As Liudmyla Zapukhliak prepared for bed on Feb. 23, she saw the news of what, up until then, she’d thought unimaginable. In her native Ukraine, it was around 6 a.m. local time on Feb. 24, and Russian forces had started the invasion that Western leaders had been warning was imminent.
She and her husband, Yuriy Davydenko, rushed to contact family members living in the suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, and to do what they could from their home in suburban Atlanta to get them to safety.
Davydenko came to the U.S. in 2008 to complete a master’s in public policy at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies as an Edmund S. Muskie Fellow. He earned a Ph.D. in public policy in 2020 and now works as a data analyst at Grady Health System.
The couple married in 2012, and Zapukhliak completed a Master of Science in Geosciences in 2020. She now works for The Nature Conservancy as a development operations manager.
Already an established organizer within Atlanta’s Ukrainian community, Zapukhliak and her husband have been mobilizing their network to collect money and relief supplies, and to stage rallies in downtown Atlanta to raise awareness of the conflict that has displaced millions of Ukrainian civilians.
Below, they discuss how their families were able to get to safety in the days and weeks after the invasion began, and what they’ve been doing to support their country as the war continues.
When is the last time either of you were back at home in Ukraine?
Zapukhliak: I actually visited my mom right before the New Year, last year. And I’m really happy about that. I obviously didn’t know what was going to happen, but for some reason, I just decided to go there for a week. My original plan was to go in March because my mom’s birthday is March 14. But I don’t know, for some reason, I wanted to go earlier. And now I kind of can understand why.
What did you do first when you heard the news of the invasion?
Zapukhliak: It was 11 p.m. or so here in Atlanta, and I checked Facebook before going to bed, and saw some strange messages saying it had started. I checked the news right away, and I woke up my mom and said, “Please go to the basement.” She had been sleeping, and she couldn’t hear anything at that point.
I asked my mom and my brother to go to the basement and they did and stayed there for the next couple of days. I really wanted them to leave, but they were not sure if it was safe.
Davydenko: I didn’t have any illusions about Russia. I believed that the invasion was possible. Of course, I didn’t know all the facts, but I believed that it would happen and I asked my parents to at least consider leaving for some time. And, of course, they refused. And then the 24th came and they still stayed. I guess they were hoping this would just kind of pass.
And, of course, it didn’t pass. How were your families able to get out, and where did they go?
Zapukhliak: I think it was a Saturday morning and we got a call from his parents. It sounded like they were saying goodbye, saying, “You guys probably won’t hear from us anymore.” So, imagine us, at that point, trying to figure out what to do. We had started preparing for this situation and had tried to find some way to evacuate them for a week before that. We’d found some volunteers who would take them out, and that day, when they called, we panicked. We were able to call a guy who had been there a couple of days before, and he said, “Tell them not to leave. There are Russian tanks in the woods. The bridges are destroyed. There is no way to get out of that area. And if they try to leave by car, their car would be shot.”
Davydenko: They told us even later, and what really scared me was, they walked out and there were cars on fire and places were already destroyed. And they met a guy who told them, “OK, don’t go that way, because they are shooting in that direction. Go the different direction.”
Probably like five or so hours later, after that initial phone call, they called us and they said that they were already in a queue. Somehow, I can’t imagine how, they were able to reach a bus and volunteers arranged to get them to the train station. From there they crossed the border to Romania where a bus picked them up to take them to Bulgaria.
Zapukhliak: The first day, people were trying to leave the city and my mom lives on the street that people were using to escape. They told me that at that point, it was kind of impossible to leave because of the traffic. They stayed for a couple of days. Then I heard about peace talks beginning and I asked them to use that opportunity because I hoped that the first day of the talks would be a quiet day. But it wasn’t, actually. It’s really sad that elderly people have to survive in these circumstances. My mom is 70, and she has some heart conditions, and she couldn’t really hike for a long way. But at that point, they decided to walk to the closest subway station that worked. It wasn’t the closest to their home, but the one that was open. I believe they walked for two hours or so. And they were able to reach the train station and took the train west to the village where my family’s originally from.
How have you been working from Atlanta to support Ukrainians back home?
Zapukhliak: From the beginning of the war, we started holding rallies in downtown Atlanta, near the CNN Center. That’s our way to show support and to do something meaningful here. And we’re trying to fundraise here in Atlanta and raise awareness of the situation.
Davydenko: The first reflex is just, you know, start sending money to different nonprofits there. But now we’ve realized that the shelves in Ukrainian stores are empty, but the needs remain very high. So basically, we kind of switched to raising money here, buying things here and sending them to Poland, and then it goes from Poland to Ukraine.
Zapukhliak: We are trying to build fundraisers and operate logistics. We actually had a similar experience in 2014. Many of my friends in Ukraine feel that the war hasn’t stopped since then. And that’s the reality. It was war; it just wasn’t widespread. It’s not correct to say that the war just started. It has just exploded into something even more terrible.
For information on how to contribute, visit the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America Georgia Branch at https://www.ukrainianatlanta.org/donation.
Photo by Meg Buscema