Slava Hubenya says he’s stopped keeping up with the news.
Throughout his life, Hubenya and his family have kept up with the protests and political unrest in his home country. But recently, it’s become overwhelming.
The night the Russian military began their invasion in February 2022, Hubenya was working a closing shift at Panda Express. When he heard the news, Hubenya says, he couldn’t believe it at first.
“My coworkers were asking me, ‘Did you hear that Russia’s troops are on the border of Ukraine? Do you think they’re going to invade? Are you worried?’” Hubenya says. “That same night I hear that Russia is firing missiles into Ukraine.”
He says that as the invasion has continued the sense of shock has diminished, but the stress of the situation isn’t going away.
“The more you read about it, the more heartbreaking it is,” Hubenya says.
The United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross has designated the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces a humanitarian crisis.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s military offensive has Ukrainians not knowing what to expect and puts Ukrainian-Oregonians in a state of worry over their families who are still in Ukraine. Ukrainian-born Oregonians like Hubenya, while physically distant from their home country nearly 6,000 miles away, still feel the consequences of the conflict through their families, friends and relatives.
The last time Hubenya was in Ukraine was when he was only two years old. He doesn’t remember much about what it was like to live there. His parents and one of his older brothers visited in 2013, a year before the Russo-Ukrainian war started in February 2014.
Many members of Hubenya’s family are from Dnipro, a major city in eastern Ukraine and a key target in Russia’s attacks. His uncle moved his family from Dnipro to Germany when the Russian invasion started in February 2022. His mother’s siblings still live in and around Dnipro today.
According to Hubenya, his family in Ukraine have recently been hearing bomb sirens more and more frequently.
“When it first happened it was a shock,” Hubenya says. “It’s like ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”
But Hubenya’s family in Albany, Oregon, have been able to keep in contact with the rest of his family in Ukraine through phone calls and the instant-messaging platform Viber. The Russian invasion has caused significant damage to Ukraine’s internet and communications infrastructure, not to mention recent Russian cyber attacks limiting internet access for Ukrainians.
“Just hearing from them is good news,” Hubenya says. “The videos they send, some of it is sad and some of it is promising.”
Hubenya’s family and friends send him photos and videos of the invasion’s aftermath. They include smiling people giving thumbs up to the camera, partially destroyed buildings and videos of his father’s friend loading corpses into an ambulance.
Russia’s military operations against its neighboring countries have been ongoing throughout the 21st century. When Georgia, the country bordering Russia’s southwest in the Caucasus mountains, elected pro-Western leadership and foreign policy changes, Putin launched an offensive on several Georgian villages. The Russo-Georgian war displaced about 192,000 people during the conflict, and upwards of 20,000 remain displaced as of 2014, according to reports from the United Nations.
As the current invasion continues, it’s not clear how many more Ukrainians will be displaced and evacuated. Oregonians with Slavic roots are finding ways to channel local and public support into aid that can be distributed to those still living in Ukraine. One of the most prominent ways is through fundraising, usually spearheaded by churches and humanitarian aid groups.
One of these churches is Living Word Adventist, a Russian-speaking Slavic church in Oregon City. Living Word’s pastor, Alex Paraschuk, and most of the church’s members have relatives living in Russia or Eastern Europe. When the invasion started, Paraschuk says, the church was in shock.
“We just called our friends and relatives at the churches there wanting to know what was going on,” Paraschuk says.
Food insecurity and damage to water, gas and electricity infrastructure continue to worsen for refugees. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 5.7 million people received emergency food assistance since February.
Living Word has raised more than $20,000 from members of the church and community members in Oregon since the invasion started. Paraschuk and Living Word’s administration correspond with church leaders currently living in Ukraine’s southwest region to use those raised funds to buy fuel, potatoes, eggs, bread and medical supplies. Paraschuk says that church groups in Odesa have also used Living Word’s donations to offer refugees a shower and access to electricity as they evacuate westward.
According to Paraschuk, the Ukrainian churches that Living Word has been corresponding with send small teams of volunteers to eastern Ukraine to evacuate families from their homes in Russian-occupied territory. Many of the pastors whom Paraschuk corresponds with have already evacuated westward to outposts in Odesa and Mykolaiv, but their congregations stay behind for fear of being shelled in transit.
According to findings made by the UN’s Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, more than 12,000,000 people are estimated to have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine, and about 6.3 million have left the country altogether. Almost 3.5 million refugees have crossed the Western border to Poland, with the rest of the diaspora largely funneling into neighboring Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia.
Paraschuk described a recent mission Living Word helped fund: a pastor from Mykolaiv organized an evacuation plan where four volunteers from his church drove a minivan to Russian-occupied territory in Berdyansk and Melitopol to evacuate small groups of eight to 10 refugees at a time. The volunteers drove two to three times a week to occupied territory, filled the van up with as many people as possible and drove west towards Odesa, Dnipro, even as far as the Polish and Romanian borders.
Many who are able are choosing to flee their homes and travel west by car or truck, but the journey comes with risk. Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine makes traveling by road through militarized countryside extremely dangerous for civilians. Ukrainian refugees told CNN wartime correspondents in May 2022 that convoys of refugees fleeing Eastern Ukraine are forced to navigate roadblocks and avoid Russian shelling and gunfire, all while rationing food and medical supplies over the span of several days.
The funds raised by Living Word also go towards paying for gas for these evacuation trips as well as funding church-based refugee camps in Odesa and Dnipro. Paraschuk says that refugees, many of whom have gone without their personal belongings or showers for weeks, can stay at the camps and use the resources accumulated there as they make their way westward.
The Entire Pie Chart
Vlad Bilan is a third-year student at the University of Oregon and of Ukrainian descent. He was born in Dnipro, Ukraine, and lived there for two and a half years before his family moved to the U.S. Although he was born in Ukraine, Bilan says he’s “99.9% Americanized.”
Both of Bilan’s parents are in ministry. His dad was a pastor for 17 years but recently became a chaplain. His mom just dropped her chaplaincy to take up pastoring in the Gresham area outside of Portland. Most of the people who made up her congregation were Slavic: Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovian. Bilan says he’s grateful to have grown up in this community and that it helped him and his sister maintain their knowledge of their own culture and language.
Bilan has an uncle in Portland, his grandma lives in an apartment on his parent’s property, and much of his mother’s family lives in North Carolina. Some of his family lives in or near recently Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine: Dnipro, Kyiv and Yevpatoriya, Crimea.
“Thankfully, everything is going okay with them,” Bilan says. “Recently, they’ve been spending a lot of time in the basements of their homes to stay safe.” As of the publication of this story, Bilan says he hasn’t heard any new updates on their situations.
Bilan says his great grandmother has been stubborn, unwilling to leave her house in Kyiv.
“She was like, ‘This is my house,’” Bilan says. “‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.’”
When the conflict started in February 2022, Bilan says, his family experienced a dramatic upheaval of lifestyle. Bilan’s aunts and uncles who are in Ukraine call his parents frequently now, updating them on the war’s progress and how they’re faring.
“If you have pie charts in your mind of things you think about day to day, it almost seems like their entire pie chart was taken up by everything happening in Ukraine,” Bilan says about his parents.
For Bilan, staying informed about the conflict has been a double-edged sword.
“You’re constantly checking in, and it’s just more bad news,” Bilan says. “It was constantly messing with my head.”
Bilan says he’s glad that the public is following along with the war in Ukraine and spreading awareness and support through social media, but he notices a difference in attention to this conflict compared to other conflicts.
“The people who are struggling in my family, this isn’t anything new to the families struggling in Syria or Palestine,” Bilan says. “Other people have been feeling this pain much longer and much harder than our country has.”
The World Health Organization’s emergency coordinator for the Ukrainian refugee response, Paul Spiegel, reported that Ukrainian refugees have generally been well-received by neighboring European countries. War refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, however, faced considerably different and more restrictive immigration policies. According to reporting done by NPR, Poland, a country that has received several million Ukrainian refugees in the past few months, kept thousands of war refugees from the Middle East from entering their borders only a few months prior.
Bilan says that he feels a twinge of guilt distancing himself from the news.
“How privileged am I to say, ‘This is ruining my day, so I’m just going to turn it off,’” Bilan says. “This isn’t helping me, and it isn’t helping me help anybody.”
Away From Home
Bilan’s family and support network live a couple-hours drive from Eugene, but international students at the UO do not have that luxury.
Becky Crabtree is the associate director at the International Student and Scholar Services, and she and her team work with international students as they navigate their visa status, scholarship applications, financial viability and emergency responses to global conflict.
Not only is the ISSS a visa sponsor for international students, it is also an aggregator of emergency financial and legal resources. If a global catastrophe occurs in an international student’s home country, Crabtree and her team will reach out to the students from that country with a list of aid and resources that the ISSS keeps handy.
After the invasion, the departments of the Division of Global Engagement sent resource documents to Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Georgian and Moldovian students with information on how they can apply for financial and legal aid. The document includes links to applications for off-campus employment, federally-sponsored Higher Education Relief Funds and emergency financial aid.
Crabtree says UO’s Ukrainian students took about two months to reach out to the ISSS for support after the invasion started.
“I think the first month or two they were in shock, just trying to figure out how long this was going to last,” Crabtree says. “They were more concerned about their families than their own situation.”
When a crisis strikes an international student’s home country, Crabtree says her team has to think holistically about who in the student population will be affected and in what ways.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Western economies retaliated with sanctions on Russian banks and exports. These actions have devalued the rouble, ultimately causing inflation in Russia to rise to 17.8% in April. The consequences of this high inflation rate is passed down to the Russian consumer, including the parents of Russian international students. Crabtree says about 10 Russian students are negatively impacted by these sanctions, as their families back home have faced increased job insecurity and inflated consumer prices. These international students too have qualified for some of the emergency resources offered by the ISSS.
Even though their unit is responsible for students they sponsor, who are non-immigrants, Crabtree says the ISSS is “always here for immigrants or even U.S. citizens who self-identify with what is going on in other countries.”
“Why does God need to test us?”
Late morning on May 14, Paraschuk finished his service at Living Word. As the congregation filed out of the pews into the church lobby, Victor Muzica collapsed his tripods and packed up his camera equipment. Muzica, a photographer and videographer based out of Clackamas, Oregon, records live streams of worship and services at Living Word to be rebroadcast on YouTube and Facebook. He is also an active member of church services and programs at Living Word.
College and high-school-age church members brewed tea and grabbed some light snacks before joining Paraschuk and Muzica for a Bible study session after the service. Paraschuk led a Russian-language study group, Muzica sat in on the English language group. Today, the topic was Hebrews 11:17-18 — Abraham’s offering of his only son, Isaac, to God.
“Let me ask you this,” Muzica says to the group, “Why does God need to test us?”
A few in the circle raised their hands.
“He’s testing our understanding,” says one.
“It’s about free will,” says another.
The group thought aloud about the message of the verse, and Muzica took the opportunity to share his take:
“God takes responsibility even through our division,” Muzica says. “He will find the solution and lead us to a happy end.”
The group seemed satisfied by this answer as the Bible study came to a close. Church-goers at Living Word were smiling and embracing. If they were worried about the invasion, it didn’t show on their faces or in their voices.
Paraschuk says that Living Word’s official stance is and always will be firmly anti-war, a sentiment he encourages among his congregation. But Russia’s manipulation of information about the war’s progress has obscured the role it’s played in causing this crisis for many at the church. Some members of Living Word only speak Russian, and Paraschuk says that most of the news content they consume is Russian state-sponsored propaganda.
Russian speakers who don’t have access to the internet and who don’t understand English-language news often rely on the narratives constructed by Russian-language news stations for information on the conflict. And on March 4, Russia enacted two laws that criminalize independent war reporting and anti-war protest in Russia, making counter-narratives against the war in Ukraine illegal to report or broadcast and near impossible to disseminate to Russian-language news consumers, according to Human Rights Watch.
In the last two months, the New York Times reviewed more than 50 hours of Russian television footage. They found that Russian news stations have frequently accused Ukrainian officials and Western media outlets of fabricating evidence of Russian war crimes. At the same time, Russian news outlets are spinning their own narrative of the war to frame Ukrainians as the perpetrators of violence against their own people.
Photos of Ukrainian civilians lying dead in Bucha, Kyiv were called a “hoax” and “staged” by Russian tele-journalists. Pro-Russian news media has convinced some Russian-speakers that the conflict has largely been perpetrated by Ukrainian forces. BBC reported that some Ukrainians living in targeted cities called their parents to tell them about the devastation of the shelling, only for their parents to question or even deny their children’s testimonies.
Despite Living Word’s anti-war stance, Paraschuk says that many in the congregation believe that Russia is innocent. He also says that there have been moments of tension between groups in the church whose viewpoints on the war conflict are not compatible. But Paraschuk has been attuned to the misinformation-based division within Living Word since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Because of the influence of Russian state-sponsored media on some of his congregation, Paraschuk says that he avoids discussing specifics about the war during his services. Instead he emphasizes the importance of spreading compassion and sending aid to the victims of tragedy, no matter the causes.
“You just have to say, ‘You have this picture. I have a different picture,’” Paraschuk says. “The reality we will all see after this is over.’”
Paraschuk says that the best he can do as a spiritual leader is cultivate an attitude of compassion at Living Word, regardless of what’s on the news. And to do that, Paraschuk says that the church will continue raising money to support Ukrainians affected by the invasion.
The end of this conflict is not yet in sight, and new humanitarian efforts continue to develop as the people of Ukraine face new and unforeseen challenges.
On May 23, Bilan organized a GoFundMe campaign to help Ukrainian high school student refugees’ move to Oregon to continue their education. With help from his mom, a pastor at Sunnyside Adventist Church in Portland, Bilan’s goal is to raise funds to help pay for those students’ visas, flights, textbooks and other essential items.
The amount of support and unity he sees coming out of the Slavic community in response to this conflict is empowering, Bilan says.
“That ‘let’s go’ attitude and spotlight and worldwide support has been so uplifting,” Bilan says. “Seeing the work that the church and my family have been doing has inspired me to keep helping in any way I can.”