that even though she is not Ukrainian, she has many friends in the country and visits it often.

“I’m heartbroken, I cry often. I feel like flying there,” she said.

Zabrisky has been constantly checking in on her friends. She said many are preparing for the worst, including taking first-aid courses.

“They are stocking up on anything from water to little gas canisters, hygiene and medical supplies,” she said. “And a lot of people and women — middle-aged women in their 50s — are training, taking active military courses to go to the army and defend Ukraine with a firearm.”

Alexandra Chalupa, a lawyer and Ukrainian American activist in Washington, D.C., who has family in Ukraine, said this is familiar territory for Ukrainians.

“What Ukrainians have shown the world is exactly how to stand your ground against authoritarian struts like this, whether they are domestic or foreign,” she said.

Chalupa recalled the Heavenly Hundred, a group of protesters slain in 2014 during the Revolution of Dignity that helped to oust Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych and install a new Ukrainian government.

“Ukrainians have a very unique, special spirit about them,” Chalupa said. “They still came out and protested, and that’s exactly what it takes to protect democracy.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to project calm on Monday, telling the country in an address overnight: “We are not afraid of anyone or anything.”

Protesters, some draped in Ukrainian flags, gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kyiv. One held up a sign that read: “We choose Europe not Russia.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed as “nonsense” Putin’s assertion that Russian troops would be in Donbas as peacekeepers, saying their presence is “clearly the basis for Russia’s attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.”

Thomas-Greenfield said the Russian president has presented the world with a choice and it “must not look away” because “history tells us that looking the other way in the face of such hostility will be a far more costly path.”

This story includes reporting from Mike Corder of The Associated Press.

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