LOWELL - Oleksandra Chepenko's journey to Lowell was not quick, or easy. She fled her family's hometown in Ukraine near the Russian border with her mother and 4-year-old son within one week of the Russian invasion.
"Our lives were ruined," she said. "We left everything we had."
Without a license or car, family members drove them across Ukraine into Bulgaria. They stayed in Bulgaria for several months waiting for Chepenko's elderly father to safely escape Ukraine. Finally, in October 2022, Chepenko was sponsored by a local professor to move to Lowell.
"Really it was [such a] warm welcome that we could never expect," she said.
She lives in a loft apartment in Lowell now with her mother, father, and now 5-year-old son. She's the only family member who speaks English - and the family still gets around without a car or any drivers licenses.
Chepenko has been working at the International Institute of New England in Lowell, the same organization that helped her settle in the U.S. In particular, she says Arthur and Julie Barlas, Kateryna Odnorozhenko, Denis Shmelev, Emily and Tom Collins, Paulette and Chuck Caragianes, Caroline Hanson Rowe, and so many others have been integral in helping her and other Ukrainians get to safety.
Reflecting on the war one year after the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Chepenko remembers the morning of February 24, 2022 like it was yesterday.
"We woke up one year ago with the sounds of missiles and explosions. It was terrible," she said. "It was really something that I won't forget ever. . . It was panic. A lot of people decided to leave and escape. It was a terrible traffic jam."
Chepenko and her family hope to return to Ukraine if Ukraine wins the war, but Chepenko worries about instability.
"How can we know that this won't repeat in one year? In two years?" she said. "The price [Ukrainian soldiers] pay for our freedom and independence. . . I just hope it won't be for nothing you know? If we don't win. . . I just can't imagine how many people died and suffered for nothing. This is my biggest fear."
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