Anastasia Zudlova and Kseniya Yumasheva, originally from Ukraine, participate in a rally for Ukraine in downtown Santa Cruz.
Anastasia Zudlova and Kseniya Yumasheva, who are both originally from Ukraine, participate in a rally for Ukraine they organized last weekend in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Via Anastasia Zudlova)
Civic Life

‘Imagine not knowing’: Ukrainians in Santa Cruz, Bay Area fear for their loved ones

Ukrainians across the world are worried about the safety of their families and friends as Russian troops advance in Ukraine. Two local Ukrainian women spoke to Lookout about their country, their families and the helplessness they feel. They are trying to raise awareness about the war, which they say affects everyone.

Kseniya Yumasheva, 27, has barely rested in the eight days since Russian president Vladimir Putin’s army invaded her country.

The UC Santa Cruz graduate is terrified for the safety of her 55-year-old father, Sergiy Yumashev, who — like thousands of Ukrainian citizens — joined the fight to save the fledgling democracy from the onslaught by Russia’s massive military. It’s the largest European ground war since World War II, and Ukrainians from across the globe have flown home and enlisted.

Still, the Russians, with the world’s fifth-largest standing army of around 900,000, vastly outnumber the Ukrainians, whose military totals about 200,000, including reservists.

Yumasheva fears for her father, an artist and metal worker whom she calls “the life of the party.” She said she thinks about his safety all day.

“Everything in my life revolves around what’s going on there,” said Yumasheva, who left Ukraine when she was 13 to move to the Bay Area with her mother and now lives in Los Altos.

Her father lives in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital of 2.8 million, which the Russian military has been encircling for days. He is one of many civilians awaiting what comes next as Ukrainian special forces — many of whom received training from the United States and its allies — fight to keep Russian troops from entering Kyiv. A purported 40-mile-long convoy of Russian tanks sits stalled 20 miles outside the city.

They know the odds are against them.

Yumasheva talks daily to her father on Whatsapp and says so far, she hasn’t had difficulties reaching him. While the invasion surprised many experts, it did not surprise her dad, who never believed Russia would let Ukraine, which separated from the Soviet Union in 1991, be independent. “When I was in Ukraine two years ago, he told me this was going to happen,” she said.

Her father also knew that if needed, he would fight. “He signed up way back,” Yumasheva said. “Why? It’s because Ukraine is our home. It’s our land. It’s our beautiful country with our strong, talented, generous, welcoming people.”

Yumasheva’s father lives alone and has chosen to sleep in his own bed rather than in a bomb shelter. For now, he has food and supplies, she says, but she doesn’t know what coming days will bring and how she will know if something happens to him.

“Imagine not knowing what’s going to happen one moment to the next to your family and friends that you’ve shared your life with,” she said. “Imagine waking up and possibly having your home destroyed, your school destroyed, all these things that are close to you that shaped and made who you are gone.”

Russian attacks have intensified across Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday again urged the West to...

Her best friend, Vera Fateeva, 27, lives in a rural area in Chernigovskaya Oblast, a province northeast of Kyiv. Despite the danger, Fateeva and her family refuse to leave. Yumasheva talks with her often on Whatsapp, and so far, her friend reports, the city is calm.

“But that could change at any point,” Yumasheva said, “because they’re bombing all the strategic military areas.” Fateeva lives 6 miles from a military base.

The minute she heard about the Russian invasion, Yumasheva called her friend, Anastasia Zudlova, a fellow Ukrainian, who has spent the past two years in Santa Cruz and currently lives in Live Oak.

She knew Zudlova, whose father is also in Ukraine fighting, would understand the terror and sense of helplessness she felt. Zudlova’s father lives in the southern, Black Sea city of Mykolaiv, which has had 800 Russian military vehicles advancing toward it since Thursday. Her grandmothers, aunt, uncle and their children are there, too.

Map showing where Kseniya and Anastasia grew up in Ukraine.
Kseniya and Anastasia grew up about 245 miles from each other in Ukraine.
(Giovanni Moujaes / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Zudlova’s mother fled the city. She is now among the more than one million Ukrainians moving across Europe, the biggest mass European migration since World War II

Zudlova, 26, tears up when she talks about her country and her family. She admits it’s hard to think since she has had so little sleep.

Last week — Zudlova is not sure when — her mother managed to get across the Ukraine-Moldova border and find shelter with a family in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, a city of close to 700,000.

“So only my mom is safe for the moment,” she said. “And the rest of my family is not.”

Last Sunday, Zudlova and Yumasheva organized a rally in downtown Santa Cruz to promote awareness of the war. Though small — about a dozen people showed up — it mirrored spontaneous protests in major cities across the world, some of which saw thousands of people take to the streets in support of Ukraine.

Anastasia Zudlova, who helped organize the event, outside the Del Mar Theatre last Sunday.
(Dan Evans / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Yumasheva said the rally “quelled” her anxieties slightly and made her feel she was at least doing something. It also helped, she said, to see and hear support from people in Santa Cruz.

There isn’t an established Ukrainian community in the Santa Cruz area, Yumasheva and Zudlova say, but they do have a network of friends. California is home to about 112,000 Ukrainians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yumasheva is working to put together a fundraiser for the Ukrainian army at her office at Star Space in Sunnyvale, but she hasn’t set a date. Zudlova is working from Santa Cruz to help Ukrainian refugees find places to stay in Poland.

In the Bay Area, nonprofits are collecting funds to send relief to Ukraine. Nova Ukraine, a Palo Alto nonprofit, has raised $1.3 million for food, water, diapers and medical training for Ukrainians since its launch Feb. 20, just before the Russians invaded. In San Francisco, the nonprofit Hromada is seeking donations for project Anhelk (angel in Ukrainian), which raises funds for children whose parents have died in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. And World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by chef Jose Andres, is on the ground in Ukraine and neighboring countries helping feed those fighting and those who have fled.

The UCSC Humanities Institute held a virtual panel on the war Friday, bringing together experts from across the country, including Lincoln Mitchell, a UCSC alumnus and researcher at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Mitchell, whose work focuses on democracy and political development in the former Soviet Union, called the invasion “a major, world-changing event that changes the nature of the global economic system, alliances, relationships, in the economy, and beyond.”

For Zudlova and Yumasheva, the war has already changed everything. They fear it will only get worse.

“It’s scary because ultimately, this can have consequences not just for Ukraine, but for all of us, for the whole planet. And the threat I think is really, really real,” Yumasheva said. “I try to stay on the positive side of things. I try to think that we will prevail. But the reality of the situation is the Russian army is huge. It’s powerful.”