Televised images of the devastation in Ukraine are especially painful for one Mount Airy resident who hails from that country and still has relatives there who are struggling to survive the Russian invasion.
“My heart is heavy — grieving for all the Ukrainian people suffering,” Irina Ilyasova said of the human toll accompanying the conflict that has now been raging more than a month.
The bombed buildings and ravaged streets are difficult enough to handle — there’s also the emotional fallout gripping citizens there and those in this country who are concerned about them.
“I cannot imagine how people have struggled,” said Ilyasova, a former longtime resident of both Ukraine and Russia whose fluent English is punctuated by a thick accent.
While she now is living a safe, though unsettled, existence in North Carolina that’s not the case for her family members in Ukraine who have been touched by the crisis.
They include her younger sister, Nyla, who recently fled the capital city of Kyiv, a brother and his two children.
“He is still in Ukraine,” said Ilyasova, whose relatives there also include an uncle in his 70s and that man’s family.
The local woman particularly was concerned about her sister due to her being in the large city suffering the brunt of Russian attacks.
Ilyasova managed to monitor Nyla’s well-being through sporadic Internet connections.
“She was in a bomb shelter for almost three weeks in Kyiv,” said the local resident, who was concerned for Nyla’s well-being due to the fact she would have to leave that facility to get food and thus be exposed to violence. “It was difficult for her.”
However, Ilyasova said her sister actually seemed to handle the ordeal much better than she, including sending Ilyasova periodic messages such as “I’m OK,” and “trying to calm me down.”
Nyla finally was able to leave Ukraine via a train and head to Lithuania, located to the north of Ukraine, with the nation of Belarus in between. Her daughter Diana lives in Lithuania.
“At first, people would spend weeks of waiting to get on a train,” Ilyasova said of the predicament faced by an estimated 10 million people displaced from their homes who have had to seek refuge elsewhere.
After taking the train, Nyla boarded a bus to complete her journey to Lithuania, where she and other refugees received a warm greeting including free food and cell phones.
“It took two days to make it,” Ilyasova said.
Meanwhile, her brother and other relatives are staying in Ukraine, advised the local resident, who is reasonably comfortable about their safety since they live in rural sections away from the main part of the fighting.
“You hope it will be OK, but you never know,” she said of uncertainties surrounding warfare. “You can’t really feel good, because it’s all over.”
Ilyasova painted a scenario reminiscent of that for farm families in this area, who grow produce that they then can or otherwise store in cellars — where people also are hunkering down now to be better protected from attacks.
It’s one thing for armies to engage in conflict in the traditional way — on remote battlefields with limited impact on the populace, but this has not occurred in Ukraine.
Civilians have inescapably been caught up in the struggle that has occurred street to street in some cases as combatants kill each other.
“People survived World War Two and now they’re dying in the twenty-first century,” Ilyasova observed.
Some regular citizens have taken up arms against the Russian invaders, and naturally suffered casualties as a result, but the local resident is finding it hard to deal with attacks waged on innocent, non-combative civilians in places such as theaters and shelters.
“It’s beyond war,” Ilyasova said.
Yet she believes Ukrainians will continue to stand their ground and resist Russian intrusions, with one key factor in their strong backlash so far involving the fact they are defending their homeland.
“Who wants to give up part of their land?” she said of one possible consequence of a takeover by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seeing the after-effects of the conflict via TV coverage has been difficult for Ilyasova, who says the best news she has received out of Ukraine so far “was hearing that my relatives are alive.”
“Brother against brother”
Irina Ilyasova, a former pediatrician, has lived in Mount Airy since 2005, when her family moved here after her husband, also a doctor, accepted a position at Northern Regional Hospital. Ilyasova has a son who is 30 and a 23-year-old daughter.
The family relocated here from New York City.
But Irina’s story — as it relates to the present conflict — actually begins much earlier when she was born in Ukraine.
Ilyasova left there at age 15 to live in Moscow, where schools existed to launch her medical training, which was before the Soviet Union dissolved.
In addition to her relatives in Ukraine, Ilyasova knows many folks in Russia due to living in Moscow for 27 years.
While she firmly supports the cause of the Ukrainian people, to a certain degree Ilyasova’s loyalties lie on both sides in the conflict among similar people.
“I couldn’t believe how brother can fight against brother,” she lamented. While swayed mostly by the struggles of the Ukrainian people, “my heart is on both sides,” Ilyasova said.
“It breaks your heart.”
Local support helping
Ilyasova has been comforted by the support received from this community since the invasion began.
“I get a lot of phone calls,” she reported, along with people bringing her flowers.
Ilyasova is a member of the Rotary Club of Mount Airy, which has been supportive throughout the ordeal.
Also, a fundraising event is planned today at 1 p.m. on Miss Angel’s Farm, located at 252 Heart Lane, to aid efforts by Samaritan’s Purse. That organization provides assistance to persons in physical need as a key part of its Christian missionary work and now has teams on the ground responding to the Ukraine crisis.
“Bring comfortable shoes, as we will be walking the perimeter of the farm at 1:30 to show solidarity with Ukrainians abroad and at home,” says a Facebook announcement for Miss Angel’s Farm.
“Afterwards, we will have Ukrainians in our community speak on what’s happening and how you can help and cultural music will be provided by Gypsy Laurel to celebrate Ukraine,” the announcement adds. “Feel free to make posters and bring flags if you have them to this event.”
Irina Ilyasova greatly appreciates such gestures, but says the ultimate gift will be a breakthrough in the conflict that now shows no signs of waning.
“I hope it will stop,” she said. “I would love to have peace between countries.”