The televised images of the devastation in Ukraine are especially painful for a Mount Airy resident who hails from that country and still has family there struggling to survive the Russian invasion.
“My heart is heavy for the suffering of the entire Ukrainian people,” Irina Ilyasova said of the human toll accompanying the conflict that has now been going on for more than a month.
Bombed-out buildings and devastated streets are hard enough to handle; there are also the emotional consequences that affect the citizens there and those in this country who are concerned about them.
“I can’t imagine how people have struggled,” said Ilyasova, a longtime former resident of Ukraine and Russia, whose fluent English is marked by a heavy accent.
While she now lives a secure, if unstable, existence in North Carolina, that is not the case for her family members in Ukraine who have been affected by the crisis.
They include her younger sister, Nyla, who recently fled the capital city of kyiv, a brother, and their two children.
“He is still in Ukraine,” said Ilyasova, whose relatives there also include an uncle in his 70s and that man’s family.
The local woman was particularly worried about her sister as she was in the big city bearing the brunt of the Russian attacks.
Ilyasova managed to monitor Nyla’s well-being through sporadic internet connections.
“She was in a bomb shelter for almost three weeks in kyiv,” said the local resident, who was concerned for Nyla’s well-being as she would have to leave the shelter to get food and thus be exposed to violence. “It was difficult for her.”
However, Ilyasova said her sister actually seemed to handle the ordeal much better than she did, including sending Ilyasova periodic messages like “I’m fine” and “trying to calm me down.”
Nyla was finally able to leave Ukraine by train and make her way to Lithuania, located to the north of Ukraine, with the nation of Belarus in the middle. Her daughter Diana lives in Lithuania.
“In the beginning, people would spend weeks waiting to get on a train,” Ilyasova said of the situation faced by an estimated 10 million people displaced from their homes who have had to seek refuge elsewhere.
After catching the train, Nyla boarded a bus to complete her journey to Lithuania, where she and other refugees received a warm welcome that included food and free mobile phones.
“It took two days to do it,” Ilyasova said.
Meanwhile, his brother and other relatives are staying in Ukraine, said the local resident, who is reasonably comfortable with their safety as they live in rural areas far from the main part of the fighting.
“You hope it’s okay, but you never know,” he said of the uncertainties surrounding war. “You can’t really feel good, because it’s all over.”
Ilyasova painted a scene reminiscent of peasant families in this area, growing produce that they can later or store in cellars, where people are also now taking shelter to be better protected from attack.
“Beyond the war”
It is one thing for armies to engage in conflicts in the traditional way: on remote battlefields with limited impact on the population, but this has not happened in Ukraine.
Civilians have inevitably been caught up in street-by-street fighting in some cases as combatants kill each other.
“People survived World War II and now they are dying in the 21st century,” Ilyasova observed.
Some ordinary citizens have taken up arms against the Russian invaders and naturally suffered casualties as a result, but local residents find it difficult to deal with attacks on innocent, non-combatant civilians in places like theaters and shelters.
“It is beyond war,” Ilyasova said.
However, he believes that the Ukrainians will continue to defend themselves and resist Russian intrusions, with a key factor in their strong reaction so far involving the fact that they are defending their homeland.
“Who wants to give up part of their land?” he told him about a possible consequence of a power grab by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seeing the aftermath of the conflict through television coverage has been difficult for Ilyasova, who says the best news she has received from Ukraine so far “was hearing that my relatives are alive”.
“Brother vs. Brother”
Irina Ilyasova, a former pediatrician, has lived in Mount Airy since 2005, when her family moved here after her husband, also a physician, accepted a position at Northern Regional Hospital. Ilyasova has a 30-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter.
The family moved here from New York City.
But Irina’s story, as far as the current conflict is concerned, actually begins much earlier, when she was born in Ukraine.
Ilyasova left there at the age of 15 to live in Moscow, where there were schools to start her medical training, which was before the Soviet Union dissolved.
In addition to her relatives in Ukraine, Ilyasova knows many people in Russia, having lived in Moscow for 27 years.
While she strongly supports the cause of the Ukrainian people, to some extent, Ilyasova’s loyalties lie on both sides in the conflict between like-minded people.
“I couldn’t believe how brother can fight brother,” he lamented. Though primarily influenced by the struggles of the Ukrainian people, “my heart goes out to both sides,” Ilyasova said.
“It breaks your heart.”
local support helping
Ilyasova has been heartened by the support she has received from this community since the invasion began.
“I get a lot of phone calls,” she reported, along with people bringing her flowers.
Ilyasova is a member of the Rotary Club of Mount Airy, which has supported her throughout the trial.
In addition, a fundraising event is planned today at 1 pm at Miss Angel’s Farm, located at 252 Heart Lane, to aid Samaritan’s Purse efforts. That organization provides assistance to people in physical need as a key part of its Christian missionary work and now has teams on the ground responding to the Ukraine crisis.
“Bring comfortable shoes as we will be walking around the perimeter of the farm at 1:30 to show solidarity with Ukrainians abroad and at home,” reads a Miss Angel’s Farm Facebook ad.
“Afterwards, Ukrainians in our community will talk about what’s going on and how they can help, and Gypsy Laurel will provide cultural music to celebrate Ukraine,” the ad adds. “Feel free to make signs and bring flags if you have them for this event.”
Irina Ilyasova greatly appreciates such gestures, but says the best gift will be a breakthrough in the conflict that now shows no signs of abating.
“I hope it stops,” he said. “I would love to have peace between countries.”