‘Every day you call your parents hoping that random bomb didn’t fall in their city’

Evan Knappenberger, right, introduces the Ukrainian speakers, from left: Nicole Yurcaba, Michael Kovchak, Alex Lagoda, Aliona Lagoda at the event Thursday at the Veterans’ Memorial at JMU. (Photo by Zia Faqiri)

By Zia Faqiri, contributor

A year since Russia invaded their home country, Ukrainians in this area are still doing everything they can to help their home country.

“One of the worst years of my life,” said Nicole Yurcaba through tears. 

A Ukrainian poet and professor of literature and local high school counselor, Yurcaba was among Ukrainian immigrants and refugees who spoke publicly Thursday about their personal experiences and connection to the war in Ukraine in hopes of inspiring Valley residents to continue to help those who are living in their homeland that remains under attack. 

“Every day for the past year has been a very frightening situation,” she said. 

Yurcaba said her friends and family in Ukraine have adapted to a new normal that is anything but. While she does still receive messages from them, they are still afraid of another sudden attack. 

“We never know if there will be another mass grave found in the village,” Yurcaba said. “My cousin said ‘I’m so afraid, I won’t wake up tomorrow,’ because we were uncertain about what the Russians would do.”

Nicole Yurcaba tears up after being asked how she feels about the war after a year. “One of the worst years of my life,” she said. (Photo by Zia Faqiri)

Aliona Lagoda, originally from Western Ukraine who now works as an emergency room nurse, had her family displaced all around the world because of the war. She said her family is now used to the sound of sirens. In the beginning, “it was a horror” and “they were terrified” because they didn’t know when and where the missiles would land. 

“During the first months of war, it was like such a turmoil…I was finishing nursing school and I was ready to quit … I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think — literally waking up every day not knowing if your family is alive,” Lagoda said. “That’s how I live, it’s still the same, every day you call your parents hoping that random bomb didn’t fall in their city.”

The war also has taken its emotional toll on Lagoda and others who are half a world away. 

Aliona Lagoda speaks about her experience in Ukraine and how it feels that her family is still there. (Photo by Zia Faqiri)

“It is you kind of living with this guilt … that you are here and you are alive and you can enjoy — enjoy life and people,” she said.

Lagoda also said one important thing people can do is educate themselves on the situation and not believe Russian propaganda. She said her brother was in Russia when the war started, and the Russian government was saying Ukranians were hurting and killing themselves. 

“That’s the strength of propaganda. That it’s absurd how strong it can be, so please, people don’t believe, especially here in America,” Lagoda said. “I’m not telling you not to watch Russian or something, but please watch all of them and decide what to believe and you will find out the truth.”

Alex Lagoda, Aliona’s husband and middle school teacher and master Ukrainian folk musician, was originally from central Ukraine but has lived in the Shenandoah Valley for 30 years. He said Ukrainians are fighting for more than their borders but are serving as a bulwark for democracy. The nation, he said, isn’t seeking “American troops on the ground, just needing some serious support,…to defend democracy abroad.”

Yurcaba said some organizations with which she was affiliated, such as Razom for Ukraine, provide “humanitarian aid for Ukrainians who are displaced by the war” and accepts donations. 

Yurcaba also mentioned Good bread from Good people, which works with disabled people in Ukraine to provide them jobs. 

“They make approximately 1,500 loaves of bread per day and deliver into some of the most dangerous areas of Ukraine,” she said. 

Alex Lagoda suggested donating through the Slavic Christian Church, or Old Church. And he said residents can support the U.S. government’s continued investment in Ukraine’s defense by calling members of Congress, such as U.S. Rep. Ben Cline who represents Harrisonburg and Virginia’s 6th District. Logoda said he has called them so many times that congressional staff know him by name. 

“Even something as simple as flying a Ukrainian flag, shows support,” Yurcaba said. “When I drive through Harrisonburg and see Ukrainian flags, that gives me an uplift because it means like one more person, one more family is standing with us.”

Hope, after all, is what Ukrainians and their friends and family in the Valley are holding onto. 

“A lot of my friends [in Ukraine] have a lot of optimism,” Yurcaba said.”They’re certain that yes, this is a long and hard war, but they’re also certain that we will win.” 

Andrea Early and Stan Galloway hold a sign that underscoring their support for Ukraine during an event Thursday at Harrisonburg’s Veterans Memorial at JMU. (Photo by Zia Faqiri)

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