Ames community members have cautious hope three months into war in Ukraine, look to directly aid

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

The past three months have been filled with worries, restlessness and uncertainty about the future for Ukrainians' loved ones in Iowa — combined with a drive to donate, raise awareness and volunteer in every possible way.

Feb. 24, 2022 — the start in local time in Ukraine of Russia's all-out war against the country — changed their lives, as well as of people all over the world.

Irina Bassis, a Ukrainian American who is the assistant director of the Lectures Program at Iowa State University, said, "My weeks and months ahead are certainly colored with cautious hope that victory will eventually come," that foreign nations won't stop helping Ukraine fight and that the war won't drag on.

"Yet, when I think of all the human sacrifices and losses, of destroyed hopes and killed children, my heart breaks again and again," Bassis added.

Even as Western leaders assess that Russia's invasion continues to lose momentum, a number of people approaching two-thirds of Ukraine's population have found themselves displaced by the war or stuck in the worst-affected areas, according to United Nations estimates.

Travel to Ukraine from Iowa seems impossible, for now. Ukrainian Americans and others from Iowa with extensive ties to the nation do find hope in the level of global support they've seen.

They just hope it lasts.

For subscribers:Worries, miracles between friends amid war in Ukraine: ‘You understand this friend cares about you.’

What living with months of war is like

Bassis was starting and ending every day at the beginning of March by checking to see that people she knew and loved were still alive — a mentally exhausting habit.

She's more optimistic now — limiting her time on social media helps. "I know now how my friends and my family are doing, where they are and what they need."

Bassis is still worried about her mom, Maryia, in Cherkasy, who's moved in with her brother, Igor.

Her mom has a defective heart valve — a fixable problem in the United States, but surgery in Ukraine is "out of the question," given the circumstances.

There was a time when it wasn't clear her mom was going to pull through. "Although I am glad she’s better now, I am afraid to think 'what if' and whether I’ll be able to travel to Ukraine today," Bassis said.

Her brother is still a dentist, still seeing patients in a city flooded with people displaced from other parts of the country. Igor and his wife, Olena — who manages his practice — often bike to work because of widespread gasoline shortages.

STOYANKA, UKRAINE - MAY 07: A worker is seen on the construction site of the new bridge, on May 7, 2022 in Stoyanka, Ukraine. Following Russia's retreat from areas around the Ukrainian capital, signs of normal life have returned to Kyiv, with residents taking advantage of shortened curfew hours, businesses reopening, and foreign countries promising to return their diplomats. (Photo by Alexey Furman/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775809870 ORIG FILE ID: 1240517350

The husbands of two of Lesya Hassall's friends from Chernihiv are on the frontlines — leaving two families who endured days and nights of sheltering from bombs with the same choice of whether to put international borders between husband and wife, mom and dad.

Hassall, a Ukrainian American, works for Iowa State's Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country.

For subscribers:Manufacturer sees 'unprecedented' body armor demand, but Iowa police departments not worried

Hassall's friend Ivanna Lipatnikova and Lipatnikova's two young children are being hosted by a French couple in a small village outside Paris. 

Her friend Anechka Beregova is living with her 14-year-old in an apartment in Lviv that belongs to Hassall's family. Beregova's husband was able to make a surprise visit from the front for his daughter's recent birthday — making it to Lviv just in time to spend a couple hours in a shelter again. 

Beregova will not leave Ukraine without her husband, Hassall said.

Her own family — including sister Maya and brother-in-law Ihor — remain relatively safe in western Ukraine.

Maya and Ihor had turned their textile factory that previously made suits toward making camouflage nets for tanks, and now they're making military uniforms for Ukrainian soldiers. Hassall said the company also donates food and other supplies to the army.

In the city of Vynohradiv, where Hassall said there have been air raid alarms four or five times a day, Maya and Ihor's 22-year-old son never takes chances and always takes his 10-month-old son into a shelter for each alarm — others don't bother anymore to seek shelter.

Sasha (L), 4, a son of a family that decided not to evacuate, sits on his bed in the basement shelter in Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine, on May 15, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Jodi Cornell's 17-year-old godson, Ilya, will be starting his first year of university this fall in Prague, Czech Republic. Ilya's mom, Valya — whom Cornell considers a sister — moved there before her son turns 18.

Cornell is the study abroad director for Iowa State's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and has extensively lived and worked in Ukraine over the years — studying abroad in college, serving in the Peace Corps, working afterwards, visiting a lot before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Valya does not want to live in Ukraine again until Russian President Vladimir Putin is out of power. "She doesn’t believe this will fully end if Putin is still the leader of Russia, as he can attack again at any time," Cornell said.

For subscribers:'Consequences you have never seen': How to read Putin's nuclear threats

Cornell said the decision to leave was still difficult for her — Valya's husband, Andriy, is in Ukraine, "and she is a patriot of Ukraine, but did not want her son called up to fight."

The most recent news that Cornell had heard from another friend of his, Inna, was that she, her young daughter and husband had "a successful day of mushroom hunting. Carefully — where they knew there were no landmines."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region had been going on since 2014, so Cornell said "living in Ukraine during a war is not new to them, it just got a lot closer to many more Ukrainians over the past few months."

Since Feb. 24, more than 62% of Ukraine's population of approximately 43.5 million people has been forced to move by the war or might like to, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: more than 6.2 million people fled the country as refugees; another 8 million have been internally displaced; and 13 million were thought to be stuck in affected areas because of security risks, destroyed roads and bridges, and uncertainty about how or where to find safety and a place to stay.

More than half of Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland — some 3.3 million people — but Romania has also taken in more than 919,000 people; Hungary, more than 600,000; the Republic of Moldova, more than 460,000; and Slovakia, more than 420,000, according to the U.N.'s refugee office.

Some people have returned, but more people left Ukraine in the past three months than what the size of the entire global Ukrainian diaspora had been as of June 30, 2020, the agency added.

In terms of deaths, the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged that its May 16 estimate of 3,752 civilians killed and 4,062 injured is still probably a considerable undercount because of delayed receipt of information and many reports pending corroboration from certain areas "where there are allegations of numerous civilian casualties."

For subscribers:ISU students’ roots dug in by war: ‘definitely made me realize how important my Ukrainian identity is.’

'Do not take their OK for granted — they are not OK, we are not OK, I am not OK.'

Michelle Kelso — a department director at George Washington University — and her family, who have ties to Ames as well as Romania, have continued to help Ukrainians who've fled or remain. 

Kelso's husband, Alex, continues to deliver supplies to Romania's border with Ukraine, where items are then being taken to locations including a school in Mykolaiv, a children's hospital and nursing home. 

The family has raised about $18,000, Kelso said, including through a Go Fund Me — "Ukraine- Romania Border Medical and Sanitary Aid." They're also housing one Ukrainian family and are willing and able to open their properties again to three more.

For subscribers:Ames family helps Ukrainian refugees in Romania: 'You try to help who you can'

None of the families they've helped have returned to Ukraine, and have instead moved on to places such as the United Kingdom on humanitarian visas, she said.

"To continue helping, choose one or two charities to support whose missions you believe in. Even if you give just what you can, it makes a tremendous difference in the lives of others," Kelso said.

Bassis has contributed money to the Ukrainian army through the National Bank of Ukraine and helped co-teach a class with a friend of hers in Sumy. 

She directly supports people and causes she knows, where money is distributed directly to help the people who need help most. "If anyone wants to help, I will advise the same approach — think about the World Central Kitchen organization or organizations like it, which are operating in Ukraine now and providing direct help."

More:What's the best way to donate to Ukraine? Give with your heart, but use your head, experts say

World Central Kitchen founder Chef Jose Andres on the ground helping to provide fresh and comforting meals to families at border crossings, reception centers, shelters, and other locations along their journey.

Cornell has volunteered at a Ukrainian film festival in Minnesota that was a fundraising event.

He still feels restless. "I don’t feel like I’m doing all that I could be doing. However, I also don’t know what that would be."

Hassall's helped raise money to buy and ship tactical medical supplies such as tourniquets and gauze, and to buy a generator, food and medical supplies for a brigade of mountain infantry soldiers on the frontlines — some of whom are friends of hers.

She's written to Iowa's senators and will be launching a summer professional development event for instructors at her alma mater university in Nizhyn. 

She, too, still has a sense she's not doing enough, but she's also volunteered to act as an interpreter for a lawyer who will work with Ukrainian refugees who may come to Ames.

More:Central Iowa is springing to action to help Afghan refugees. Here's how you can, too.

Cornell said he's "mentally preparing to be 'at the ready' if any of my friends need to come to the USA."

Bassis said her mom's health makes every plan tentative, but she wants to bring her to the U.S. "If any other family members or friends decide to come, I will gladly open my home."

Hassall advised to connect with Ukrainian neighbors, friends or colleagues. "Ask them how they are doing today. Do not take their OK for granted — they are not OK, we are not OK, I am not OK. Our friends and families in Ukraine are not OK."

Cornell hoped that the United States, European Union and NATO will remain supportive, because "this may not be over soon, and there will be a lot of rebuilding to do."

Video:Secretary Blinken says the US will continue to help Ukraine 'repel Russian aggression'

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.