Ukrainians, Poles in Chicago reflect on Ukrainian war with Russia

Fearing that she was slowing her daughter down, Iryna Staragina’s 91-year-old mother told her multiple times to leave her as the pair tried to board a train that would take them out of Kharkiv, a city close to Ukraine’s border with Russia, the middle of a war zone.

But, despite her mother’s insistence, 60-year-old Stagarina did not listen. Stagarina, her mother and her daughter, Aliona Solomadina, 39, whom they met on their journey out, arrived in Chicago last week after spending four months in Italy.

In its biggest barrage of missiles yet, Russia attacked Ukraine’s power grid Tuesday, plunging the country into darkness as winter inches closer. For Ukrainians scattered across the world and in Chicago, like Stagarina and Solomadina, it means even more limited communication with relatives they left behind and who have suffered periods of no heat and no electricity.

“There are a lot of people who, really, they don’t want to leave their walls, they feel safer … in their own apartments,” Solomadina said. “They feel better (than) if they go somewhere and be displaced people. So, it’s really an issue for a lot of people, to leave their cities, their homes.”

Graphic artist Aliona Solomadina, left, and her mother, Iryna Staragina, speak on Nov. 17, 2022, about their experiences leaving Ukraine during the war and arriving in Chicago.

Pavlo Bandriwsky’s 29-year-old niece brought her 5-year-old son to live with him in Chicago, but her husband is fighting on the front lines, defending Ukraine. Bandriwsky’s wife has family there, too.

“(Communication) has been a huge problem, there’s no question about it,” said Bandriwsky, who is vice president of the Illinois division of the Ukrainian Congress Committee. “With the power being off and access to the cellular channels being intermittent, it’s become very, very difficult.”

Russia, The Associated Press reported, has resorted to attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructures to turn the cold, dark winter into a weapon.

“It’s just awful for them, absolutely awful, what they’re being forced to endure. These are what they would call peaceful civilians,” Bandriwsky said. “The Russians have no bounds. They target everything, especially the most vulnerable.”

When Russia launched the full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February, Stagarina and Solomadina decided to leave their respective cities and meet up in Lviv — which they did in March — and stay there for a few months. But many people, they told the Tribune, do prefer to stay home instead of trying to flee. For those with elderly or disabled parents, the decision to stay or leave can be even more complicated.

Women with children — babies, even — were helped onto trains by police and military men, they said.

“It was really awful,” Stagarina said, recounting how her mother asked her to leave her behind when she couldn’t keep up. “I was grateful to Mom for her decision to go,” she said, adding that some acquaintances couldn’t leave Kharkiv because their parents wanted to stay — or couldn’t physically leave.

Graphic artist Aliona Solomadina speaks on Nov. 17, 2022, about her experiences leaving Ukraine during the war and arriving in Chicago.

On Tuesday, a missile killed two people in Poland. It was initially believed to be of Russian origin, but NATO and Poland said Wednesday that the missile strike wasn’t a Russian attack — rather, that it was likely a Ukrainian defense missile.

Some Ukrainian and Polish immigrants in Chicago agree that the war shows humanity hasn’t learned from past horrors.

Julie Sawicki, 53, president of Society of St. Adalbert, is a first-generation Polish immigrant living in Chicago. Her parents lived through World War II. She has cousins and uncles on her mother’s side of the family who live in a town close to the Polish border, where the missile struck Tuesday.

“I keep saying it’s distressing, but that’s not the word. It’s devastating. This is devastating. And this is tragic. And this is dangerous,” Sawicki said. “And it’s very painful for me to know and understand what these people are going through both in Poland and in Ukraine, because our relatives who are still alive today know what this feels like. And we know what generational trauma is.”

Sawicki said the Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds her of Germany’s invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II.

“You see the Ukrainians are reaching out to the world for help, begging for help,” she said. “And for me, it completely threw me back — now I wasn’t even alive back then, but I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, this was Poland in 1939. Begging — when Germany invaded Poland — begging its neighbors for help.’”

“When I see what’s happening in Ukraine and now Poland, to me, it’s like we are repeating the mistakes of the past,” she added. “Have we not learned the lessons of World War II?”

Bandriwsky likened the current situation in Ukraine to the genocide of millions of Ukrainian people whom Josef Stalin starved to death in the early 1930s.

“We’re seeing genocide happening today by different methods,” Bandriwsky said, “with these rockets that are targeted toward the infrastructure that are trying to create a situation where Ukrainians are freezing to death this winter, because there’s no heat and electricity. They targeted the cellular communications towers so that people can’t stay in touch with their family.”

Serge Senya, 43, a senior lieutenant with the Ukrainian air force and part of the rescue search and landing service, arrived in Chicago in September for rehabilitation with the Wellness Club of Bannockburn after receiving a knee replacement in Europe and seeking treatment for an injured shoulder.

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He told the Tribune he got hurt when a missile exploded nearby after a successful rescue operation in Ukraine, and he was one of two who survived. Senya is awaiting surgery for his shoulder, which has yet to be scheduled, and after he receives physical therapy, he plans to return to continue the fight.

Serge Senya, a senior lieutenant in the Ukrainian Air Force, in Chicago on Nov. 17, 2022, where he is getting treatment for his injuries.

His wife and two children — 11 and 4 years old — are now living in Poland, near Warsaw. On whether he’ll see them again, he said, “Maybe one day.” The soldier, donning camouflage pants and a jacket, fidgeted with his cane.

“We believe in our victory and we’re eternally grateful for all supporters and the American people who help us to bring the victory home,” Senya said through an interpreter.

For many Ukrainians like Senya, this is the fight of their lives.

“I can tell you with great certainty, that for Ukrainians, this is an existential fight,” Bandriwsky said. “They will fight to the end.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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