by Sara Hill
As Victoria Dobronos Tutkevych crouched in the darkness in a blown-out building in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, clutching her 18-month-old daughter, Ilariia, there was nothing the trembling pair could do but wait – wait to live, wait to die, wait for the bombing and street fights outside their shelter to stop.
Ukranian native Oksana Dobronos recounts a similar story. Waving good-bye to her husband, Oleksandr, from a bus window, she recalls wondering if she’d ever see him again as she and the couple’s two sons, Andrew, 14, and Serhii, 8, made their way to a refugee camp in Poland.
From there, the trio moved on to a small home in the rural village of Kiltealy, Ireland, where they took up work as farmhands on land belonging to a family friend. But after missing Oleksandr too much and wanting to do more to aid war efforts, Dobronos and the boys traveled back to war-torn Ukraine to assist with building camo nets, stocking medical kits and performing service work for the army.
Oleksandr Dobronos, a doctor by day, continued to serve as a sniper by night, defending both his land and his family.
Tanusha Zhaldak and her 10-year-old daughter, Daria, echo the feelings of uncertainty they felt after they were force to share a crowded apartment before they wound up sleeping on pallets and air mattresses in refugee camps in Poland.
For two months, Zhaldak and Daria fled to a rural village in France, where they took refuge with a family who spoke only their native provincial French, making any communication between their family and the Zhaldaks nearly impossible.
While Daria focused as best she could on her studies, registering first at a new school in Poland, then in France, Russian forces continued to attach the Ukranian infrastructure, knocking out cellular coverage and making it increasingly difficult for Zhaldak to stay connected with her husband, who remained in Ukraine.
Answering the call for help
Brecksville resident Michael Dobronos said stories such as these, fueled by fear and uncertainty, have haunted him since the war broke out between Russia and Ukraine Feb. 24. On a humanitarian level, he said, the crisis has been heartbreaking enough to watch. Knowing the battle continues to tear apart families, including his own, has been downright horrific, Michael says.
In the fall of 2021, Michael traveled to Ukraine for a family reunion trip during which he visited with numerous cousins and extended family members. Though he’s always kept in contact with his family abroad, he said keeping in touch became even more of a priority for him once the conflict began to escalate.
As communication grew more worrisome as the months passed, the divorced father of two looked around his spacious, multi-bedroom Brecksville home and realized he had the means to make a difference in more than a dozen lives. As a retired immigration attorney, he quickly completed all the necessary paperwork and with his help, Victoria, Oksana and Tanusha and their children arrived in the United States just weeks later. They moved in with Michael this past summer and now each and every one of them call Brecksville home.
“Michael would call me, and I would take my phone and run up a hill to get reception and a connection. I felt his family support and I knew we weren’t alone,” Tutkevych said, recalling her escape. “Michael truly saved our lives.”
A fresh start
As they build new lives in Ohio, the women remain in contact with the husbands, family members and friends they left behind in Ukraine. Another family member, Tetiana Zhaldak and her daughter, Dima, 4, relocated with them and learned just days ago that her godmother’s husband was killed in action.
Though they all share stories of survival in the nightmarish days of escape, they all share one common truth: life will never be quite the same gain. Knowing someone in the United States cared about them enough to get them out of danger, they say, was all the hope they needed to make their escape.
“It has not been easy, but we have a lot of support here,” Oksana Dobronos said. Not only has she found work at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives, but she is active in her church, singing in the choir and helping to raise funds for Ukraine. Her sons, Andrew and Serhi,i are enrolled in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District and have started to make friends and embrace their new lives.
Oksana also spends ample time in Parma’s Ukrainian Village and says her family has assimilated well.
“It impresses me how much they cherish the history,” she says of Clevelanders’ bond with the Ukrainian heritage. “I have become stronger. We will tell our children and our grandchildren these stories, and the truth. History can be forgotten, but we will keep this story for each generation.”
Zhaldak, whose husband is Michael’s second cousin, is currently working three jobs. Not only does she work as a server/hostess at Simon’s Restaurant & Deli, but she is also a hostess at Burntwood Tavern and a teacher’s aide at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School where she assists newly relocated Ukrainian-American students.
Zhaldak says said she and her daughter have every intention of staying in the United States, while her husband continues working behind the scenes in Ukraine helping with war efforts.
“We are looking for an apartment or a home to buy and start our lives,” Zhaldak said. “Our experience has changed everything. Before, I was planning a life with my husband and now I am building my life alone here. I have to be strong, but it is so hard.”
Tutkevych, a hardworking member of Ukraine’s upper-middleclass, discovered in the United States that she and her husband, who remains in Ukraine, are expecting a baby – their first son.
Their couple’s young daughter, Ilariia, now 2, has begun speaking again and expressing emotions, something she stopped doing in Ukraine due to the shock of her experiences.
Since her arrival, she has found work at Architectural Fiberglass Inc., a family business in Cleveland. Her mother, Natasha, 60, made the journey with her, and cares for Ilariia and the other children while the women work – a blessing that has ultimately helped the families adapt to their new lives in Ohio. “My life is divided now – before and after Feb. 24,” she said. “We do our best to build a life from scratch and we become stronger and stronger day by day. Because of this war and this experience, we clearly understand what is most important in this life – family. Feeling this support was one of the main reasons we survived.”