A Tribeca connection to the war in Ukraine

I received a note from Elena Sokina, the co-owner of NYLO, on Sunday saying that the studio will be hosting a Freedom Flow Fundraiser for Ukraine on Wednesday, March 9, 6:30p, and the profits will go to support victims of the war. Yogi Juan Gamboa will lead the flow, and NYLO will donate the space.

But in the two days since she sent the note, nine other trainers offered to donate their skills and time to the cause, and the effort has become a full schedule running through March 20. “People really want to help,” Elena said. Check the schedule here. Elena has now set up a GoFundMe page that will funnel the money to the Ukrainian Red Cross, since the organization does not have its own donation system. When you arrive to class, there will be a QR code to scan to make a donation.

Elena immigrated here from Moscow six years ago, but she was raised between Russia and Ukraine, since her grandparents lived in Crimea. Her brother and his family live in Izmail, a coastal city west of Odessa, and she spent most of last week getting her sister-in-law and four of the family’s five children (ages 6, 7, 9 and 12) out of the country. Her brother and his eldest son stayed behind. Here’s what she told me:

How did your family first realize war had begun?
The Russian military was gathering at the border for two weeks before the conflict. It was in the air, but no one believed it was going to happen. Russia and Ukraine, we are so connected to each other through families and friends — they call us like sister nations — bratskiy narod (Братский Народ) — so no one could imagine that they would actually move the military on innocent people. It was so unthinkable. No expected that the threat was real. When the Russians actually moved, everybody was in shock. People didn’t start running for a while, because people could not believe it was happening.

For my brother, the bombing of the military base did it for him. He understood then that it was not going to just pass, and that it was not just Kiev, it was all of Ukraine.

Where is your family now?
My brother and his oldest son are still in Ukraine — they are of fighting age so it is illegal to leave the country. There is a new law because of the attack that obliges you to stay if you are from age 18 to 60. My brother’s oldest is 17 years and 9 months, so they are not letting him out.

I feel a little better now that the children and their mother are out. That’s why now I want to try to help other people because Ukraine is devastated. So many people are displaced and have lost their housing because of bombings and war in general. People have no water, no food, no shelter.

How did you get your sister-in-law out?
I had to contact my friends in France and they found me a connection in Romania and the kind man in Romania got them help in the Ukrainian consulate and took care of them in Romania — provided a car and a shelter. He then got them safely to Bulgaria, where my mom lives. You know how people here retire in Florida? Russians sometimes retire not in Russia and she wanted to be by the seaside and she chose Bulgaria. I am just grateful that she didn’t choose to retire in Ukraine.

I have friends whose parents are forced to stay in Ukraine because they are too old to travel. Some people just cannot leave. We were lucky that I could find us help, and kind people agreed to help the family travel on the road. My sister-in-law cannot drive — it is just not a skill that everyone has there — so she had to find a driver to take her to the border, and then find a driver to take them to Bucharest and then a driver to get her to Bulgaria. It’s not like you can find a bus.

It’s hard to believe, but they were the lucky ones who had the chance to escape. Their area is less devastated than the rest of Ukraine, so you can imagine what the areas look like that are closer to Kiev. [By coincidence the contractor who built the NYLO gym on Church went back to visit family in Kiev and stayed to help defend the city, since he was old enough to have received Soviet military training when there was obligatory service.]

What is your brother doing now?
I can communicate with the app Telegram that is still working. He was very worried about letting the kids go since even though he knew it was safer for them to not be in Ukraine, being a father, he felt if they were near he could protect them. It was very heartbreaking for him to let them go and rely on other people — strangers — who said they would take care of his family.

Last time I heard from him, he and his son were making protective nets that they put over houses to make them look like trees from the top, like a camouflage. From the plane the house will look like a forest.

His vision is not great, so he is not going to be drafted until after the first wave. They will draft the most healthy in the first wave, and then the less healthy in second wave, and so on. Once his son is 18, he can be drafted. Right now his son is with him, and maybe he won’t be drafted at all. We don’t know.

They are still in their house. Unfortunately they live nearby a military base that was bombed, so the house has no cooking gas and no electricity, and they knocked out some communications in the bombing. So the area is devastated. They still have water, which is great. In Kiev they also have water problems.

What will they do to support themselves?
My brother works in IT building website and apps, and of course he has no work now. So I am helping, relatives are helping. His wife and children are now registered as refugees and they will be provided with a place to live in Bulgaria and some help, but it is already clear that it will be a long conflict. The kids will have to find a school and we will have to support them for a while.

You can send money to Bulgaria but not to Ukraine or Russia. So we are lucky they are in Bulgaria and we can talk to them and support them.

What does their future look like?
They are in shock right now. I told them to prepare to stay for a year. Even if the war stops tomorrow, everything is destroyed. The infrastructure is destroyed. Right now there is nothing to go back to. Just to think of one example: what happened to the school? What happened to the teachers? Their whole life is destroyed, and not just for my relatives.

It will take time and resources to rebuild. Meanwhile people are in the streets — with no food, no running water, everything you need. Forget luxuries, all the necessities are not met. There will be no harvest this year, for example. Ukraine is a very rich country in terms of agriculture, and they should be planting now. In fact, they should have been planting last week. Now that is gone.

When you think about the long-lasting consequences you understand it is not just about the war today — it’s about preserving and saving what’s here now, and then rebuilding everything that was destroyed. That’s why we are trying to arrange help. It has so many layers and the consequences will be with us for a long time.

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  1. this is a heartbreaking story and it’s unfathomable to consider the volume of families experiencing similar suffering and separation. thank you for sharing and giving us a chance to participate. praying for your family and all of the Ukraine…x

  2. Wishing her family peace and safety as well as everyone caught in this terrible war. The personal story is so special and knowing of a local source to help reach this humanitarian crisis is appreciated. Thank you.

  3. Her account of what is actually happening is so personal, and so specific..it gives a real face to the terror and devastation. Praying that more of us who can help, will help. Prayers for her family and for all in the Ukraine.

  4. What is happening in Ukraine and to the Ukrainian people is an absolute horror. Hospitals are being bombed, Ukrainians (mostly the elderly and women and children) being targeted as they are trying to escape, humanitarian volunteers are being gunned down as they are delivering supplies and on and on. How can this possibly be happening in 2022? It makes everything else seem so trivial. Thank you Elena for your story. I hope it reaches everyone’s heart who reads it.

  5. The invasion of Ukraine is horrible and tragic. There are many rallies being held in support of Ukraine, and also many aid organizations and charities worthy of donations. Let’s help in any way we can.

    Here is one, for example: