Ukraine’s mother, son recount horrors of war as they start new life in Chicago area

Under heavy Russian shelling, Katerina Schwartsman and her 12-year-old son, Oleksandr, hastily grabbed some property and fled to hide in the basement of their apartment building in war-ravaged Mariupol, a coastal town in southeastern Ukraine.

At one point, the mother briefly left the makeshift bunker to go out in search of water. A Russian jet circled overhead, and he saw it dropping a bomb on his apartment complex. The explosion leveled the 19-floor structure, killing several of its neighbors who were inside.

“Those who stayed in the building and could not find out in time were always there,” Katerina, 38, said through an interpreter.

In mid-March, a few days after that bombing, Katarina and Alexander narrowly escaped. He traveled by car and plane through half a dozen countries before arriving in the Chicago area in April.

Schwartsman is among nearly 103,000 Ukrainians who have taken refuge in the United States since Russia’s invasion in February, more than President Joe Biden. promise To welcome 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the war in March.

Central government launched in April united for ukraine, a streamlined process where people fleeing war can apply for entry into the United States under humanitarian parole, a legal status that allows individuals to live and work here temporarily. According to data from the US Department of Homeland Security, as of August 3, more than 67,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to immigrate to the United States through Uniting for Ukraine and about 31,000 of them have already arrived.

The agency said an additional 72,000 Ukrainians have also come to the United States through other immigration routes outside of Uniting to Ukraine since late March.

Homeland Security officials said Biden’s pledge was never a cap, indicating more displaced Ukrainians are expected to arrive soon.

“We are extremely proud to help provide asylum to Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s unprovoked aggression,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Meyerkas said in a written statement., “DHS will continue to welcome additional Ukrainians in the coming weeks and months, which is in line with President Biden’s commitment.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has also vowed to support newly arrived Ukrainians, although it is unclear how many have arrived locally since February.

Officials from RefugeeOne – a Chicago refugee resettlement agency assisting Katerina and Oleksandr – said they have helped with more than 200 cases from Ukraine, involving individuals and families, since the war began. The agency estimated the number of cases to be roughly equivalent to 650 newly arrived Ukrainians.

According to RefugeeOne, more than 200 cases from Ukraine are also on the waiting list.

“We will continue to support Ukrainian refugees as they reach the United States and strongly anticipate an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine,” the agency said in a statement. July report,

Schwartsman is living with a family friend in northwestern suburban Wheeling, trying to forge a new life here.

On a recent weekday, Katrina scrolled through pictures on her phone capturing her last few days at Mariupol. One image shows the wreckage of what was once his home, surrounded by bodies scattered across the road in front.

She said that she prefers to live in the United States.

“Most importantly, it’s safe” she said.

Katerina and Oleksandr tried several times to evacuate Mariupol via human corridors, but were turned away on every occasion, only to return to the basement of their apartment building or to other underground shelters in the area. For, the safest place they could find.

They stayed underground in various basement structures for about 10 days.

“I was begging them (Mariupol) to drive us out,” she recalled. “And every time I would be refused. The last time we tried to get out of town through the corridor, when we were running under fire for shelter, people were dying. My son saw it and he stopped. I told him don’t wait, just run.”

One day a rocket smashed into the roof of a basement garage where they were seeking shelter, killing and burying them.

In another instance, during particularly heavy fire, the mother wrote her child’s last name and blood type on her arm.

“Stay with me here, because I’m really scared,” she recalled saying to the boy, as he cried and held his hand.

But the mother instructed the child to leave him behind if necessary.

“If anything happens to me, leave me alone,” he told her. “Just run and ask other people for help.”

Schwartsman was finally able to escape by car on 16 March, taking country roads through Russian-controlled territory to go to Lviv in western Ukraine. They were being driven by a friend, as Katrina’s car was blown up during a previous attack.

The only place she thought was the Chicago area, where her mother’s best friend had moved nearly 30 years ago, was when Katerina was a child.

Over the course of several weeks, mother and son continued to drive until they reached Italy; From there, he traveled by plane to Spain, then to Colombia, and finally to Mexico, where he was helped by Ukrainian volunteers on the US southern border. The nearly month-long journey totaled over 10,000 miles.

Katerina shows Border Patrol agents her passport – their only document not destroyed in the war – and gives them the name and contact information of her family friend. According to the passport stamp, she was granted humanitarian parole, allowing her to remain in the United States.

His mother’s friend traveled to the border to greet him, where they all hugged and cried.

Ever since Russia forcibly occupied the Crimean peninsula 2014The sounds of war were part of daily life in Mariupol, said Katerina.

Although the port city was generally protected over the years, it was located only a few miles from fighting on the Eastern Front, which was controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

“We were living in the border area, on the border of the war zone, the war that has been going on since 2014,” she said. “We will hear gunshots and gunshots. We got used to it.”

February 24 The Russian offensive took him by surprise.

“No one expected a full-blown attack, a full-blown war,” she said.

The city awoke before dawn to massive explosions, he recalled.

“We realized the danger and came out of the building,” she said. “The whole city was in chaos.”

He and his son spent the first 48 hours trying to figure out how to reach relatives on the other side of the city, but Russian forces blew up the bridges connecting parts of the city.

“Right after that, they blew up the railroad,” she said. “There was no way to leave the city by train. Anyone who tried to escape in the car would have come under heavy shelling and a lot of people were dying.”

Katerina worked as a nurse before the war. During the siege, she said she tried to provide first aid to as many victims as possible, while doing so was relatively safe.

“I was basically a field nurse,” she said. “I was trying to save as many people as I could. People were literally dying because I was holding them. I was holding their hands because they were bleeding and they were dying, just in their last moments to support them.”

After the mother and son fled, the massacre in Mariupol intensified.

On March 16, the day the Schwartzmen were evacuated, an estimated 600 people were killed in a Russian air raid of a theater where hundreds of civilians were taking refuge, according to The The Associated Press,

“It’s a big mass grave,” one survivor told the AP.

Amnesty International The attack by the Russian military in June was called “an obvious war crime”.

“The theater … was a hub for the distribution of medicine, food and water, and a designated gathering point for people hoping to evacuate through humanitarian corridors,” the nonprofit said. “The locals also wrote huge Cyrillic letters – Russian for ‘children’ – on the forecourts on either side of the building, which were also clearly visible on Russian pilots and satellite imagery.”

After a nearly three-month siege, Moscow claimed full control of Mariupol in late May; Its occupation completed a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula eight years after its seizure from Ukraine.

Before the war, Mariupol had a population of about 450,000. As of May, only about 100,000 people were estimated to be living, and many were trapped without water, electricity or heat. AP informed of.

Millions of people have fled Ukraine since the end of February. more than 6 million Ukrainian refugees According to the United Nations, recorded in Europe, many have settled in neighboring Poland, Slovakia and Moldova.

For Schwartsman, Oleksandr is taking English classes and attending summer camp. According to RefugeeOne officials, Kateryna is trying to obtain the proper documents so she will be authorized to work in the United States, a process that usually takes six months or more. She would like to do a nursing job one day.

Although there are Katerina and Alexander Here and safe, the emotional scars of war remain.

Whenever an airplane flies overhead, Alexander automatically bows down and covers his head with his hands, trembling.

Katerina said that the loud sound of fireworks, crackling and crackling around the Fourth of July holiday was especially terrifying to her.

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“I cried because I’m scared,” she said. “I can’t even control it. It’s just a jerk. It’s like, instinctive.”

He said that it is a feeling of fear that others cannot understand.

“They didn’t get it,” she said. “nobody understands.”

Despite these moments of worry, Katerina said that she is able to relax more because they are out of harm’s way. She hopes to live permanently in the Chicago area, thousands of miles from the front of the war.

“I would love to be here,” she said. “Because there’s no place to go back.”

The Associated Press contributed.

xi@chicagotribune.com

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