After Russia started positioning tanks, troops and arms along the Ukrainian border in early November 2021, for more than three months the Russian military taunted the second-largest country in Europe with its presence.
The Ukrainian people simply waited.
Far from the European nation in Williamson County, Ukrainians Natalya Drozhizhin and Larisa Rudenko Wright also waited for the inevitable war, praying it wouldn’t happen.
“The whole thing was so upsetting,” said Wright, whose late father was a victim of Russian terrorism during World War II when the Russians invaded Ukraine. The Russians starved the Ukrainian people, and the Germans sent healthy, young men to concentration camps. Her father ended up in the German Dachau concentration camp. “[This war] is turning the world upside down.”
The days immediately following the invasion “were a nightmare,” Drozhizhin said.
She was 13 in 1998 when religious persecution happening in Ukraine led her parents to move her four older siblings, grandmother and her to the United States. Her grandma’s sister lived in Seattle, providing the family with a destination.
The family found solace and camaraderie in Seattle’s Slavic community and worked with a ministry to help find homes for Ukrainian orphans.
A year ago, the Drozhizhin family moved to Williamson County. They discovered the area during numerous trips to visit her husband, Tim’s, family in Knoxville.
While in Seattle, Drozhizhin created the highly popular food blog momsdish.com. She provides quick, simple recipes.
Three of her employees live in Ukraine — two in a western area that has yet to be invaded and one in the eastern section of the country, which has been under siege since Feb. 24.
During the invasion, cell phones have kept Drozhizhin and Wright in contact with family members. Photos and videos have brought the war to life.
“That first day, I just wanted to fix it,” Drozhizhin said. “What am I supposed to do? Go to the border and help? It’s heartbreaking to watch. I can’t wrap my head around it — the horror of the labor and delivery hospital getting hit.”
It’s especially difficult because most of their family members in Ukraine are choosing to stay and fight.
Wright is in contact with 30 family members scattered around Ukraine.
“My family is stubborn, but they’re smart,” she said. “They come from Cossacks, so, to me, it makes perfect sense. It’s not a surprise to me the people will stay and fight. Even people over 60 [years old] are staying. Pride and the land keep them there. They’ve been through [Russian rule]; they have memories.”
Wright’s cousin, with a neighbor and their two grown daughters, decided to leave on the day the bombing started in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The women found a man to take them to the Polish border, then he returned to Kyiv.
“My cousin has an older brother who emigrated to the United States in 1994,” Wright said. “One of his clients has family in Poland. He spoke to them, and they took [my cousins] in.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can open your doors. One day, [the Polish people] may be refugees; right now, they’re saviors.”
Drozhizhin’s family in the western area of Ukraine are “still safe and still have food,” she said. As of March 10, her cousin in the eastern part of the country was within 40 kilometers — 24.86 miles — of approaching tanks.
“She’s scared to sleep,” Drozhizhin said. “They’re under curfew; no lights. They’re making a lot of food for the [Ukrainian] military personnel. People gather in safe places like schools — they’re closed to make the food. Many are already living in shelters.
“I’m seeking ways to raise money to support what they’re doing. It’s been tough. Some days are brutal to watch.”
When asked why she thought the war was happening, Wright said, “Because crazy happens.”
“We have a very sick individual stirring up anxiety, bedlam and atrocities,” she added. “Dad used to say you could never trust someone who was once in the KGB. He would know; he was pursued by the KGB.”
Wright worries most about the children. She said early on, it was like an adventure to them, but at some point, the adventure ends, and it becomes real.
She saw somber pictures of a cousin’s child holding a flower.
“She couldn’t smile,” she said. “It broke my heart.”
Wright and her husband, David, started a GoFundMe account to help family members who stayed to fight and those who are taking in refugees. Money will be sent to approved organizations and churches that can get necessities wherever needed.
Drozhizhin is supporting a project initiated by her friend, Vera Fedorchuk. Agape UA is an international ministry helping orphans in Ukraine get safely out of the country and placed into loving homes. For more information, go to www.instagram.com/agape_ministries_official/.
“The No. 1 thing people can do is pray that God will wrap angel wings around Ukraine,” Wright said.