By Brooke Shepherd
The large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for about three months. Millions of people have fled Ukraine, seeking refuge in neighboring European countries, along with the United States, according to data from the United Nations. Larisa and Violetta Ovdienko are a mother and daughter pair who traveled to Minnesota from the town of Kaniv to escape the war. They arrived in Hastings on May 4 after a long journey. The pair spoke through an interpreter, Oksana Kovalenko, who herself moved from Ukraine to Hastings several years ago. In Ukraine, Kaniv is about 60 miles southeast of the capital city of Kyiv. Larisa Ovdienko said it’s like Hastings in many ways, including population size, the freshly plowed fields, proximity to the river, and the types of forests all remind her of home. The Ovdienkos are members of a church in Ukraine that has a sister church, Calvary Christian church, in Hastings. The Ovdienkos have been involved in the church for many years and know a lot of the Hastings members as well. Larisa and Violetta Ovdienko are currently staying with a woman from Calvary Christian church. “Around March 7, they realized it was too unsafe in Ukraine, due to all the air raids and sirens going off. So, at 3 a.m., they decided to leave,” said Kovalenko. Larisa Ovdienko said it was her husband who made the decision for her and her daughter to leave the country. There had been many reports of Russian troops assaulting women, as well as many air raid sirens going off frequently. Also, Kaniv has one of the largest hydroelectrical stations in Ukraine, making it a potential target for bombing. The Ovdienkos had some friends who were planning on leaving the country as well and were able to provide a ride. It took the group two days to get to the border of Ukraine and Poland, and they took only back roads to avoid possible attacks from Russian soldiers.
They also couldn’t drive through the night due to curfews that were in place and had to sleep in shelters along the way.
According to Larisa Ovdienko, while heading to the border, all the road signs and city names were covered in duct tape so that Russian soldiers would have a harder time finding their way.
Once they made it across the border, “They were overwhelmed by the warm welcome from Poland. Volunteers told them where to go, and got them food and shelter,” said Kovalenko.
The pair stayed in Poland for a day, and then met up with some friends and headed to Germany. Larisa Ovdienko said the people they encountered throughout the trip were very generous and helpful. In Germany, they were provided with a condominium to stay in with several other friends who had left Ukraine. They were able to receive medical treatment while in Germany, which they said was graciously provided to them free of charge.
Larisa Ovdienko already had a tourist visa to enter the U.S. from before the war. Her daughter was able to obtain one while in Germany, though everyone else they were staying with was denied a visa.
“Larisa cried every day in Germany; it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like home,” said Kovalenko. “She knows a lot of people from here [Hastings] and has many friends.”
The Ovdienkos have spoken with their family daily, and they have heard that things are somewhat quieter in Kaniv currently. Larisa Ovdienko left her husband, two adult sons, an adopted daughter, and a cat. Her daughter Violetta also left her fiancé. Their family in Ukraine has continued to help other people displaced within the country, giving them a place to stay for long or short term. The Ukraine State Border Guard Service has prohibited men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
The Calvary Christian church has been contributing aid, according to Larisa Ovdienko, by sending money to Ukraine to help purchase food and resources. Larisa Ovdienko said her biggest worry is the thought of never going home.
“Only God’s prayer has given them relief in those feelings. They were questioning their decision of coming here, thinking maybe they should’ve stayed home and died as a family,” said Kovalenko.
Before the war, Larisa Ovdienko was a music teacher. She worked at an art school instructing students on an instrument called a bandura. It has 55 strings and is the national instrument of Ukraine. She also was heavily involved in the community church and sang in the choir.
Violetta Ovdienko, who is 21 years old, had recently graduated college with a degree in music, and wanted to pursue a further degree, though that has been paused. She was also planning a wedding for July and had to leave her fiancé the day before they had scheduled to complete the paperwork to be officially married.
“She misses home very much, especially her fiancé,” said Kovalenko. “He hasn’t been very emotional, but recently he has admitted to her it’s been very hard for him.”
Larisa and Violetta Ovdienko said they deeply appreciate the help and sense of community they have found in Hastings and hope to be able to return home sooner than later.