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‘It becomes part of your life’: Ukrainians experience grief, resolve as Russian invasion enters second year

Olena Voievoda, 46, who is from Dnipro, fled Ukraine two days after the invasion with her young daughter, now 7.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

More than a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has wrought a heartbreaking toll that stretches from Kyiv to Boston.

In Massachusetts, Ukrainians and their supporters have turned their grief into action: They are racing to help refugees from Ukraine settle in the state; they call for continued support of Ukraine, urging President Biden to step up aid; and they’re trying to ensure Americans’ backing for Ukraine will not waver.

Ukrainians at home and in the United States remain resolute, and dream of a homeland that remains free, they said.

“This year, we showed a lot about who Ukrainians [are], what they can do, how they’re united,” said Nika Chelnokova, 21, a Suffolk University student from Ukraine. “We are still fighting.”


Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, tens of thousands have died in one of the worst conflicts seen in Europe since the end of World War II.

The war also touched off a colossal humanitarian crisis, as millions have fled as refugees, including more than 270,000 who have journeyed to the US. Millions more remain in Ukraine, but are displaced from their homes.

Massachusetts, which has experienced a massive influx of refugees from places like Haiti, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Afghanistan, has also recorded more than 1,100 new arrivals from Ukraine between October 2021 and the end of January through a federal humanitarian program, according to a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Among the newcomers is Olena Voievoda, a 46-year-old now living in Newton with her 7-year-old daughter at a longtime family friend’s home. They fled Dnipro, Ukraine, and made their way to Prague in the days after the invasion. Her older daughter, a 24-year-old who had been living in Kyiv, also escaped to Prague following the invasion.


Voievoda, who had worked as an event manager in Ukraine, decided to leave so her children weren’t exposed to the war, she said. They are safe in Newton, where she works and her younger daughter goes to school. But she fears for the safety of her loved ones who are still in Ukraine.

“I cry every day, really,” Voievoda said. “I am so worried.”

Olena Voievoda, 46, a Ukrainian refugee from Dnipro, far right, with her two daughters, Vlada, 24, and Sasha, 7. Olena Voievoda

Ukrainians are increasingly careworn after a year of war. Many, like Voievoda, fear for loved ones still in Ukraine, feel sadness for friends and family who have died, and bitter anger toward Russia for starting a conflict with no apparent end in sight.

“For me, as a Ukrainian, it is an unbearable tragedy to see how entire families are killed and how our beautiful cities are being destroyed,” Voievoda said. “Russians have taken the soul out of us, now there is a place for anger and for great pain.”

The International Institute of New England works with 305 Ukrainian refugees in Massachusetts, including Voievoda. They’re also supporting another 175 in New Hampshire, officials said.

They expect those numbers to grow to nearly 1,000 Ukrainians across the two states by October.

Crissie Ferrara, the managing director for the organization’s Boston office, said psychological support is one of the greatest needs they see in their clients, regardless of where they come from.

But there are few Ukrainian- or Russian-speaking therapists in the area, which puts pressure on those services, Ferrara said.

“This adds limits to an already strained support system for socio-emotional well-being,” she said in an e-mail.


For those who remain in Ukraine, life has been difficult during the invasion.

In Kyiv, Helen Chervitz has spent the past year writing about daily life in the city where residents try to live their daily lives amid the din of air raid sirens and the threat of missile strikes that have helped cause frequent blackouts. One blast was close enough to photograph from her home’s balcony, she said.

She and her husband, Leon Ryrakhovsky, were once refugees themselves, she said: The couple fled to the US in the late 1980s to escape antisemitism in Soviet-era Ukraine. They became American citizens, and lived for decades in places like New York City and Swampscott.

Helen Chervitz (right) and her husband, Leon Ryrakhovsky.Helen Chervitz

They returned to Ukraine about 10 years ago, and chose to stay in their homes when Russian forces attacked to help their neighbors, she said. Since then, they’ve experienced days without hot water and electricity in the cold winter months.

They’ve been asking for financial assistance and donations from American synagogues of power chargers, flashlights, and electrical lanterns to help residents endure the power outages. They have received donations for several families, but say they need more support.

“We were happy to help. And we were happy to take upon ourselves this responsibility,” Chervitz said. “We wanted to be there for our [neighbors] as Americans.”

In Massachusetts, many of the local Ukrainians bolstering American support for the war are students who arrived in Boston before the invasion.


Alex Nikanov, 20, a Northeastern University student, said two friends have died fighting the Russians. And in the early days of the invasion, his grandparents had to hide in their basement when Russians swept through their village.

“It’s been a lot of pain and grief and just feeling anxiety over the past year,” he said. “It’s something that we think about every day.. ... It becomes part of your life.”

Nika Chelnokova, 21, right, a Suffolk University student, and Alex Nikanov, 20, a Northeastern University student, are both from Ukraine and are organizers working on pro-Ukraine efforts in Massachusetts.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

While the war continues, local advocates are trying to help Ukrainians build lives in the state.

Ivanka Roberts, president of the Ukrainian Cultural Center of New England, said the organization has been working on forging stronger ties between the region’s Ukrainian community and newly arrived immigrants.

For many, including Roberts, the war is never far. She lives in the Worcester area with her husband and the couple’s children. Much of her family, including her parents, continues to live in Ukraine. Several of Roberts’s friends and classmates have died battling the Russians, she said.

So while securing housing, food, and other necessities is the top priority, Roberts said, building connections with those already living here has been crucial for Ukrainian immigrants.

Those relationships have given people a friendly shoulder to cry on or even an embrace. For Ukrainians, it’s a way to reassure one another during a deeply trying time.

“People just want to have this physical interaction,” Roberts said. “People need this, [to know] that they are not alone.”

John Hilliard can be reached at