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A year after Russia's invasion, Ukrainians in Iowa stay resilient

People stand under a giant Ukrainian flag during a vigil to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Andrew Harnik
People stand under a giant Ukrainian flag during a vigil to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

One year ago, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, causing a massive refugee crisis. Analysts estimate that about 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the war so far, while Ukraine has seen some 100,000 killed or wounded in action, as well as 30,000 civilian deaths. Economic effects of the war have been felt around the world. Meanwhile, Ukraine has stood its ground vehemently against President Vladimir Putin's ongoing attempts to overtake the country.

Overseas, in America, University of Iowa student Oksana Hirchak could only look on as her home country was invaded. Hirchak arrived to study psychology at the University of Iowa, roughly half a year before the conflict escalated. Her family members, who live in the western part of Ukraine, remain safe, but she says she still worries.

"It was very depressing to be away and not be with my family and not be with my people, other Ukrainians," she said of the first week of the invasion. "It was difficult for me."

Western Ukraine has been generally safer than the eastern portion of the country, although the refugee crisis both inside and out of the country has been overwhelming. An estimated 8 million Ukrainians fled the country, and many other internal refugees displaced in the east are being helped by people living in the west. The World Health Organization describes the exodus as "the largest movement of people in the European Region since the second World War."

Hirchak says she communicates almost daily with her family primarily through Facebook, but constantly fears losing them.

"I feel like I'm too far, I'm a thousand miles away," she said. "I feel like I should do something, and I'm not doing enough."

As more Ukrainians are forced to leave their homes, families can become separated as well.

"There are many people telling stories that buses show up, take kids, and thenthose children are taken across the [Russian] border," said Cynthia Buckley, a social demographer with the University of Illinois.

Buckley works to help the United Nations understand the scale of the problem, an incredibly difficult task during active conflict. The estimates of the number of children taken across the border ranges from 6,000 to 400,000.

"This is going to be a really important issue as we go on," she said.

The United Nations defines genocide as "a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part." The Associated Pressreports:

Whether or not they have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase the very identity of an enemy nation. Prosecutors say it also can be tied directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has explicitly supported the adoptions

Marina Zaloznaya, a UI sociologist and political scientist who grew up in Crimea, said the path forward between Ukraine and Russia remains unclear.

"One of the things that has become quite clear about this war is that it has surprised us," she said. "From the beginning until now, just about every couple months, we're faced with news, with realities we had not expected. It's very unclear what the next year is going to bring."

Cynthia Buckley provided a list of organizations support humanitarian efforts in the region.

Zaloznaya said it's unclear how long the war may go on. But many people have been struck by Ukraine's unity and patriotism throughout the war. "People continue to try to stay strong, and they agree that the only way to end this war is with victory."

Zaloznaya said she worries about news fatigue from other parts of the world.

"As other political issues become important, it will be more difficult to help people, but we have to maintain support."

She said after the war, people will have to rebuild their lives completely.

On the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Russian forces continue to attack Bakhmut, and fighting has broken out north of the city. On Feb. 24, one year after the invasion, a panel discussion, which includes Zaloznaya and Buckley, will take place at the UI.

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River