Fallout of Russian invasion for local Ukrainian community continues

Locals share their stories

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Members of Los Gatos’ extended community have been sharing their stories with the Los Gatan of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the lives of their friends and relatives in jeopardy. The tutor of a local schoolboy was considering a daring trip to Mariupol, a city under heavy bombardment, for a rescue mission. And a Vista Park resident told of hopping on a plane towards Ukraine, in order to save his wife and son.

Meanwhile, Ilya Frank, a Cambrian Park resident of Jewish descent who grew up in Kharkiv—Ukraine’s second biggest city—described how frustrating it’s been getting news from overseas without being able to do much about it.

The software engineer was hoping to enjoy a well-deserved vacation to New York, but instead spent his days glued to his phone, sharing updates about the invasion with friends amid Russian bombardment.

The university where he took programming classes was struck by a missile. And the school he attended as a teenager was hit, too.

“School #17 has a big hole in it now,” he says. “I’m feeling very stressed. I was thankful I didn’t have to work this week.”

It’s strange for him to consider the turn things have taken, since both of his grandfathers fought in the Soviet army in World War II. And some of his friends under fire are ethnically Russian.

“The Russians in Ukraine are suffering just as much,” he says. “The bombs don’t discriminate.”

One friend sent a photo of their son’s bedroom with a window blown off its hinges and glass littering the floor. Luckily the boy wasn’t there during the blast.

damage to boy's room in Ukrainian city
Damage to the room of a friend’s son in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (submitted)

Another friend said he watched two people close to him die before his eyes.

“These are normal people who lived lives just like ours a couple weeks ago,” he said.

Frank says it’s great Silicon Valley is rallying to support people in Ukraine.

“But I wish they didn’t have to do that,” he said, adding the situation in the whole country is tenuous at the moment. “Most of them want to get out and get somewhere safe.”

Dnipro, Ukraine-based Igor Levchuk, who gives double bass lessons to a Daves Avenue Elementary student over the internet, shared his plight in the March 2 edition of the Los Gatan newspaper. Over the past week, his fiancé was able to get out of the country alive—with his mom and sister—although he wasn’t allowed to leave with them.

Levchuk has since turned his attention to the task of finding a way to help his fiancé’s parents leave Mariupol.

“Maybe I can find people who have a car and travel to Mariupol with humanitarian help,” he said Sunday, describing the desperate situation. “Maybe this is my plan.”

But the next day, the International Committee of the Red Cross told the BBC the evacuation route had been covered with mines. At press time reports said a humanitarian convoy bound for the port city had come under fire, despite a ceasefire.

During an interview March 6, Igor Levchuk was worried about his fiancé’s family in Mariupol. (Skype)

Los Gatos accounting firm owner Olga Mavrody, who told the Los Gatan last week about her loved ones in danger in Odessa, said she’s been asking people here to call their congressional representatives to demand America police a no-fly zone over Ukrainian skies.

One of Mavrody’s Ukrainian friends, who lives just east of Los Gatos, in San Jose’s Vista Park neighborhood, told of metaphorically swimming against the tide to make sure his family was out of harm’s way.

Right after the Russian invasion began, Val Khomchenko, 47, grabbed a flight to Poland, to make his way to where his wife and 5-year-old son live, in Odessa.

Khomchenko, who works for Apple, Inc. in the Bay Area but is studying medicine in Ukraine, splits his time between the two countries (he can access better medical care in Ukraine for his boy, who is autistic, he explains).

Some friends picked Khomchenko up at the Polish border and brought him to see his wife.

“She didn’t want to leave,” he said, adding it didn’t take long to convince her. “We packed whatever we could really quickly, fueled the tank and—VROOM!—off we go.”

They formed a four-car convoy, with other women and children trying to escape Ukraine, meeting up with a guide who knew a shortcut to the border.

“The majority of the path was through fields,” he said, of the approximately 12-mile homestretch, which he describes as “probably the scariest off-roading I’ve ever done in my life.”

The convoy goes off-roading across snowy Ukrainian fields, taking a shortcut to the border.

He was in a Hyundai Elantra—not exactly designed for the mission—but he says it held up surprisingly well. The route popped them out right at the Moldovan border around midnight.

The family had acted so quickly that there weren’t really any lines at this crossing, yet. But there was another obstacle.

While the other convoy members were able to leave, the border guard wouldn’t let Khomchenko pass, despite his American citizenship.

“He was very trigger happy, with a machine gun, and a scary face,” he said. “At that point I felt like…I’m not going to go and fight with this guy, showing my US passport.

And his wife didn’t want the family to get split up. So they turned around, beginning their hunt for another exit.

At one point they were stopped by military police who told them they were violating a curfew order. So, they got a hotel room and tried to sleep for a few hours.

It was difficult for their son, given his disability, to be stuck in the car for so long, Khomchenko said. Happily, the border crossing they tried only took 10 hours—much longer than their first attempt, but a fraction of current wait times.

After making it to Moldova, getting to Romania was relatively easy, he remembers. They could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Once out of Ukraine, Khomchenko sent Apple CEO Tim Cook an email to let him know they’d escaped. He also asked Cook to take action. It was about 4am Pacific time when he sent the message, but just two-and-a-half hours later he got a very welcome response, he remembers.

In the email, Cook revealed Apple was cutting ties with Russia and would give $2 for every $1 donated to assist eligible humanitarian causes.

“He sent it as a private message to me, but he also sent exactly the same message to the team,” Khomchenko said, reflecting on the support he felt from his employer. “It makes me feel (like) I’m blessed to work under the leadership of the person with such a big heart.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].

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