Irina Malkmus following progress of sister’s family amid air attacks in city of Kharkiv
By Pamela Dozois
Although the hostilities between Ukraine and Russia are thousands of miles away from the Santa Ynez Valley, it has touched at least one Valley resident in a very personal way.
Irina Malkmus, who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States in 2005, has relatives in both Russia and Ukraine.
Her mother and sister, who live in Russia are pro-President Putin. Her other sister as well as her grandmother and aunt, both senior citizens, live in a suburb of Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine. They are pro-Ukrainian independence. Kharkiv was invaded by Russia on Feb. 24 at around 5 a.m.
“No one in Ukraine was prepared for what was about to happen,” explained Malkmus. “Everyone thought that if Russia invaded, which they thought unlikely, it would be for just a few days and then they would be able to return to their homes. But sadly, that was not to be.”
Malkmus recounted how things unfolded, as told to her by her sister.
“All of Kharkiv woke up at 5 a.m. as people began to get in touch with each other about the bombing that was happening in the city,” she said. “Many of the people escaped to the subway with just one backpack and their animals. People had to leave everything behind, things that they had saved up to purchase, like washing machines for example — it was all gone.”
“Then when [Russia was economically sanctioned by taking their central banks off SWIFT], the wealthy took their money and left Ukraine, leaving the poor and disenfranchised to bear the brunt,” Malkmus continued.
“My grandmother and aunt have no transportation or help, but they are also intent on remaining in Ukraine, come what may. They would rather die in Ukraine than leave their country.”
Malkmus said her grandmother’s and aunt’s decision is one faced by many in the Ukraine.
“It’s not about heroism, it’s about hopelessness,” she said. “They have no power, no transportation, they are old and have no destination; it’s logistically difficult because once you leave one city, where do you go next? All the towns in close proximity are being bombed. It is cold and there is very little food and water, except for snow.
“It’s a difficult mission to escape from Kharkiv, as it is surrounded by Russian troops and you have no idea where and when the next bomb will drop.”
Malkmus’ home, where she grew up as a young child, was bombed. In the suburbs of Kharkiv, her sister, Vika Mavridu, her husband Yanis and their 12-year-old daughter Aliki packed their 15-year-old car with what they could take, then went to collect Yanis’ parents, one of whom suffers from muscular dystrophy. They rushed around to collect documents, gold jewelry, medications, candles, water and their animals (two guinea pigs, two large decorative snails, and one dog).
They all piled into the car and escaped to their friend’s suburban dacha (summer cottage) outside of Kharkiv. Being a summer residence only, the building was not insulated, leaving the group of 10 in the residence cold and with no food or water, except for melted snow.
“When my sister realized that the bombing was coming closer to the dacha where they were hiding, they hid out in an empty crawl space under the house that was used for cold storage of food. They realized that once again they had to escape,” said Malkmus. “In the early morning before everyone started fleeing from the neighborhoods in Kharkiv, they started to drive with the destination being Poland, leaving everything behind.”
What followed was another difficult trip.
“I have been keeping in touch with my sister’s group via WhatsApp. They started their journey but could not use the main roads, because there were checkpoints, seven hours of traffic jams and danger. It took two weeks, going from small town to small town, seeking shelter and food from locals who were willing to help them. They traded chopping wood for food or cooking and cleaning in exchange for shelter. They ate only one meal a day and were able to survive,” she continued.
As of this March 14, Vika and her family have arrived in Lviv, which is a city bordering Poland.
“Every hotel, every place was completely booked up because so many people are fleeing, trying to get into Poland. But we were fortunate enough to find an Airbnb apartment, which was generously paid for, (for eight days) by local Solvang resident Evie Tubbs Sweeney,” Malkmus explained. “I had posted something on Facebook about my sister’s situation and I received a message back from her with the offer, as well as from other people who offered to help. There they will be able to shower, which they haven’t done since Feb. 24, have a good night’s sleep and plan their next move.”
Malkmus said that the present plan is for Vika and her daughter to go to Poland and from there, Austria and then Germany, where they have someone who can provide a living space for her and her daughter. Yanis, on the other hand, is planning to return with his parents to Kharkiv, where they will stay with relatives because his parents now feel that they cannot continue with the survival plan.
“They have decided that they want to live or die in their homeland,” said Malkmus.
Yanis is a dentist and he is planning to donate his surgical skills to those in need or be a delivery driver or do whatever he can to help the Ukrainian people.
Back in the Valley, Malkmus has been marching with a group called Santa Barbara 4 Ukraine, bringing awareness to the needs of the Ukrainian people. She has also conducted bake sales in Santa Barbara and Los Olivos, raising over $3,000.
She has also been in contact with Warrior Angels Rescue founder Valerie Edmondson Bolaños to glean some information from her and further help the people in Ukraine.
Malkmus has now started a GoFundMe page at https://gofund.me/3b6fc1b8
For more information, or to help, call or text 805-325-8603 or Google Irina Malkmus for updates.