I had known this was coming, my visit would have been dedicated to getting a passport and visa for her.” These are the words of Alexandra Kirichenko, referring to her trip to Ukraine last fall and her 86-year-old mother who lives by herself in occupied territory.
Kirichenko, Robb Hollow Road, her husband, Alexander, and their daughter, Vera, and son, Vladimir, left Ukraine in 1997. Alexander, a physician in Kyiv, did his American medical education and residency at the University of Virginia. They moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2006, when he accepted a job as a radiation oncologist at Allegheny General Hospital. The family traveled freely back and forth to their former homeland, especially during the summers when Vera and Vladimir attended camp in Ukraine and spent time with their grandparents.
Kirichenko last saw her mother, Tatiana, who lives in Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine, during two visits last year in July and October. Then came the war this past February.
“This is something unthinkable.”
Of course, there was a war already with the annexation of the Crimea peninsula in 2014. But nobody could imagine they were going to mount this military force,” she said. “We thought maybe they will overthrow the government or take over administrative buildings, but nobody could imagine that in two or three days they would be killing, raping, torturing people.”
Her mother, who is in frail health, has been without gas, heat, and phone since March. Kirichenko can only communicate by sending a message to a friend who delivers it to her mother. Sending money is impossible, because Ukrainian banks have abandoned the area.
“She is very strong, stronger than me,” Kirichenko confided. “She was born in 1936, so her earliest memories are of war. Now she’s old, and she’s going through war again.”
Kirichenko’s husband has been organizing and sending donations to the military since the 2014 invasion, working with the Brother’s Brother Foundation, and with St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks for help with storage and shipping. He has sent both medical and military equipment and solicited cash donations to help defray the costs.
“A lot of doctors around my husband who felt compassion donated large sums of money, because all this equipment is very expensive, and shipping is too,” said Kirichenko. “A lot of people helped, just Americans who have nothing to do with Ukrainian culture. When I drive around I see Ukrainian flags in front of houses, and it makes me feel so good.”
Her son and daughter, who live in New York and Washington, D.C., respectively, “are very upset. And of course they are trying to get in touch with the relatives as much as possible.”
These relatives include nieces and nephews on both sides of the family. Her niece, Agnessa, was able to escape from occupied territory to western Ukraine and then to Poland. A trip that normally would take half a day took her a week. Passengers on her bus had to sleep out in the open with only the food and water they had brought with them. Nonetheless they were helped by Ukrainian volunteers who provided food and shelter along the way.
Are her friends and relatives back in Ukraine hopeful about the war? “Yes, but even with recent victories, it’s hard to remain joyful,” she reported. “So many people were lost. When the Russians left Bucha, there were mass graves and then a thousand funerals in one day. Everybody was crying. So it’s hard to be joyful, it’s hard to joke, it’s hard to celebrate birthdays. But people are very united.”
Keeping a Memory Alive
Jessica Kunkler, Cedar Boulevard, grew up with a fervently Ukrainian grandmother, Helen, who had immigrated to Pittsburgh in the early ’50s via Poland. Helen raised a large family in a ramshackle house on the South Side Slopes overlooking the iconic gold dome of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church. Kunkler, who grew up in Brookline, listened to her grandmother’s stories, but never understood much about her life in Europe.
When Kunkler was 18, she traveled alone to Poland to meet her relatives. While visiting, she learned that most of the people in the Ukrainian village where her grandmother had lived had been massacred by Soviet-led forces in 1947. She viewed the mass grave where the victims had been buried; survivors had been dispersed to various areas of Poland. To her shock, she discovered that her grandmother had been part of the Ukrainian resistance in the area. After another trip to Poland and years of research, she was able to flesh out the story more. She is finishing a novel about the saga of her grandmother, who died in 2017, titled The Year the Sunflowers Bloomed.
Kunkler and her husband, Patrick, moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2016 from Colorado to raise a family. They are the parents of Mabel, 5, Marty, 4, and Henry, 18 months. When the war in Ukraine began earlier this year, she asked her relatives, who live just over the Polish border, how she could help and was told they needed food, clothing, blankets, diapers and medical supplies for refugees coming out of Ukraine. Kunkler raised $5,300, mostly in small donations, in a short time after a posting on a Mt. Lebanon Facebook page.
“When I saw the brutality in the news, all I could think of was the mass grave that seemed so hidden in the forest with no road leading to it, and what my grandmother had experienced,” she said. “Raising this money was a way to honor her, and writing this novel was, too. I think that my family lived with the legacy of trauma for years, and sadly I think in the decades to come there will be many more like us now, with stories lost, but trauma weaving through generations.”
Safety and Block Parties
“Ukrainians just want to live their lives, like anybody else,” said Miami Avenue resident Natalia Kobernichenko. “Nobody believed Putin would do this. Now everybody hates Russians, but my grandma is 100 percent Russian. We’re all mixed from that area.”
Kobernichenko moved to Greenfield from Ukraine in 2008 with her two sons, then 6 and 1½, and husband, Ahmad Mahmoud, who has family in Pittsburgh; they now also have a 5-year-old daughter. Mahmoud was an obstetrician-gynecologist in Donetsk. Following training in the U.S., he’s currently working at a hospital in Florida as he pursues job opportunities.
“It’s been hard, paying for his schooling, trying to find work when you’re on a visa,” said Kobernichenko. “I’m hoping to get a job soon, but I have to find childcare for my daughter.”
They moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2021 in search of good schools for their children. Ibrahim is in 11th grade, Adam is applying to colleges, Kira goes to kindergarten at Washington Elementary School. “It’s a different world from Greenfield,” Kobernichenko said. We are happy with the schools and they help us.”
Kobernichenko worries about relatives in Ukraine, particularly her mother, who lives in a village where utilities are in short supply on the border of Donetsk. She is alone now; Kobernichenko’s father died in September.
“I can’t be with my mom and she can’t say much on the phone. She just says, ‘I’m still alive.’”
Kobernichenko’s goal is to get her mother out of Ukraine and into the U.S.
“The community here is safe. I like everything close by. On our street we have block parties! I want her here with me.”