At 4:00 a.m. on February 24, 2022, the sound of bombs rang throughout Sumy, Ukraine, as Russian forces poured in from the northeastern border.
“It is war!” shouted Stanislav Hrymailo to his sister Violetta as she sat up in her bed.
Shock engulfed Violetta as the words her brother yelled sunk in. She couldn’t believe it was possible that Ukraine faced war in the 21st century, especially at the hands of a nation Ukrainians viewed as brothers and sisters. Seven hours ago, she was celebrating a friend's birthday, blissfully unaware that her country was on the verge of an invasion.
As 18-year-old Violetta Hrymailo contemplated the reality of her circumstance, Russian troops continued to march into Sumy. Suddenly, an explosion on the other side of the city rattled the doors and windows of the Hrymailo’s house, which was followed by a wave of complete darkness. The Russians had bombed the power station.
Left without electricity and water, the Hrymailos knew they had to leave immediately in order to find safety. At 6:00 a.m., Violetta, Stanislav, his wife, and two children quickly threw some clothes in bags as her parents watched. They would not be coming with as somebody needed to take care of their grandparents, who refused to leave.
“We will live here and die here,” said Violetta’s grandparents.
As the sun began to rise above the horizon, Violetta looked back at the city one last time. The once peaceful streets of Sumy now echoed with bombs and gunfire. She knew it would be a long time before she saw her city again.
For five days, the Hrymailos crammed themselves and their belongings into a small car, eating and sleeping in it while they headed towards the Poland border. Their final destination would not be Poland but the Czech Republic since they had relatives that lived there.
“My brother drove the car for two days straight without sleeping, trying to get us to safety,” said Violetta.
All the while, Russian helicopters circled above the line of thousands of cars attempting to put distance between them and the frontlines of the war–the north side of their country. With the unknown facing them and the Russians circling them, the Hrymailos held hands and prayed.
Before the war broke out, Violetta attended Sumy University, where she met a close-knit group of friends. Here, Violetta started a new chapter of life as she got a glimpse at what she thought her future would look like. The people surrounding her helped her to improve and develop her as a person. She started to find herself.
The war also tested her determination and revealed the strength of her friendships. Some friends drifted away, while others remained in contact, offering unwavering support.
“War showed me who my real friends are,” said Violetta. “It helped me understand their character and what they valued.”
Despite the war, Violetta’s goals and dreams remained the same. Her parents always told her that if she had an education, she could achieve everything she wanted. The war did not distract her from her goals but made her more determined to achieve them.
While Violetta looked for stability and safety outside of Ukraine, some didn’t understand why she would leave. For the Hrymailos, deciding to leave was not an easy choice, but they knew their future would be unsafe if they stayed in Ukraine.
The allure of the United States beckoned, promising a stable environment and a plethora of opportunities. Violetta believed that the American dream was not a fabled concept, but a reality within reach.
With hope and faith in their hearts, the Hrymailos embarked on a journey that would forever change their lives. The transition to the U.S., however, was not without its challenges. Expectations collided with reality when they discovered how hard beginning a new life was.
Life in a new country meant navigating through bureaucratic hurdles and learning the ropes of a different society. The process of obtaining necessary documents, like a Social Security card, took longer than anticipated, testing their patience. And while job vacancies were abundant, the salaries proved to be a far cry from what they expected. Violetta came to realize the American dream meant working hard to pursue your ambitions, and it was not as easy as the movies made it seem.
Regardless of the challenges and obstacles the Hrymailos faced, they pushed onward and continued to pursue their goals. For Violetta, education remained a priority and was one of the first things she looked into upon her arrival in the U.S.
Although the plight of Ukrainian refugees is not easy, their fight to search for a better tomorrow showcases their resilience. The Hrymailos journey inspires those who strive for a better life, demonstrating that hope and tenacity can illuminate a path forward even amidst the darkest times.
“Life can be flipped upside down in a second, and you never know what the future will bring,” said Violetta, “but there is always something to find hope in.”