She’s the kind of girl you imagine when you think of an Eastern European beauty queen: a blue eyed, 5’9” athletic, blonde with a radiant smile and a body that could stop a truck. Her Instagram followers are amassing for a reason; she’s not just a pretty girl who placed in the top ten in California’s most premier beauty pageant, she’s also Ukraine’s undisputed beach volleyball champion.
Her name is Natalie, and she moved to California from Ukraine ages ago, to pursue a career in sports. As a professional athlete, she played for California’s top teams in professional volleyball tournaments. I follow her on social media out of admiration and respect for her achievements. It makes me proud to share the same heritage with this beautiful, accomplished, young woman.
I opened her Instagram Story on March 2, 2022, and instead of the usual things girls share on social media, I saw a video that Natalie had taken out of a window of a high-rise apartment building in Kiev, Ukraine. The video showed the city in mayhem, with war sirens piercing the air and fighter jets circling like vultures on the horizon. The clip did not seem real, but rather like a scene from a WWII movie.
Natalie had gone to visit her family in Kiev when the war broke out. Rumors of Russian military forces piling up on the border between Ukraine and Belarus had been circulating for a while. At that point, most people thought Putin was simply flexing his muscles, trying to intimidate his neighbors and the rest of the EU. His brutal invasion of Ukraine was a shock to the international community.
Over the next few days, Natalie’s posts were nothing like usual. Missiles lit up the night sky over Odessa near my own hometown of Mykolaiv while explosions pierced the air. Natalie is a US citizen. She still had a chance to catch one of the last few flights to the US, but instead, she embarked on a dangerous mission to try to get her mother and aunt out of Ukraine. It’s a perilous journey. Pictures of cars and families that had been shot trying to leave Ukraine saturated the news.
EACH TIME I opened her Instagram Story, my heart SKIPPED A BEAT.
Is she ok? Is her family STILL ALIVE?
She found a car and drove through Ukraine to its border with Moldova. The upcoming lanes were full of armored vehicles, hundreds and hundreds of tanks and military trucks carrying missiles and solders, heading towards the capital. She was live on IG as she passed a narrow bridge with a block post at the end. Several armed solders with AK-47s in their hands are ready to open fire. I found myself holding my breath. She managed to pass safely and enter Moldova.
Over 3.2 million people, like Natalie and her mother, have managed to flee Ukraine since the war began. Hundreds of thousands more are trying to leave. Many haven’t been as lucky as they were. Entire families have been shot at while trying to escape. This is the most devastating humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII, and yet, it has also reveled the best in humanity.
NEVER IN THE HISTORY of the modern world have people been MORE UNITED in the face of a HUMANITARIAN catastrophe.
The countries in the European Union are welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms. Many others, including the UK and Canada, have created special visa programs that allow Ukrainian refugees to enter their countries or reunite with family. Poland has accepted over two million refugees, Romania over half a million, while Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia have each accepted over 300,000.
Transportation companies have been offering free train rides to evacuate people. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are helping refugees by providing them free rides from the border into neighboring countries, turning their homes and business properties into shelters, and offering food and medical care.
An upscale resort in Moldova turned their entire luxury property into a refugee camp. A maternity hospital in Kishinev offered Ukrainian women free childbirth and postpartum care. Countless churches throughout the United States have held donation drives resulting in entire shipping containers and commercial airplanes full of clothes, canned food, and first aid supplies being sent to Ukraine and neighboring countries. But, maybe most surprising, some of the world’s largest corporations took a cut in their earnings to take a stand against violence.
Google, Facebook, Netflix, TikTok, Apple, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and many others, suspended their operations in Russia, losing millions of dollars but gaining immense respect from the international community. Airbnb, the world’s largest online marketplace for private vacation rentals, opened a Refugee Fund and waived booking fees for those willing to rent short-term housing for refugees. Many major corporations such as Amazon, Google, and Whole Foods, just to name a few, took measures to help displaced Ukrainians by collecting and matching donations.
Witnessing simple people open the doors of their homes to complete strangers, large corporations cut into their profits, and people uniting in the face of a horrible tragedy gives me hope; hope that we, as the human race, are still capable of more good than evil. It is certainly not the time to celebrate just yet as millions of people remain displaced from their homes and thousands are dying in the line of fire. But maybe someday, our good is going to be enough to end wars so that we all can live in peace. Because every good deed, no matter how small or immaterial, makes a difference as long as enough people do it.
So whether you are considering flying to the Ukrainian border to assist with refugees, planning on making a donation to help people of Ukraine, or simply spreading the word about the people in need on your social media, you are getting us one step closer to the world that lives in peace.
Photo Credit: Inna Stiblina, Inna’s Photography
Makeup: Evgenia Vitkov
Model: Agata Vitkov