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'I wish I could be there to defend’ — Ukrainians in NYC look on in horror as as Russian forces surround Kyiv

Ukrainian immigrant Iryna Rozdolska says she’s lucky that her three young kids can sleep safely at night. She lives on Staten Island, but she’s been getting feverish dispatches from loved ones and colleagues in Kyiv as invading Russian forces bear down on the capital.

“It’s strange for me that I’m here,” she said. “I feel like I belong [there] right now.”

Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans in New York have watched the situation in their home country spiral out of control over the past week. As Russian invaders appeared to circle the capital Friday, some officials predicted it could fall into their hands within days. For many Ukrainian immigrants to New York, the crisis has triggered the helpless pain of being half a world away from the people they love in a time of disaster.

Rozdolska’s old colleagues from acting school have enlisted to fight and are sending her descriptions of the front lines. Friends who are pregnant or have young babies have told her they’re taking cover in subway stations and basements. Her elderly parents live in a 16-story apartment tower. Her bedridden father is unable to evacuate to safer ground and her mother refuses to leave his side. There’s nothing Rozdolska can do to protect them.

“We don’t have the support of the world right now,” she said. “We are fighting on our own and it doesn’t have to be like that.”

At the Ukrainian National Home, a banquet hall in the East Village, elected officials and Ukrainian community leaders gathered Friday afternoon in solidarity with Ukraine and called for more military support from the west. Alla Kletsun, a 60 year-old East Village resident, choked back tears describing how her sister-in-law, who had just given birth in Kyiv, was now taking shelter with her newborn in a basement. She said her sister-in-law’s husband is prepared to fight to defend the capital.

“They don’t want to move. They will stay. They will stay there and fight,” Kletsun said. “I can’t even breathe to describe what we’re feeling right now.”

“I wish I could be there to defend, honestly,” she added.

Ukrainian-American New Yorkers described the artists, the filmmakers and musicians they know still in Ukraine, who’ve put aside their professions to take up arms in defense of their homeland. New Jersey resident and former United Nations diplomat Oleksandr Matsuka said his step-son, the frontman for the rock band Antytila, had enlisted the nation’s Territorial Defense Forces, the last line of protection between Russian invaders and the capital of Kyiv.

“They said, ‘OK guys look, the situation changed. We have to lay down our guitars and take assault rifles,” he said. “Everyone is trying to do whatever he can.”

Though many Ukrainians are determined to stay and fight, thousands more have fled to neighboring nations for safety.

Among those was Petro Rondiak, husband of Ukrainian-American artist Ola Rondiak, who was receiving updates of her husband’s whereabouts from the family’s Westchester apartment.

The couple lives most of the time in Kyiv but Rondiak was traveling in the U.S. for work and delayed her return to Ukraine due to the spiraling crisis. On Thursday morning, Petro Rondiak awoke before dawn and drove west to the border, abandoning his car in traffic along the way, and walking the remaining distance on foot, his wife said.

He waited at the border fence for hours as men came to drop off their sobbing wives and children and returned east to defend their homeland. Finally across the border, her husband described hundreds of volunteers prepared to welcome them, with tea and sandwiches, singing Ukrainian songs and waving Ukrainian flags. Her husband was still traveling through Romania searching for a safe place where Ola could rejoin him.

“We’ve just been watching Ukraine blossom into such a beautiful democracy with hardworking people that are proud of their culture,” Rondiak said. “This is the next stage of war.”

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