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The mother of an Arlington resident fled the terror of war in Ukraine. But another struggle begins

Displaced Ukrainians on a Poland-bound train bid farewell in Lviv, western Ukraine, Tuesday, March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Bernat Armangue/AP
Displaced Ukrainians on a Poland-bound train on Tuesday bid farewell in Lviv, western Ukraine. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Arlington resident Olena Prokhorenko Ogiozee tried to convince her mom to leave. Like many Ukrainians, 68-year-old Nataliya Prokhorenko didn’t want to abandon her city or country

But earlier this month, a church friend offered to drive her from the city of Zhytomyr in northwestern Ukraine to the Polish border. Prokhorenko, who’s now in Germany, spoke with KERA via a messaging app about what those last few days in Ukraine were like and her journey to safety.

Prokhorenko, 68, is one of more than 3.5 million people who have fled Ukraine since the war began in what the UN Refugee Agency has described as “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” Like many who left with only the clothes on their backs and a handful of items, she didn’t know where she would end up after crossing the Polish border. For refugees, the future is filled with questions about where their new home will be and whether they’ll ever be able to return to their country.

Despite the heartache of leaving Ukraine, Prokhorenko says it’s better than the alternative. Staying in Zhytomyr meant constant reminders of imminent danger. While many Ukrainians hid in subway stations and other makeshift bomb shelters, Prokhorenko stayed inside her fifth-floor apartment.

War's thunder

“It was nighttime and people were sleeping and when you heard this bombing [the] first time, you just cannot understand,” she said. “Is it [a] thunderstorm? What is it?”

The loud thuds and explosions haunted her and she could hardly sleep. She stocked her bathroom with food and water, and she turned off the gas and lights. All she could do, she said, was pray.

Despite the huge risk she faced, she couldn’t help thinking about the hundreds of families huddled underground.

“I am alone and if something happen, it’s only my life,” she said. “But you always think about people who are with kids and to see this terrible situation, to see your children crying, screaming, it’s very hard.”

Fellow church members called to check on her. A friend offered to let her stay in her basement. Finally, another friend from church managed to convince her to ride with him and another family to the city of Rivne, where they spent the night, and then to the Polish border.

The family she rode with had recently fled their village and they were visibly traumatized. The children were trembling and crying. Their parents called neighbors left behind, only to learn some had been killed.

“Their village was [occupied] by Russian tanks. They [Russian soldiers] took everything,” she recalled the family telling her. “They took food. They took people from houses. They took their houses. They killed a lot of people and [the family] just were running.”

Nataliya Prokhorenko in happier times.
Courtesy of Olena Prokhorenko Ogiozee
Nataliya Prokhorenko in happier times.

The next chapter?

After an overnight stay in Rivne, Prokhorenka took a bus filled with families to the border. Long lines of cars and people waited to cross. When she finally did, she was overcome by emotion.

“We [were] just in tears because these people, officer, volunteers, teenagers, kids, they welcome us,” she said. “They hug us.”

Volunteers handed them hot tea, chocolates and other candies. Prokhorenko stayed with a host family about 120 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Now, she’s in Germany with another host family but doesn’t know how long she’ll have to stay in the country. Her daughter, Olena Ogiozee, said before the war, her mom had applied for U.S. permanent residency and is now waiting for an appointment with the U.S. embassy in Frankfurt.

Ogiozee said she wants to bring her mom to the U.S. Prokhorenko would like that too, but ultimately wants to return to Ukraine. For now, she prays. And she hopes.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.