A Chicagoan, Back Home to Visit Ukraine, Trapped by Invasion: ‘We Need Help'

Just a week ago, Tsoi and her mother Oksana Tsoi wouldn’t have imagined they would be fleeing their homes

Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The bus ride from Kyiv to Lviv in Ukraine normally doesn’t take 18 hours.

But normally there wouldn’t be blockades and military checkpoints along the way.

Such was the journey Olga Tsoi made this past week.

Just a week ago, Tsoi and her mother Oksana Tsoi wouldn’t have imagined they would be fleeing their homes. But Russian bombs and missiles dropping on Kyiv left them few options.

“People are dying every second here,” Tsoi told the Chicago Sun-Times early Saturday. “It’s been a crazy 48 hours, and I am hardly processing it all. We need help. This is real war.”

Tsoi, 31, lives in Rogers Park but grew up in Ukraine and was back there with her mother when war broke out.

The past few days have been emotionally numbing for many in Ukraine who, like Tsoi, are just trying to survive the onslaught.

She, her mother and her mother’s dog Masik and cat Kisa have been on the move, taking refuge at times in a school’s basement bomb shelter and in a subway.

On Friday, Tsoi and her mother decided to try to make their way to Poland, where they hope the mother can seek asylum and Tsoi can hop on a plane back to Chicago. Her father and the rest of her family live in southern Ukraine.

“It’s really hard to describe how we are feeling,” Tsoi said. “Like, everyone seems calm and collected because we don’t have a choice. We aren’t allowed to panic because panic is going to create more panic. And where will that get us?”

Tsoi has lived in Chicago for more than a decade. She has made her life in the city, with friends and a career as a marketer. Chicago is home.

But Ukraine is also her home. And it’s where the rest of her family lives.

She went to visit them just before New Year’s Eve and ended up staying longer to undergo knee surgery. It was supposed to be an easy procedure. But her recovery took longer than expected. That kept her from returning to Chicago on schedule.

So she stayed, healed and finally was ready to leave this past week — just as Russia launched its attacks. Cities and military bases were hit with airstrikes. Troops and tanks poured in on a scale Europe hasn’t seen since World War II.

“Things are escalating fast, and I still can’t believe what is going on,” Tsoi said. “We thought it was just a threat. But it seems to be unraveling pretty fast.”

What Tsoi and her mother now are trying to do is to find their way to Poland, which shares a long border with western Ukraine.

Early Saturday, they arrived in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that’s drawing many seeking refuge from Russia’s violent attacks. Lviv is about 350 miles from Kyiv and just over 40 miles from the Polish border.

“In a weird way, I am glad I am here because my mom is here,” Tsoi said. “I couldn’t imagine I how I would feel if I was home in Chicago. It is better that we are together.”

Olga Tsoi on Instagram

Tsoi said she hopes that, once they arrive in Poland, they can take the time to figure out their next moves, including whether her mother should seek asylum in Chicago or stay behind in Poland.

She has found some solace through posting on Instagram, on which she has been documenting what has been happening around her.

She has posted about how people can get involved and help through donations and even civil disobedience. She has urged people to protest and pressure their elected leaders to act.

She said that what she and her mother and the country that is still her home are facing is like nothing she has ever experienced.

“When I was in Mexico going through a hurricane, that was scary, but I knew that help was coming and, if anything were to happen, someone would be there,” she said. “But here, in Ukraine, we are standing alone. We are waiting for some kind of help. But it seems like this will continue to happen, and we are on our own.”

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