As she watched the run-up to Russia’s invasion of her native Ukraine unfold on the news last month, Natalie Moores told family members back home to get out before the bombs and bullets began flying.
But her relatives, including her father, Oleksandr, who is in his 70s, brushed off the warnings. After all, he was volunteering to fix the roof on his church, and didn’t want to leave in the middle of the project.
“We were watching with horror as Russia surrounded Ukraine,” said Moores, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who emigrated from Ukraine when she was 18. “We were telling them what we saw. They just didn’t believe their country would be attacked.”
Then came Feb. 24, when the thousands of Russian troops that had massed on the border advanced into Ukraine, and a deadly campaign of bombardment ensued. Moores convinced her father to leave, and he took a flight to Bulgaria with another family. He was so sure he would be able to return home in a week he brought only a few items of clothing.
Air travel in and out of Ukraine was shut down just three days later, Moores said.
Her father, who suffers from health issues and needs medication, was unable to get care in Bulgaria, so Moores arranged for him to fly to Mexico City, where she met him. Father and daughter then flew to Tijuana, where she found a doctor to treat Oleksandr.
The doctor refused payment for the medical care, and instead took the money Moores offered and donated it to Ukrainian relief efforts.
“We met so much kindness everywhere we went,” Moores said, her voice choked with emotion.
Oleksandr was granted a 30-day entry to the US under a program called humanitarian parole, and soon after crossing the border, he was home with Moores and her family. Before she headed to Mexico, Moores called everyone she could think of to help her father gain entry to the US, including members of Congress.
While they are grateful Moores’ father is out of harm’s way, the family is concerned for other relatives who live in a small town called Brovary, which is near the capital, Kyiv. Among those relatives is Moores’ 86-year-old grandmother on her mother’s side.
People in that area are trapped by Russian forces that have encircled the Kyiv region, and when she talks to her grandmother by phone, Moores can hear bombs exploding in the background.
Moores said she and her family and friends here in San Diego are trying to help families get out of the war zone. They are using contacts back home to find drivers willing to carry refugees to western Ukraine and then across the border into Poland. The informal network sends money to cover transportation costs, and, as of last weekend, they had assisted 10 families in getting out of Ukraine.
In one case, she said, a caravan heading to the border had to turn around because of heavy shelling and try again on a different route. In another incident, the car directly behind a fleeting family’s vehicle exploded in a ball of flames, she said.
As politicians and pundits debate the best response to Russia’s invasion, Moores said she is not in favor of military intervention because Russian President Vladmir Putin is a “madman” who could resort to nuclear weapons. Instead, she favors offering support to Ukrainians soldiers fighting the Russians, including offering safe havens to their families so they can focus on the war effort.
“All Ukrainians are incredibly grateful to the US and international communities for their unprecedented level of unity, hope and support for Ukraine,” Moores said.
Moores said she hopes the US government will allow Ukrainian refugees into the country, and she urged residents to contact their representatives and request such an action.
“A month ago, Ukraine was a typical European country. Now we have lost everything,” she said. “We don’t want to be part of Russia or be occupied by Russia. We are a sovereign nation, Russia is trying to erase us.”
Moores’ daughter, Allison, an 8th grader, is helping her mom coordinate evacuations of Ukrainian families, sending texts and emails when she’s not busy with schoolwork.
Allison said she and her mom just visited Ukraine in August. In her mind, she is contrasting today’s scenes of smoke and fire and destruction with the green hillsides she remembers from her visit just a few months ago, when her family ate strawberries and tomatoes from her grandmother’s garden.
Allison said she’s happy her grandfather got out, but the family is afraid for those who are still in Ukraine. And they hope for an end to the hostilities.
“(My grandpa) always talks about the moment he can go home and have things back to normal,” Allison said.
For options on how to support Ukraine’s war effort and refugees, visit the website of Balboa Park’s House of Ukraine at www.houseofukraine.org.