Coloradans navigate emotional turmoil to provide for families in Ukraine

By Annie Burky

/Nataliia Matus speaks to her mother on the phone outside the temporary donation center at Okinawa Dojo in Denver on March 6. Matus tried to convince her mother to leave Ukraine as her apartment building was under attack.  Photos by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

After Russia first invaded Ukraine, Nataliia Matus set up phone alerts for when a bomb fell near her mother’s apartment. After the alarm sounded, she’d call her mother and ask her to go to the stairwell of her apartment building. When the stairwell windows were blown out, she asked her to go to a bunker. 

“They’re bombing mostly at night time or early in the morning,” Matus said from her home in Denver. “Once I called her right after they bombed her town, and she was very nervous. I tried to tell her, ‘Mom, you’re OK; you’re safe; it’s already finished.’ It’s very important for her to know she’s not alone.”

Matus’s mother is 77 years old and lives alone 70 miles outside of Kyiv. After many long phone calls debating options, considering transportation and navigating logistics, her mother decided to stay instead of wrestling jostling crowds alone. Matus went from considering immigration options to focusing on emotional support. 

“I had to take the alarm off,” Matus said. “I need to be OK as well, just to help my mom. It’s really scary just to hear it. I know I’m OK. I’m in the U.S. I’m in Colorado. But it’s very scary. My mom told me to turn it off.”

//Yuliana speaks on the phone with her family in Ukraine at Okinawa Dojo on March 6.

Matus is one of the many Coloradans from Eastern Europe with family members living in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine. For her, all she can do is support her mother through time zones, crackling phone calls and increased shelling. For others, support comes financially or through research and petitioning politicians for asylum. Since Feb. 24, people have found support in one another, nationality aside. 

Matus immigrated to the U.S. in 2014 before moving to Denver in 2017. Like her mother, she is Ukrainian, while her father was Russian. This mixed-lineage is not uncommon, especially for those born before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In recognition of this shared heritage, Eastern Europeans in Denver are working to keep politics out of supporting family back home. Matus and Yuliana, who declined to share her last name, held a fundraiser March 6 collecting funds and supplies to send to Ukrainian organizations. The event was also planned with two friends, one from Latvia, another from Russia. 

“You almost have to be careful if you speak Russian right now,” Yuliana said. “People are judging you based on your language, based on your descent. It’s ridiculous how this war has gotten all the way here in the Eastern European community.” 

After feeling hamstrung, only being able to do so much for family members thousands of miles away, all four women found gratification in holding something tangible they knew would end up in the hands of someone in need. They also knew that if they were going to hold the event together, the question of nationality could be raised. 

“So we agreed that if anyone is asking us—Yes, I’m Ukrainian; yes, I’m Russian; yes, we’re doing this together,” Yuliana said. “Because it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you can do to help others. This is not about what our birth certificates or passports say; it’s what it is that we can realistically help with.”

While the fundraiser provided baby supplies and winter clothes to fleeing families, Yuliana’s cousin and her young children only managed to make it to Belarus with little hope of where to turn next for support. After reading a Reuters article reporting that the U.S. was accepting Ukrainian refugees through Mexico, Yuliana began researching options. 

In the depth of passport and visa requirements, even considerations for how to petition Colorado politicians to offer the family asylum, Yuliana watched her hometown fall to rubble. Even though she came to Denver nearly 20 years ago, she is still shaken.

“This is my core and my foundation of who I am as a person that is being practically destroyed right now,” Yuliana said. 

Her former mother and brother-in-law are outside Lviv, she said, the same distance from Castle Rock to Denver. They have chosen to stay, to defend their home even after a mortar fell in their yard. From Colorado, Yuliana has tried to think of ways for them to keep their heat on while also providing emotional support. 

“It’s a lifetime of savings,” Yuliana said. “The kids were born in this home, the grandkids were born in this home and this is part of their history and their identity. And I understand that, but I just wish for them to be safe.”

//Yuliana speaks with a former soldier who fought in Mariupol
in 1991 at Okinawa Dojo on March 6.

Whether due to age, love of the land or by rule of law, an unknown number of Ukrainians are staying. Amar Alimaa’s cousin chose to stay in Kyiv for her husband who is unable to leave due to mandatory military conscription of all Ukrainian men. Alimaa was born in Mongolia but grew up shuffling between Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Japan before moving to Colorado as an adult. She now works as the Global Trade Activator at World Trade Center Denver’s Immigrant Program where she supports migrants starting their own trade businesses between the U.S. and their home country. The last three weeks were spent navigating customs and shipping snafus in Russia and Ukraine. She is quick to defend Russians, who she says are being discriminated against for a war that is not theirs. 

“It’s Putin’s war,” Alimaa said. “We should call it Putin’s war, not the Russian war because we are offending so many Russians who have nothing to do with this war. A lot of Russian people have their families in Ukraine; a lot of Ukrainian people have their families in Russia too.”

Alimaa was living in Russia when the Soviet Union fell and worries that the war along with a mix of sanctions and cut supply lines will mean a longer and harder recovery than in the ‘90s. With the loss of houses, savings, a life’s work, along with countless young men, she imagines help will be needed for a long time.

To ease the burden, she has donated money to Project C.U.R.E. which is providing medical supplies and Uber which is donating funds to Ukrainian organizations. But Alimaa’s primary support is going to her cousin as the Russian military’s continued attempts to take the capital have been thwarted. 

“I don’t see how else I can help. I told her to call me, text me any time because she needs somebody to talk to. I know how it feels, and it’s really helpful when you have somebody to talk to and share the feeling or you’ll explode. People will go crazy.”


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