Ukrainian connection leads to humanitarian efforts

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Elina, a refugee from Chernihiv made her way to safety after a Russian attack. From left are Alex and Mila Hoffmann and Elina. See photo of Elina's bombed vehicle on page two. (Photo submitted)

Mila's parents, Sasha and Pasha Mozhoviye, in their apartment wearing heavy coats and using blankets to keep warm after the utilities were destroyed in early March. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Alex Hoffmann, a former Guttenberg resident and Clayton Ridge graduate, and his wife, Mila, who is from Chernihiv, Ukraine have left the comfort and safety of their home in the United States to assist Ukrainian refugees at the refugee intake center at the Nivy Bus Station in Bratislava, Slovakia. Alex is the son of Dr. Jeff and Carolyn Hoffmann of Guttenberg. 

The Guttenberg Press recently sat down with Jeff and Carolyn for an update on Alex and Mila's volunteer efforts. "Alex and Mila looked at different agencies that they thought could be helpful," Carolyn began. "It was a long process. They got in touch with Anna and Kyle Svennungsen (Anna was a nurse practitioner here in Guttenberg prior to their move to Slovakia to serve at a Lutheran mission church). Anna and Kyle encouraged Alex and Mila to come over as soon as possible. Mila speaks both Ukrainian and Russian and was needed to help assist the Ukrainian refugees as they arrive in Slovakia."

Mila and Alex are in close proximity to the Ukrainian border, but are not able to cross due to safety reasons. "Mila's parents are still in Chernihiv. They are not in the best of health – her father is bedridden," Carolyn explained. "They are unable to evacuate and are also very loyal to their homeland."

Dr. Hoffmann described the Russian attack. "The Russian soldiers attack the rural areas surrounding the larger cities first," he said. "They destroy everything in sight and make their way inward, destroying hospitals, and utility services first, historical landmarks, schools, homes, livestock, soccer stadiums – they are indiscriminate."

Carolyn added, "Mila's mother could hear bombing taking place on the outskirts of the city and would go to the basement, along with other apartment residents. Because her husband is bedridden he had to stay upstairs. That didn't last very long. They were told by the landlord that the basement was not a bomb shelter and not a safe place to hide."

"They were without utilities for a month or more – nothing," Dr. Hoffmann reported. "Mila called us and said they finally had Internet and could charge their phones, although the phone charging station was very undependable and ran on a generator. They also had access to bread and water, but had to stand in line to receive it. It was not safe. One person was shelled and killed while standing in line." 

On Feb. 24, Russian armed forces began their invasion on Ukraine "Mila was finally able to facetime her mother on April 8, for the first time since the beginning of the invasion," shared Carolyn. 

Mila and Alex are a day's drive from her parents, but yet a world away. "If you can imagine Wisconsin or Dubuque waging a war against Guttenberg, that is how close Belarus, Russia's ally, is to Chernihiv," Dr. Hoffmann described. "The Ukrainian people are similar to Iowans. They are hardworking families of moderate income devoted to their country. Their climate is also very similar to ours, so if you an imagine being without heat, water, electricity and food, especially during our cooler than normal spring weather – they are suffering."

"A corridor for humanitarian aid from Kiev to Chernihiv was just opened so her parents and other Chernihiv residents are receiving food, water, medicines, and other supplies more often," commented Carolyn. She also added that Mila clings to the hope that she'll be able to visit her parents by the end of May. 

E-mail correspondence

Carolyn and Jeff shared excerpts from their son's e-mail correspondence.

Mila has worked translating at the refugee intake center at the Nivy Bus Station in Bratislava. While she does some translating regarding intake, much of her role is really conversing and listening to peoples' stories. Everybody has had a unique experience and they need to be heard. Dozens of refugees are continuing to come in every day... 

On Monday both Mila and I visited a recently set up Ukrainian community center and conversed with some of the refugees...

Mila also talks to her mom multiple times everyday and her cousins and friends daily. This support is HUGE. It's been really important to be here for Mila's well-being. Being surrounded by people who are going through the same thing as her is needed. She has been able to get quickly integrated into the community here, and that has really picked up her spirits... 

Mila's volunteer work includes translating, greeting and mostly just listening to people's stories... 

This past week we've focused on simply going to coffee shops and cafes by embassies and connecting with people in an informal manner there. Mila converses with refugees awaiting their consulate appointments about their experiences with the war, exchanges phone numbers so that we can assist with any need, and gives hugs and shares tears. Oftentimes, this is what is needed. The refugees we meet are really hesitant to accept offers of money or to even allow us to pay for their coffee. What they really are seeking is someone to care and empathize with their story. They are also under so much stress, that even if they speak/understand English, trying to communicate in English can feel overwhelming, so simply being able to talk to others in their native language relieves a burden for them. It cannot be overstated how important this work is... 

Ukrainian refugees stories

All stories run together a bit but there are common themes...

• The anticipation of a possible bombing is terrifying. Hearing planes fly overhead while you sit in a shelter and knowing the planes are scouting out where to drop a bomb at any moment is a horror that most people can’t imagine. 

• Nearly every person we meet is now part of a split family, either a son, husband, brother, or elderly parent stayed behind while women and children were evacuated. 

• Nearly every person that we talk with has had to be convinced to evacuate by their loved one who stayed behind in Ukraine. Being apart from loved ones who are in a war zone is a constant pain and stress.

• We talked to numerous people who lived in the villages around Chernihiv and Kiev while there was a Russian presence there. They witnessed first-hand the raping of people and indiscriminate killing by Russian soldiers. An especially heart-wrenching story involved a nine-year-old girl who witnessed her parents being killed while the family was driving to evacuate. Her older sister was abducted from the car and the nine-year-old still does not know where her sister is. 

The resilience, compassion, and unity of the Ukrainian people is inspiring. As a world, we need to follow their lead and learn from them ... 

“We are so grateful for the concern, support, and prayers that have been offered for the Ukrainians, Mila and Alex, and us over the past month,” said Jeff and Carolyn. “We ask that you continue to keep them in your prayers as they lend their aid to those who are struggling with the full impact of this devastating invasion.”

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