Ukrainians living in the United States had their worst fears realized Thursday as news broke that Russia had invaded Ukraine. They had been living on edge for weeks, concerned for the safety of friends and family back home as the threat of war loomed large.
“I’m concerned and I’m scared and I’m devastated, for my family and for all the Ukrainian people,” Dr. Roksolana Vaskul, an anesthesiologist in New Jersey, told ABC News.
Russia began its Ukraine invasion in the early hours of Thursday morning with rocket attacks and shelling, soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared he would “conduct a special military operation” on the neighboring country.
Thousands of Ukrainians have fled the country, with many more expected to follow in coming days. Videos and images on social media showed long lines of cars and streams of people on foot heading west. Ukrainians can be seen piling onto buses and waiting at train stations, many hoping to make it to Poland.
“I’m tired, and it feels very surreal,” Mary Kalyna, a Ukrainian-American in Philadelphia, told the New York Times. “Last night I was just so at a loss, thinking, well, ‘What do we do now? What do we do next?’”
She said her relatives, like many Ukrainians, were skeptical that an invasion would actually happen.
“When I talked to them, they were minimizing it, and they’re like, oh, they’re just scaring people,” Kalyna told The Times. “But then we heard about bombings in the West… It’s just kind of unthinkable.”
Prior to the start of the attacks, dozens of Ukrainian-Americans gathered for a vigil in Hartford, Connecticut on Tuesday to pray for loved ones in the Eastern European country.
There are some 20,000 Ukrainian-Americans living in the state.
“I’m scared. My family, like my aunt, my cousins. I have a cousin there my age,” Connecticut resident Sofiya Vyshnovsky told NBC.
New York City, meanwhile, is home to more than 150,000 Ukrainians, the largest Ukrainian community in the country.
Dmytro Kovalenko, the manager at Streetcha, a Ukrainian church canteen in Manhattan, said he plays Ukrainian news on the canteen’s television around the clock.“We’re all checking for updates every 10, 15 minutes,” he told the New York Times. “It’s a time of worries.”
Meanwhile, immigration advocates called on the U.S. to offer Temporary Protected Status for Ukrainians, which would allow them to remain in the U.S. without the risk of getting deported.
“The events presently transpiring in Ukraine warrant swift action and robust protections,” Scott Boylan, leader of the Council on National Security and Immigration, told RollCall. Boylan said the U.S. government had an “obligation to provide humanitarian support for those caught in the crosshairs of invasion and political instability.”