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WAMC News Series Part 2: From Montague to Mariupol: Finding safe haven for displaced Ukrainians all the way from Western Mass.

Nadya Tkachenko.
Josh Landes
Nadya Tkachenko.

A woman in Western Massachusetts is behind an NGO working to build comprehensive supportive housing for Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes, jobs, and daily lives during the war. The struggle is deeply personal.

Nadya Tkachenko, the founder and president of Project Nadiya, is a mother of four living in the Franklin County community of Montague.

“Originally I am from Kazakhstan,” she told WAMC. “That's where I was born and raised. Ethnically, I'm Ukrainian. So, with this conflict in Ukraine, I was called to dive in and help out.”

Tkachenko’s family has deep ties to the land. During the Soviet era, her parents were pressured to move from Ukraine and work in nearby Kazakhstan.

“And it's not a unique story,” she said. “Many people in Kazakhstan specifically came from other republics. So, it's very multinational. There's many Russian people, many Ukrainian people live there. But having grown up in Kazakhstan, every summer, my family took me to Ukraine. So, we would take a train from Amaty, Kazakhstan, to Kyiv, and it would take three and a half days on a train, every summer. And we'd spend time in tiny little villages where my dad is from, not far from Chernihiv, which is north of Kyiv. It's an area that was attacked by Russia during one of the first days of the war. And then we would take another train to southern Ukraine and spend the other half of the summer in Mariupol, which everybody has heard about, about Azovstal [Iron and Steel Works]. And then we'd get on a train and go back to Kazakhstan. And so, this would happen every summer.”

While the regular visits kept a strong sense of Ukrainian identity alive, the Tkachenkofamily also longed to return.

“My dad, since he moved to Kazakhstan, every day of his life, he's been dreaming back about going back to Ukraine,” Tkachenko told WAMC. “And so, he always painted this ideal picture for me of the green hills and the beautiful rivers and the foods and people and the language. So, in a way, since my childhood, he kind of idealized the area, the place where he wanted to go back to and live. But in the Soviet Union, if you were placed in a certain town and had a job, the complication was that it was extremely difficult to move. You had to register with the local authorities, and even if you really, really, really wanted to move somewhere, chances were very slim. So, my dad's dream of moving to Ukraine never materialized.”

Along with the picturesque memories of Ukraine were the equally bleak memories of war, trauma, and brutality.

“My dad's life, his childhood, is from that part of Ukrainian and tiny villages,” said Tkachenko. “But his childhood goes back to pre-World War II and the time of the famine, of Holodomor, and his stories of surviving on soup made of weeds and bread made out of flowers that they ground into flour. So, the way he talked about Ukraine was a combination of this idyllic place where he wanted to live, but also some stories of hardship, of his childhood. That was part of my childhood growing up, learning those stories of him as a child in Ukraine when it was struggling during the Soviet times, and during World War II. He actually, my father actually was a child soldier in World War II. He was 14 years old and he was studying art in Kyiv, and literally was invited to a recruitment office given a gun and told to go fight for the Soviets.”

A city girl in Kazakhstan, Tkachenko’s time with her extended family in rural Ukraine was a marvelous contrast.

“My aunts and uncles had cows and goats and chickens,” she remembered. “And I remember them asking me if I wanted to milk a cow and being a city girl, I really didn't want to touch the animal, things like that. And a lot of them also had a lifestyle where they had large vegetable gardens, fruit and berries. And in a way it was subsistence living where they pretty much grew their own food for the most part, and what they didn't grow, they could either buy or barter with neighbors.”

Such was her love of Ukraine, Tkachenko decided to spend a year going to high school in Mariupol, the southeastern city on the Sea of Azov.

“I lived on the outskirts,” she said. “I lived with my cousin, she had her own house, she also had a huge garden. She raised pigs and goats. And so, she introduced me to that lifestyle, and I helped her out and I helped her take some of the products to the market, which was very new to me. I didn't do that growing up in a big city. The city of Mariupol is really beautiful. It's on the sea, it has a wonderful beach. So, those are my memories of Mariupol- A quiet, calm city with beautiful architecture, where people would come to go to the seashore every summer. And that's the place where my family and I had their beach time. So, to think of those memories of idyllic childhood beach vacation, and now Mariupol being one of the hotspots of the war and a place that's completely destroyed to the ground is heartbreaking, but also almost hard to believe, hard to imagine, until I probably have a chance to go there, then it will hit hard. But it's just hard to keep both images in one's mind.”

She returned to Ukraine again in the 00s with the man who would become her husband, showing him the world of both her family and the magical childhood memories impressed upon her by her parents and their summer trips home.

“When we ended up having children some years after that, we wanted to make sure that that identity is transferred to them in some little ways,” said Tkachenko. “So, for example, their last name is my last name, is a Ukrainian last name. Most of my kids have a Ukrainian first name as well. So, little things like that.”

In 2014, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, lighting a long fuse that would eventually blow up into the full-scale invasion of 2022. At this point, Tkachenko was raising her family and focusing on life in Western Mass. Her husband works at Amherst College, and she started a life coaching business in 2010.

“There was a lot of confusing information coming through the media here versus information that was coming through to my parents in Kazakhstan about what's going on in Ukraine,” she said. “So, it was a very confusing time to understand what is really going on, who's attacking who, and why. And there was propaganda that my parents were fed, and they were giving me that information, and I was hearing new information here.”

The violence challenged some of Tkachenko’s long-held beliefs about her family’s homeland.

“One of the things I keep saying to my husband and to my kids is that having grown up in the post-World War Soviet Union, having grown up with a father who fought in World War II, having heard his stories of horror of what war is like, what kind of losses it can bring, how really mind boggling it is that one group of people can attack another group of people, having grown up with those stories and with this idyllic sense that was instilled in me by my parents, I guess, that this kind of thing will never happen in my lifetime,” she explained. “I knew the horrors of World War II, and I was 100% sure that there was going to be no war on the land of my ancestors ever after that experience. So, when you start to see guns and tanks and people attacking each other, people living just across the border, the first reaction is kind of like this sense of, how is this possible?”

The outbreak of violence again in 2022 caught up with Tkachenko when she least expected it.

“In February of last year, my family and I took a vacation in Puerto Rico,” she said. “And we rented a house that my husband pointed out from the day we moved in, he said, look, it's colored in Ukrainian colors. And it was true, half the house was bright yellow, half the house was bright blue. And we moved into the house on February 22nd. On February 24th, [my husband] woke me up and said, honey, I'm sorry, Russia invaded Ukraine. And it was a complete shock, and we all felt really, really trapped and not able to do anything. We were not at home. We were supposed to be entertaining our young children, we didn't tell them that that's what's happening. Our older teenagers, we told them, but the younger kids, we were supposed to put up a fun front and entertain them on the beach. But deep inside, our hearts were breaking. And we felt trapped in the sense that we were watching the news, reading the news, but we couldn't do anything, especially being so far away from home. We didn't even have neighbors or friends to talk to. We were just on this beautiful paradise island. And yet inside, we knew there was a war going on and people were dying.”

Upon returning to Montague, Tkachenko got in touch with her brother and his contacts among Ukrainians caught up in the conflict. At first, her efforts to help consisted of using her savings to help people buy tickets out or away from the front lines. One of the people Tkachenko met along the way caused her to step up her efforts.

“She was a professor at the local university in Kyiv. And as soon as the war started, she realized that a lot of elderly people who didn't have anybody living with them would need a lot of support. For example, as soon as the war started, people probably all over Ukraine, but I know from this person in Kyiv, they ran to the pharmacies and they bought all kinds of medicines that were in the pharmacies just to have because there was this fear that there will be nothing left in the stores- Food, water also, but medicines specifically. And so, the elderly people didn't have access to their daily medication that they needed. They also couldn't get through to the pharmacies or stand in long lines. Because there were these checkpoints, on the roads, transportation, public transportation wasn't running. So, it was this chaos. And so, this friend of my brother’s realized that the way she was going to help is she was going to knock on the doors of elderly people, ask them what kind of medications they needed, she would go and stand in a long line, seek out what they needed, and bring it to them. And she just volunteered to do that. And I supported her with funds to be able to do that, to provide medication to people.”

With need growing by the day, Tkachenko soon found new projects.

“This other group of people, basically three guys who helped rescue people from under rubble in a destroyed city of Chernihiv, which is the area where my father is from, and free of charge, they would put people in their private cars and drive them to the border,” she told WAMC. “And then they would pick up supplies at the border of Poland and bring them back to the destroyed city, anything- Water, food, batteries, flashlights, whatever it is. And they would do this, back and forth. So, what they needed help with is buying larger vehicles, because we have these three drivers who are ready to drive across Ukraine under fire. There's bombs falling and artillery fire, and they are finding a safe way to get through. They're risking their own lives. So, if they had larger vehicles, they could transport more people.”

Tkachenko started a GoFundMe to secure the vehicles, which in time expanded to buying Ukrainians drones for reconnaissance and protective gear for frontline soldiers.

In short order, she got an invitation to actually go to the border to support those fleeing into Poland to the west.

“In my heart, I was torn because it was just the start of the war, there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Tkachenko. “Even going to Poland felt a little bit dangerous. Like, how, why would I do that and leave my four children at home? I was questioning all of that in my heart. But there was a deeper, deeper feeling somewhere, maybe like, what you call a gut feeling or visceral call, ancestral call, that was stronger than the doubts that I had in my mind, stronger than the doubts that I had in my heart, even, that just kind of kept saying, you have to go, you have to go and be there with your people.”

With that, Tkachenko was off to Poland.

“I brought cash to Ukraine, to the border of Poland and Ukraine, and gave stipends, gave out envelopes with stipends to mothers with children, to single women, to elderly women,” she said. “It was mostly women and children crossing the border. So, that was one way in which I was helping. And then I also was helping people find hotels and pay for hotels for temporary stays, like three weeks, four weeks. But literally, to paint you a picture of what was going on, you imagine yourself at this checkpoint, a cross border checkpoint in the middle of nowhere between Ukraine and Poland with a barbed wire in between. There are hundreds and thousands of people just pouring and across the checkpoint. Once they come into Poland, you can just see this sigh of relief on one hand, that, they have this sigh of relief, like, I'm safe now. On the other hand, in their eyes, you see this worry- What's next? Okay, I'm safe now. But where am I going to spend the night? Where am I going to eat? Where am I going to change the baby? I'm out of diapers. Where am I going to use the bathroom? How am I going to speak here? I don't speak Polish. How am I going to use my phone, suddenly my cell phone doesn't work, it's a whole different country. You can see this in their faces this confusion and fear about what's next, even though they've escaped probably the worst.”

Tkachenko spent two and a half weeks helping distraught evacuees find short-term housing in Poland and adjust to life in exile. But the work she was doing didn’t seem to match up against the gravity of the challenges the Ukrainians faced.

“So, I decided to focus my attention on the possibility of, you know, what can I do?” she said. “How can I help people find, or, how can I provide places for them where they can live in a dignified way, not on the floor in a shelter that wasn't suitable for winter? How can they be somewhere where they can live for a little while, call it a home, until they figure out their next steps?”

In May, Tkachenko actually entered Ukraine for the first time in years to see the situation for herself.

“I did not go to the areas that I visited as a child because those areas are not quite safe right now,” she told WAMC. “So that made it a little bit easier. I didn't actually see that the specific places where I spent my childhood, where my parents grew up. But still, crossing the border into Ukraine, which you have to do on land now, you can't fly into Ukraine, and immediately seeing people with guns, in uniform, checkpoints, you suddenly realize, wow, I'm in in a war zone, I'm in a war-torn country. I can't describe the feelings, really, except for heartbreak.”

While Western Ukraine was less ravaged by conflict than the east, it was still surreal.

“When you arrive into a city, there, it almost looks like nothing is wrong from the first glance,” said Tkachenko. “You feel like people are smiling, walking around, they're beautifully dressed, they're drinking coffee in cafes, but then you start to notice signs of this being a war-torn country. You start to see people in uniforms, you start to see injured soldiers walking around, because Western Ukraine is where a lot of them go to the hospitals or to rehab after an injury. So, you'll see people with missing limbs, you'll see people with metal plates in their arms, just walking around the city. And that's one sign that's really disturbing and really brings it home. And then you start to notice that all official buildings are surrounded by piles of sandbags, like, protective sandbags with little openings in them for the guards to use a gun if need be. You suddenly realize, okay, yes, this is this is a war zone.”

She quickly became accustomed to the ubiquitous air-raid sirens.

“They sound every few hours, they sound all across Ukraine, even in areas that are relatively safe, just in case,” Tkachenko told WAMC. “And it's a sound that I'll never forget. I never expected it to be so alarming. It's meant to be alarming. But it's also extremely anxiety provoking when you hear it and it goes on and on and it's so loud. I can't even imagine people living with that sound, even in areas that haven't been hit, living with that sound day in and day out and at night. During the day, you can sort of explain it to yourself and say, well, they are sounding them everywhere just in case. It's okay, we're safe here in western Ukraine. But at night, when you're woken up from your sleep, you have no idea where you are what's going on, and you hear an air raid, and all of the stress hormones are up as high as the roof.”

On this trip, Tkachenko focused on interviewing displaced people as well as regional and municipal authorities to find out how to most effectively house and support those forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

“People were living in very crowded conditions in schools, gyms,” she explained. “By then, not so much train stations anymore, like the stuff we saw on the news. People were accommodated, they had a roof over their head, but it was really crowded, in places that- You know, they would have one shower per 100 people, no kitchen to cook, so they were totally depending on humanitarian food assistance, eating canned fish breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

It was clear that housing wasn’t the only answer.

“Simply having a roof over their head is just part of the solution,” said Tkachenko. “Helping them with this kind of economic integration, social support, is the second key piece that they need in order to stand on their own two feet, to start to piece their lives together, to start to feel like they can live somewhere a functioning life. Not a fully functioning, you know, if, especially if somebody's husband is on the front lines and their sisters in Germany. It's still not fully normal, but better than living in a shelter and depending on humanitarian food, aid. So, we developed this concept for our organization that would involve providing dignified housing and social integration support, things like employment assistance, professional requalification, if people were willing to requalify and do a different job from the one they were originally trained for just in order to stay afloat. Language classes, IT training so that some people could potentially work online. Childcare, so that moms who are now single moms because their husbands are in different location, so that those moms could work.”

At this point, what started as personal donations and evolved into a GoFundMe became an international NGO: Project Nadiya.

“And I have to laugh, because, you know, people may think I named the company after myself, but the word 'Nadiya' means 'hope,'” said Tkachenko. “And I guess the seed for the name of the organization was planted way back when I was at the border before I even knew that I was going to have an organization like this. When I would introduce myself to people and say, my name is Nadya, I will help you. They would melt in my arms, start tearing up, and say 'Nadiya' is what we need right now.”

Tkachenko was last in Ukraine in the fall.

“I came across the border on October 10th, which may not mean anything to anyone here,” said Tkachenko. “But October 10th was the beginning of the new attacks on Kyiv, new attacks all over Ukraine with kamikaze drones. So, this was the first time. There was a one of the biggest attacks since the start of the war that happened on the day I came into Ukraine. And on that day, there were casualties in Kyiv and across Ukraine. There was a big missile that hit a playground, right in the middle of Kyiv.”

Through it all, she travelled from Western Ukraine to Kyiv to meet with potential donors and collaborators.

“We arrived in Kyiv on the 17th,” said Tkachenko. “And the next round of kamikaze drone attacks took place that day. And I was in my hotel at 6:30 am. And I heard six or seven boom-bah, really strong, really loud, really nearby with windows shaking. Air raids were going on all night. But then at 6:30 or seven, there were these six hits really close by. Didn't know where exactly, but then as soon as it hit the news, I realized that the one of the drones fell literally three blocks away from me, and unfortunately a hit an apartment building, and many casualties, many injuries. One particular that really stands out was a couple that were expecting a baby that just were killed in their bed.”

Project Nadiya’s goal is to re-think how housing is offered to displaced people.

“While what we typically think of refugee housing as either tents, or container homes are kind of these temporary little homes. The people in Ukraine really want to live in conditions that are more dignified, understandably,” said Tkachenko. “And also, the politicians, the mayors, the regional administration, they really want to see their cities remain beautiful. And they want buildings that will last, not fast built, not container homes. And so, what we came to after our conversations with them, is that the most kind of time-efficient and cost-effective choice for providing housing to refugees is to actually work on refurbishing existing empty buildings. For some reason, in Ukraine, in each village, in each town, there are several empty buildings- I guess, very similar to Western Massachusetts here where we have old mills, that kind of thing. So there, they would have old dorms, old clinics, old schools that haven't been used for a while, but they're empty. They have strong bones.”

Refurbishing old buildings keeps displaced people without cars in centralized locations while lessening sense of isolation.

The pilot program for Project Nadiya is an old dormitory in the Zakarpattia Oblast near the city of Uzhhorod.

“We're still raising funds for this particular building, because part of the building is designated as a social or learning or community center,” said Tkachenko. “So, there's rooms for 100 people, you know, small families, moms and kids. And then there's another part to the building that will, when it's finished, it will host a childcare room, it'll host kind of like a conference room or classroom where people can get the support that they need with employment assistance, or psychological support, or legal assistance, things like that.”

With $400,000 raised so far, there’s still around $100,000 to go. Tkachenko says her Western Mass community has been behind her from the start.

“A lot of my supporters, my first supporters, came from Montague,” she told WAMC. “The people who donated the first $100, $250, that started pouring into my GoFundMe back in March of last year, it came from people that live here. From my neighbors, people that know me well, or people who only heard of me through their neighbors. So, it's been an extremely supportive community. Before my first trip to the border of Poland and Ukraine, I received several recorded songs from a group of singers that meet here on the green here in Montague that really wanted me to bring the sounds of Montague with me on the road. And they were really special, heartwarming songs that are on my phone that I listened to when I was there.”

For Tkachenko’s father, who long dreamed of a return to Ukraine, the realities of old age have softened the blow of the renewed conflict that has leveled his beloved country.

“My dad at this point is 95,” Tkachenko told WAMC. “And his memory is fading, his hearing, his eyesight are fading. So, he's not fully understanding what's going on. And I think in a way, it's a blessing, because I think it would be very, very hard for him to see what's happening on his land. He knows there's a war because he can see on television tanks and guns and things like that. And when I talk to him, he just says things like, I don't care who is right or wrong, I just want people to stop fighting, I just want there to be peace. And I think that comes even despite the fact that his memory is fading and comes deep down from his heart, like, in the end, just stop fighting, just, whatever the reasons are, I want everybody to be peaceful, and I want to see my grandchildren, and that sort of thing. So, it's tricky to know exactly what's going on through his mind.”

Thousands of miles from a homeland she watches burn from afar, Tkachenko’s plea to her fellow Americans is simply to not forget.

“The interest and enthusiasm, I guess, is, is fading, for understandable reasons,” she said. “You know, we have our own stuff going on. We have elections, we have hurricanes, we have this and that, we have our own migration issues to deal with in the United States. But the war of this scale is unprecedented, and the war is not finished by any means. And the needs of regular citizens like us are growing. They're not diminishing, they're growing, the dire needs for support, for housing, for food, for medical supplies. And it's important for us to just keep remembering that, and keep refreshing in our memory that, if there's capacity to support any efforts, not necessarily my efforts, but any efforts that have to do with Ukraine, whatever calls your passion, please continue to support Ukraine.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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