With the fate of family and friends in their native Ukraine uncertain, Hanna Tverdokhlib’s 7-year-old son recently told his mom he wanted his money from the tooth fairy to be donated to support refugees fleeing the country.
“We don’t need to use children’s money,” she recalls telling him.
Tverdokhlib, her husband and son moved from their home in western Ukraine to Long Beach in 2020. Her husband is a photographer and they moved to California for work opportunities.
Now, two weeks after Russia’s invasion of their native country, she and her family worry about the fate of their friends and family back home. Two of her aunts, their children and grandchildren have found shelter in an underground bunker at their apartment in Kyiv; others have fled to the western borders of the country to find safety.
“The hardest thing was children asking their moms … ‘Will they kill us?’” said Tverdokhlib, 37, who took a job as a nanny to help gather extra funds to support her family and friends.
More than a million people of Ukrainian descent live in the U.S., according to Census data. Tverdokhlib and her family have attended rallies and donated to various organizations to aid in any way they can.
It’s all they can do, besides constantly checking for updates through Facebook or WhatsApp.
When her son has questions about what is happening, Tverdokhlib finds it hard to explain the implications of war.
“It’s not even about death and life because that is something we as parents need to speak about (with our children), or about dangers, but about real victims and killing and murder,” she said on a recent afternoon in Bixby Park, as mothers watched over their children on the playground and the sounds and smells of a nearby Farmers Market wafted in the air.
As she watches the news, what hurts her most is the images of children who have been killed. On Sunday, a mother, her two children and a church volunteer were killed as they tried to evacuate to Kyiv. On Wednesday, three people, including a child, were killed in the bombing of a Ukrainian hospital in the city of Mariupol, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“They have sent bombs to hospitals and bakeries, these are not military bases. This is not even war; this is genocide,” said Tverdokhlib.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been rising since 2014, when Russian-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown and Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and seized control of Crimea, a peninsula that lies between Ukraine and Russia, according to Andrew Jenks, a Cal State Long Beach professor of Russian history.
“His end goal here is creating a Ukraine that is friendly to Russia and to ultimately incorporate parts of Ukraine into Russia,” he said.
Jenks said that because of the misinformation and propaganda available to Russians about the war, citizens have fallen victim to the “Putin Lie,” or the idea that Ukraine is a threat to Russia and is overrun by neo-Nazis.
“This propaganda works for a certain segment of the population that has very strong trauma and memory of the devastation of World War II … Putin has manipulated those fears in order to drum up support from at least a certain segment of the population,” said Jenks.
Before Russia’s attack against Ukraine, Tverdokhlib described herself a pacifist. Now she sends money and resources to the Ukrainian military in hopes that they will continue to protect the country’s most vulnerable.
Here in Long Beach, parents at her son’s school at Fremont Elementary have sent letters of support and encouragement, some have even contributed to an Amazon wishlist she made to purchase warm clothes and medical supplies to send home. Tverdokhlib urges others to contribute to the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Every night when she speaks to her family, she is surprised when they comfort her instead. “Don’t worry, we will survive,” they say. After all, Tverdokhlib says, “They believe in victory.”