Chicago-Based Artist Returns Home After Fleeing Ukraine Invasion

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A Chicago-based artist is back in the city after spending three days and nights trying to flee Ukraine at the start of Russia's invasion of the country.

“It was hard and scary, and my family are still in my hometown,” said Zhanna Biletska. “They’re still afraid to leave their hometown to go closer to the border or even cross the border.”

Biletska flew to Ukraine in early February for a planned trip to visit her family and friends. Weeks later Russian forces invaded her native country.

“People in Ukraine while I was there before Feb. 24 they were like kinda positive,” she said. “Nobody thought actually like full scale war would happen.”

Her family wanted her to get back to the U.S. as soon as possible. Biletska told NBC 5 she was able to hitch a ride with a family friend to a city outside of Poland.

“They had one seat and so I went with them,” she said. “What usually would take 12 hours' drive, it took us more than 24 hours to get there.”

From there, Biletska said a cab driver offered to help her get to Poland but it was impossible to go any further with the long lines of cars so she decided to walk instead.

“We started walking and I was also thinking like, 'it’s okay all we can do is just walk,'” she said. “I don’t have any water, but it’s okay I’m going to make it.”

Biletska crossed over to Poland safely five hours later walking with another woman and her two children, all while thinking about her family who chose to stay behind.

“I still felt I should have pushed them to come with me more, like arrange everything and just take them,” she said. “I still felt like I was leaving them behind.”

Her family lives in a town more than six hours away from the capital of Kyiv.

“Our hometown is still fine, still holding up,” she said. “It’s even been taking other refugees from other cities.”

Biletska is grateful for the humanitarian aid and for the volunteers in Poland and said they welcomed her and other Ukrainians with open arms.

“It was really touching to see how much they are helping how nice they are,” she said.

Biletska thinks about her family in Ukraine every single day. She’s now settling back in Chicago and hoping to paint again when it’s warm, but said her focus now is helping her family and others in need by donating money and sending supplies.

“I believe all of that could help because the war is still on unfortunately,” she said. “They still need everything—any help that they could get to get through this.”

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