A Ukrainian family’s fight for freedom and independence

A first-hand account from a former exchange student at Moorhead High School in Moorhead, Minn., from 2005 to 2006 – Mariya Puriy

It was 4 a.m., Feb. 24. Most were still asleep; others awakened to start their day’s work. It was just another day in Ukraine — until it wasn’t. 

Awakened by a sound that will likely haunt her for years to come, Mariya Puriy, a Ukraine citizen from Lviv, will never forget hearing the first bomb drop in Kharkiv, a big city in far East Ukraine. 

Heart-wrenching family decisions 

Originally, when there was only word that the war would start, her family agreed to stay in Lviv, unless they absolutely needed to leave. 

“I have two brothers, younger and older. My older brother said that ‘if anything happens, our Plan B is to leave the country,’ meaning the women of my family,” Puriy said. 

Her brother’s wife, their one-year-old daughter and Puriy left the third day after the first bombs dropped and decided to wait a few more days to see if things would settle. Then, on the third day, their Plan B went into full effect. Now their mission was to get to Cyprus. 

“The first bombarding happened at 5 a.m. and my sister-in-law woke up and called me and she’s like ‘are we leaving?’ and I said, ‘let’s just wait for a couple of days, maybe things will hash down, maybe he will stop,’”said Puriy. “But things didn’t stop, and on day three when they got uglier and nastier and the first civilians were killed, we decided to leave the country.”

Many families planned for the men to remain and protect the home while the women left to keep children and other family members safe. So, Puriy took her sister-in-law and her niece to a car where they met with more women in her family.

Seeking refuge from Russia’s invasion

The women and children made it to the Poland border within an hour. Although the trip there did not take long, once they arrived, they spent the next 53 hours on the border in their car. 

“The experience was definitely unpleasant,” said Puriy. “Hygiene and food-wise, it was quite difficult. We were 10 kilometers from the border, but we had to wait because a lot of people were fleeing. It was very unregulated, and it was difficult on the first days.”

Amid all the chaos, people from the surrounding area helped those at the border. They provided hot water, tea and food to everyone there.

“I was amazed at my nation and how supportive they are in a time of crisis,” said Puriy. “I was super grateful for that, and I always will be.”

The time finally came for the group to get across the border. That’s when Puriy’s friends, who lived in Poland, reached out to her and offered help.

“I asked them for a place to stay right after we crossed the border so we can at least sleep for a couple of hours because I didn’t sleep for the first 72 hours at all,” said Puriy. “That was very difficult because, first of all, I have issues with anxiety and war and conflict and the threat to your life doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with not sleeping for so long.”

They stayed at her friend’s apartment along with others who were also seeking refuge. Because of the number of people staying in the small space, Puriy slept on the floor. 

“I didn’t care because it was actually super comfortable in the sleeping bag. After the car, you could actually stretch and you could sleep,” said Puriy. “So, I slept for like three hours. And I was super grateful. Even for that.”

Currently, Puriy is the only family member that is still able to work at her job. While her family is fighting a different front, she is working to fight the information war with Russia as well as contributing money to the Army and supporting her family.

“I’m dealing with propaganda and basically fighting the info-war with Russia because it is quite difficult to deal with them because of the way they treat information and how they spread misinformation,” said Puriy. “I am trying to do everything on my side not to let them spread this type of nonsense and lies and keep people and the world informed of what is actually happening.”

The group stayed in Warsaw for a couple of days until they were able to book their flight to Cyprus, an island country in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. They arrived about a week later. 

“We decided not to stay in Poland, although it would be much more comfortable and closer to home,” said Puriy. “A lot of people that are much less fortunate were traveling from Ukraine and escaping, so we thought we’d go a bit further and leave more space in Poland for people who do not have anywhere else to go to.”

After arriving in Cyprus, the group met up with Puriy’s mother who left on a business trip before the war started. 

“My mom, sister-in-law, niece and I are currently in Cyprus. We will remain here until we board the plane for home in mid-May, and unless something terrible happens, we will return to Lviv,” said Puriy. “My grandma, and both of my brothers remain in Ukraine, as well as my three uncles.”

Little sleep, uncertain shelter, safety, their children’s well-being, leaving those you love and your home behind — these troubles travel along in the minds of the women who fled. 

“Not gonna lie for every minute we were driving away from our home, I really wanted to go back,” said Puriy. “I was like ‘this is a stupid thought, if I’m going to die, I just want to die at home, at least.’ It’s stupid. It’s very dramatic. But actually, in this type of situation, it does run through your mind, over and over again. I never thought I would actually live through something like that.”

For Puriy, her heart is conflicted. Even with all the danger she still wondered if she should have stayed in Ukraine. But the risk to their lives was imminent.

“I can definitely say that even for those first three days that I stayed in the country, the feeling that you can be shot or killed anytime now is terrifying and waking up to these alarms at 4 a.m. that you have to run to the basement or run to the nearest shelter is terrifying,” Puriy said.

Family in Ukraine

“Well, to talk about the bright side of things, I am very proud of my family,” Puriy said.

While most of the women in Puriy’s family decided to leave the country for safety reasons, the men and her grandmother decided to stay back and protect their home in Ukraine.

There, they host families who are still within Western Ukraine, and those who flee from Eastern and Northern Ukraine. 

Her eldest brother joined the territorial forces of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, their armed forces on the local initiative level. Since he lives on the military facility in the city, he opens his house to host families seeking shelter. Currently, he has hosted up to six families from Kyiv.

Puriy’s younger brother is also a part of the force but has not been called by the military. Instead, he filters between volunteering for the National Scout’s Organization of Ukraine (Plast), which helps refugees and internally displaced peoples. He helps at the Red Cross and spends nights at the railway station where refugees wait to get on a train to Poland who may be looking for a place to stay.

While some men, like Puriy’s brothers, are headed towards the fight, others are fleeing. She explains that there is a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine because of the amount of internally displaced people who are running from war. 

“Not everybody can fight, not everybody is strong enough to do so emotionally, so they run,” said Puriy. “We have issues right now, because a lot of men run from the central, eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. A lot of men in my region of Ukraine are wondering, ‘why do we have to go and defend you guys while you are running?’ There’s, of course, a minority of people who are running, but they’re still there, you know, and it actually causes internal conflicts and some minor mood changes.” 

Who is this brother you speak of?

“For me, historically, we never were brotherly nations,” said Puriy. “They’re saying that we’re brotherly nations, right? Yeah. Well, if you dig into our history, we never were. They always slaughtered our nation in every possible point of history when they could.”

Ukraine has struggled with its independence for centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the two Ukrainian states proclaimed their union in early 1919. However, this independence was short-lived as they found themselves in a three-way struggle against troops from both Poland and Russia, according to history.com

The Ukrainian government became allies with Poland but could not stand up against the “Soviet assault.” In 1922, Ukraine became a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which eventually encompassed 15 republics. It was not until 1991 with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. that Ukraine regained its independence.

“We were forcefully made to join the union in 1922. We were killed, we were massacred,” said Puriy. “Even in 1932 and 1933 when 10 million people were starved to death in eastern Ukraine during Holodomor, that was typical of the Soviets. And I was like, ‘Okay, what brotherly nation are you talking about?’”

Statista found that about 83% of Russians support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. An increase in popularity started at the end of February during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Chalk art depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Photo Courtesy | Julia Ressler

“I don’t get how anybody could support something along those lines. But obviously, that’s just the thing, because usually, there’s a lot of people saying, ‘well, people are not doing that, Putin is doing that,’ but their soldiers are still shooting, not Putin personally,” said Puriy. “Their tanks, being driven by their people, are crossing our borders and killing our people. Their jets are crossing our borders and shooting our people and bombarding our cities.”

In support of Ukraine, big companies have pulled out of Russia to show that the plight of the Ukrainian people is being seen and heard around the world. 

“There are people worried about not getting to eat at McDonald’s anymore, or that they’re not going to shop at Victoria’s Secret,” said Puriy. “They’re queuing to get the last items in Victoria’s Secret or IKEA before it shuts down while our people are being killed.”

As of April 20, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner recorded 5,121 civilian casualties in the country — 2,224 killed and 2,897 injured.  

“There’s also this disgusting feeling that I have of disgust that I never felt in my life,” said Puriy. “And literally, I will never forgive them. If anyone sane, sees how the child dies because of dehydration, or how a little child boy loses his legs because of a bomb, or if you see that almost 100 kids now were killed, they would never forgive either.”

The OHCHR says most of the recorded civilian casualties were from the use of explosive weapons with a wide-impact area. They also believe that the actual casualties could be “considerably higher” than recorded.

“While they’re quiet, their actions cause mass burials in the city of Mariupol because people cannot bury their friends and relatives, and that’s shocking,” said Puriy. “I don’t think that there are so many jails in Russia that can be filled with people who deserve to go. I know that they must be afraid, right? Because they think that they will be hit, or they will go to jail, or they will be tortured? They will be anyway because the society there has been destroyed long before because they live under a dictator. And that’s actually their choice. That’s their choice. Their silence is our death.”

A proud, unified nation

Among all the tragedy Ukraine has faced, they have impressed the world with their strength and bravery. 

“I am extremely proud of our nation. That is something that supports me, that is something that makes me keep on moving and doing everything I can to just end this war that Russia waged on us. We are so strong,” said Puriy. “I’m so amazed at how united we are even though there are a lot of differences between us at times of peace.”

The amount of volunteer work is also being recognized by Ukrainians and other countries. 

“They say they’ll have it done in five minutes and get it done in two,” said Puriy. “So, the volunteers inspire me, our Army inspires me. I’m amazed even at my tiny story of the border passing how people came to our cars with warm water, offering food, helping however they can. And those are just small villages where people don’t actually have that much money, and they gave everything they have.” 

Not every Ukrainian can physically be at the front lines fighting with weapons, but they still help spread the word and correct the wrongs about misinformation that is being spread throughout the media.

“I’m amazed even at the memes that we are creating because we are doing everything we can just to get one laugh out of the person that one day, because otherwise, there’s just this big dark hole that’s just going to suck you in,” Puriy said.

Gratitude, hope and help

“I am grateful to all of our allies that are helping us out. I know there’s a lot of talk going on that NATO does have to close the sky, but I do realize that they’re helping us in other ways and that they didn’t betray us,” said Puriy. “They are helping us out however they can. I know that they don’t want to risk starting World War III, but, from our perspective, it is already here.”

Protest in support of Ukraine.
Photo Courtesy | Julia Ressler

Puriy provides three big strategies that are working to help Ukraine: 1) Continuing to put sanctions on Russia, 2) donating to Ukraine’s save-life fund that purchases helmets and military equipment to make them as safe as possible and 3) fighting the information warfare and Russian propaganda by sharing the truth at community events or posting on social media. 

“Unfortunately, breaking that wall of misinformation and propaganda is very hard. It’s like this huge ice wall and all from the Game of Thrones, right? That you cannot breakthrough, because they’ve been raised in this informational vacuum of believing that ‘the United States is the enemy’ and ‘they are using Ukraine to destroy Russia,’ or ‘the United States is using whatever Eastern European country to destroy Russia.’”

Through all the terror, Puriy is still hopeful for the future and is grateful for any act, big or small, that will support the Ukrainian people at this difficult time to help end this atrocity.

“Even if a prayer or other small acts of support are very, very, very important. We need to know that people outside actually see us for who we are,” said Puriy. “And, most importantly, see the actions that Russia is currently performing on our territories that are absolutely insane and inhumane. We need to see that people see that, that we’re not alone.”

How do we help them?
The link below shares multiple ways different countries can help by donating, volunteering, sending humanitarian supplies, hosting Ukrainians, etc. A few dollars can make a difference if we all pitch in.

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