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Ukrainian mother protects daughter in Minneapolis as husband fights Russians at home

Solomiia Kuchma clings to her mother at the gates of Lake Harriet Community School. After her father leaves them in Ukraine to fight the Russians, the little girl with golden pigtails cannot bear to lose another relative far away in a foreign land.

She sobbed every morning at the Southwest Minneapolis school for weeks, even as her mother, Nataliia Kuchma, kept saying, “I won’t leave you, it’s just kindergarten. “

The smiling secretary brings 5-year-old Solomiia inside for breakfast, bringing out teddy bears and Play-Doh to comfort her while Nataliia stares out the window. Solomiia looks back again and again – is her mother still there? Natalia nods. She sends kisses to her daughter. She nods. Solomiia is on the verge of tears for a few moments, but she doesn’t cry anymore. As class is about to begin, she runs to her mother for a final hug.

Nataliia and her daughter are among 700 Ukrainians who fled to Minnesota following the Russian invasion. While Ukraine prohibits men of fighting age from leaving the country, most of the country’s refugees are women and children. The war has made Nataliia, 36, a de facto single mother for the first time, leaving behind everything she has ever known to keep her daughter away from Russian attacks.

“He stays and defends our country,” Nataliia says of her husband. “I…defend our daughter.”

‘It has begun’

They didn’t believe it at first.

As news of the Russian aggression intensified, friends urged Nataliia’s family to prepare as they lived in the Ukrainian town of Sumy, about 25 miles west of the Russian border.

Then frantic calls from colleagues came in early February 24.

“Natalia, it has begun. The Russians are on our territory.

She was a doctor; her husband ran an online business. Their decision to flee was as quick as it was heartbreaking. “We know that the Russians … want to destroy Ukraine,” Nataliia said. “And if that happens, we have to escape very far from here.”

She piled into a car with her husband, daughter and sister Yaroslava. But the Kuchmas feared taking highways and a direct western route through Ukraine, including via the capital Kyiv. They also feared that Russian attacks would compromise the bridges they would need to cross the Dnipro. They followed a winding route south, often encountering narrow, poor quality roads.

More than 1,000 kilometers later, they found refuge with relatives in western Ukraine. Of course, it would soon be over. But a week passed. Then two. On the third, her husband decided to leave to join the armed forces.

A photo they took the day he left shows the family of three smiling calmly, as if the war did not separate them. But when the camera went blank, Solomiia sobbed.

“Don’t go,” she begged her father. “I love you. I want you to stay with me.”

He could not. A few days later, Nataliia, Solomiia and Yaroslava crossed the border into Slovakia, where they exhausted their savings by staying in a refugee home for six months. Through a series of people who knew people, they connected with a Minneapolis couple, Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk and Thomas Cronk, who agreed to sponsor them through Uniting for Ukraine, offering Ukrainians a way to stay in the United States. United up to two years. humanitarian parole.

The Kuchmas arrived in Minneapolis on September 13 with one bag each.

lessons from america

“Anyone have any idea what Minneapolis means?” asks the teacher.

Natalia looks at the multiple choice list.

“Great water,” she guesses.

“It’s actually the city of water.”

Nataliia, her sister, and her daughter attend their weekly class for Ukrainian refugees at the Ukrainian American Community Center, where teacher Cathy Mann orients them to life in America. Mann asks his students – six women, two children and a man – to share their observations of their new country. Nataliia says children here have more say in how they look and dress. “The child understands that I am free,” she says. “I have my dreams.”

Others note that Americans enjoy much more “personal space” in public. Some of the differences between nations baffle them. Why are US stores starting to sell Christmas items months earlier? Why are so many people in such a powerful country homeless on the streets?

“Americans don’t like taxes. … Many other countries tax more and have more social safety nets for people and that can affect you when you apply for welfare benefits,” Mann told the class. “You’ll see there is, but there’s usually not enough to sustain you if you’re not working at all.”

Nataliia once left her apartment at the start of each day to teach medical students and help hospital patients in Ukraine. But a few mornings after her class in Minnesota, she wonders about a mishmash of letters about her eligibility for welfare and food stamps at the kitchen table in her sponsors’ Fulton neighborhood home. .

She was approved for nutritional assistance, but why did the county deny her cash assistance? She needs money; she has not yet received her work permit. His medical license does not apply here; she is considering a job as a nurse or medical assistant.

Nataliia phones Hennepin County. She waits on hold for 10 minutes.

The woman on the phone tells her that she is eligible for Minnesota’s Family Investment Program, the state’s work-benefit program, but was denied earlier because she didn’t had not yet 30 days of residency. Now that a few weeks have passed, she would receive $357 in cash and an additional $110 for a housing subsidy.

“The cash benefits I just approved will go to your EBT card,” the woman said.

“So will I receive both perks on the same card?”

“Yes, you will.”

“We are fighting for our country”

Solomiia learns that rockets are killing Ukrainians. Nataliia tells him that Russia is their enemy.

“Will my father be alive? Solomia asks.

“Yes,” her mother replies. “He will be alive.”

Nataliia tries to video chat with her husband Volodymyr Kuchma every morning, even though they sometimes go days without speaking when the internet falters in rural Ukraine.

“Of course I miss my daughter and my wife. It’s hard when they’re very far away from here, but I’m glad they’re safe,” Volodymyr told the Star Tribune in one such call. . He stayed because “it’s my duty…and as a man, I have to protect my country to save it for the future, to save it when my wife and daughter return.”

He is near Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine – home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and the site of heavy missile strikes – and works as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist disabling bombs Russians.

“I really believe that this war will be won and everything will be fine because we are right,” Volodymyr says. “We are fighting for our homeland, we are fighting for our families, for our daughters and sons and their future. And the Russians are fighting – I don’t know what. About the empire, about their ambitions, about Putin. … They are fighting for nothing.”

That day, 31-year-old Yaroslava is in tears at the revelation that her childhood friend, a Ukrainian sniper, was killed in war, and a heaviness settles over the Kuchmas. They also fear that many will be left without electricity or heating; her boyfriend’s father sleeps in a jacket. A fitness instructor in Sumy, Yaroslava still teaches her former clients online workouts, but they sometimes miss classes to seek refuge in bomb shelters.

Nataliia knows that some people are growing weary of the Ukrainian cause amid soaring inflation and the energy crisis in Europe. But if her homeland falls, Nataliia says, she thinks other countries will be next.

“Putin never stops, like Stalin…and Hitler. It’s typical of those dictators. No, they don’t stop. Why do people think that if Ukraine falls, it will be normal?” Natalia shakes her head. “Nope.”

Amid their conflicts, Solomiia finds joy on Halloween. She exclaims “pumpkin!” at the sight of every pumpkin they pass. It’s among the handful of English words she learned, and the girl can’t wait to dress up as a cat and do tricks or treats for the first time.

She made a few American friends at school, but she can still be slow to socialize, even among Ukrainians. At the Ukrainian American Community Center, Solomiia takes shape with her parents and the cat they left behind. Someone sticks it on the wall next to pictures of the war made by other children: a fighter plane, weapons, a popular meme of a Ukrainian tractor pulling a Russian tank. But when a man tries to clap her hands, she clings to her mother. When Nataliia urges her to join other children in a Ukrainian dance class, she burrows into her mother’s side.

This week, Nataliia is using her cash aid to buy warmer clothes in Solomiia.

The Kuchma sisters have a family tradition of going to their parents’ village to help plant and harvest potatoes, bringing home a hearty bundle. Now they use their food stamps to buy potatoes at the supermarket. They mash them up to serve with beef patties for Thursday night dinner. Yaroslava talks about her renewed will to be happy, here right now, in the midst of so much loss.

As the Kuchmas eat, they ponder Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech that day, lambasting the West. Could they really believe his claim that he would not use nuclear weapons against Ukraine? Were they headed for World War III?

Solomiia suddenly bangs her fist on the table and shouts in Ukrainian.

“Russian soldiers, go [back] in Russia!”

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