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A video screen grab shows Ukrainian soldier Leonid Ovdiiuk before he was severely injured by an explosion in May 20, 2020.

A video screen grab shows Ukrainian soldier Leonid Ovdiiuk before he was severely injured by an explosion in May 20, 2020. (

(Tribune News Service) —The explosion was so loud, said Ukrainian Special Force officer Leonid Ovdiiuk, that it sounded as if a building had collapsed. So bright that even in the nighttime darkness it flashed like the sun.

He landed on his back, his left leg grotesquely flipped and resting upon his chest. His left side was shredded, and when he tried to speak to the other soldiers, the air escaped from holes in his neck.

A mine had detonated, killing the commander beside him and leaving Ovdiiuk choking on his own blood.

That was May 20, 2020, in the Donbas region, as Ovdiiuk fought the Russians in a war still nearly two years away from expanding into the American consciousness and onto American television screens.

Now Ovdiiuk, 36, is in Philadelphia, and in pain, his left arm mostly useless, his left leg in a brace, searching for specialized care and rehabilitation services he hopes can restore or at least improve his mobility.

“I want to run,” Ovdiiuk said. That’s his goal.

He came here through Revived Soldiers Ukraine, a nonprofit founded in 2015 that brings seriously wounded troops to the United States for advanced treatment and surgeries at facilities in New York, Orlando, Chicago, San Antonio, and elsewhere. He’s assisted by local volunteers Roman Vengrenyuk, a Philadelphia financial analyst, and Olga Dishchuk, a licensed practical nurse in King of Prussia.

“We’re looking now for a doctor who can help,” Dishchuk said. “He’s kind of losing hope.”

She and her husband, Oleksandr, invited Ovdiiuk to stay at their Huntingdon Valley home while they seek specialists who can address the particularly complicated kind of injuries inflicted by military munitions. Ovdiiuk underwent arm surgery in Boston three weeks ago, but doctors could not achieve what they hoped.

He got to Pennsylvania about a week ago.

Sitting in a soft chair on the patio of the Dishchuk family’s home, a cane gripped lightly in his hand, Ovdiiuk said he rarely thinks of that day. Or rather, he tries not to think of it.

But the memory is as embedded as the shrapnel in his torso, the details as familiar as the faces of his children.

Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in February 2014, and the next month armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, the area collectively known as the Donbas.

Ovdiiuk, a police officer by profession, signed up to serve Ukraine. For the next six years, he and his all-volunteer unit, Battalion Luhansk-1, from the city of Luhansk, fought without respite.

That day was so normal, Ovdiiuk recalled. Just another day in the war.

His unit was operating in its regular zone of responsibility, some miles from the Seversky Donets River, the Russian forces on one side, Ukrainians on the other. The battalion’s job was to ensure no enemies crossed.

Ovdiiuk and his commanding officer drove ahead of the patrol, through a heavily wooded route. One strange occurrence: A swan flew in front of their vehicle. A white swan. It seemed to come from nowhere. Later Ovdiiuk would think of it as an omen, a warning not to go farther.

They stopped the military vehicle and proceeded on foot.

Ovdiiuk was blasted from head to toe.

Neither man stepped on a mine, he said. He believes the device was triggered by remote control, a double charge that blew up four feet in front of them. The explosion on the ground was followed almost instantaneously by a second at chest level.

Human Rights Watch announced last month that Russian forces have been using banned antipersonnel mines in the Kharkiv region, north of where Ovdiiuk was hurt. The POM-3 mine carries a sensor that detects when someone approaches and ejects an explosive into the air.

Ovdiiuk spent 2 1/2 weeks in a coma, losing more than half his body weight, down to 100 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. It took three months before he could get out of his hospital bed, more before he could walk. His lungs still are weak, the damage to his neck and spine enduring.

Initially he was treated at the Hospital of Internal Affairs in Kyiv, the capital, followed by more treatment and rehabilitation at Next Step Ukraine, a center for soldiers with spine and brain injuries.

He came to the United States seven months ago, getting care in Orlando and Jacksonville and most recently in Massachusetts.

Ovdiiuk has so much metal in his body that he cannot undergo MRIs, he said, because the magnetic pull of the machine could dislodge the shrapnel and cause greater injury. That makes doctors reliant on other imaging techniques, even when an MRI could produce more subtle information.

That’s what happened in Boston, Ovdiiuk said. Surgeons planned to move muscles from his healthy right leg into his left arm but upon incision saw that the internal condition of his arm was not what they expected.

“Now we are looking for the best possible rehab facility for him,” said Vengrenyuk of Revived Soldiers Ukraine, “because his injuries are not civilian injuries.”

Ovdiiuk is among more than 50 troops that the group has shepherded to the United States since 2015. The organization, which has received high honors from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, took in and spent $459,000 in donations, grants, and other revenue in 2019, according to its most recent public tax filing.

Last month, as Russia pounded cities and civilians, the nonprofit provided Ukraine with $2.7 million in donated ambulances, first-aid kits, bomb-shelter generators, and bullet-proof vests and helmets for medical personnel.

Ovdiiuk has been aged by wounds and worry. His wife, Hanna, and their two sons, 11 and 4, have fled and fled and fled again, and now are staying with his mother in western Ukraine.

He wants to end this loop of surgery and rehabilitation, to get better and return to Ukraine. He wants to rejoin the fight against Russia but knows that might not be physically possible.

Still, Ovdiiuk said, he could direct other troops and share his experiences and insight with them. He’s still a soldier.

“I want to go back to the military,” he said. “I want to get back on my feet.”

President Joe Biden has offered the details on how his administration intends to bring 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the United States.

And Ukrainian Americans in the Philadelphia region — among the nation’s largest enclaves — say they’re ready to provide a big, warm welcome.

“Everybody’s family,” said Rada Dubashinsky, 50, of Bucks County, who came to the United States from Dnipro, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, after the Soviet Union collapsed. “We’re trying to help each other within the country as much as we can, finding places to settle, finding places to live.”

She’s already assisting two newly arrived Ukrainian families, including a mother and three children who managed to escape the war and come to Schwenksville. They met through a gymnastics connection between their children, and now Dubashinsky and others help the family with everything from finding clothing to obtaining legal documents.

For Ukrainians in desperate need overseas — more than 5 million have fled the country since the Russian invasion, and millions more are displaced internally — the embrace of countrymen in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland may be the easiest part of their landing.

Under Biden’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program:

— Ukrainians would largely arrive under what’s called humanitarian parole, which is merely a permission to enter the country, not an official immigration status. It provides no path to permanent residency or citizenship.

— Ukrainians will be eligible to work. But those entering on parole get none of the federal benefits and services that go to legal refugees, including assistance with housing, health care, and employment.

— The program relies heavily on goodwill. And while they’re sure to find plenty of it, Ukrainians will need to be sponsored by American citizens or organizations. A similar effort last year that invited Americans to act as mini-resettlement agencies for 76,000 Afghan evacuees has struggled to gain traction.

“Finally, a program has developed!” said Iryna Mazur, the honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia. “It’s been really hard to respond to Ukrainians, ‘What is happening? President Biden promised to take us.’ ... It’s a good and important first step, and a lot of people are just extremely grateful.”

Many questions remain, said Mazur, who has been in discussions with Department of Homeland Security officials during the past two days. For instance, can one citizen sponsor multiple people from Ukraine?

She had no immediate estimate on how many people could be coming to this region.

What’s clear is much of the welcome will fall on the local Ukrainian community. And in Philadelphia, that community has big shoulders, in numbers and institutions.

About 15,245 Ukrainian immigrants live in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties, along with 54,324 people of Ukrainian ancestry.

They’ve built and continue to lead institutions including the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia in Fairmount, and the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union in Feasterville. Manor College, founded by a Ukrainian religious order in 1947, will confer its first-ever honorary degree on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky next month.

“There’s a lot of people ready to step up in any way they can, a lot of interest in that sponsorship model,” said Gretchen Shanfeld, senior director of program operations at Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia resettlement agency. “We’re really working in partnership with the Ukrainian consul and Ukrainian American organizations to see what they need.”

Private sponsorship of newcomers — the Biden administration has stressed family reunification as a goal — largely happens outside of the formal resettlement process.

“This program will be fast, it will be streamlined, and it will ensure the United States honors its commitment to the people of Ukraine, and that they need not go through our southern border,” Biden said Thursday at the White House.

People and organizations can apply to sponsor Ukrainians via a portal on the Department of Homeland Security website that’s set to go live on Monday.

To be eligible to come here, Ukrainians must have a sponsor, meet or complete public-health requirements, and pass rigorous biometric screening and security checks. Those who are approved will be considered for stays of up to two years.

Sponsors too will need to pass government vetting — and declare their financial backing for arriving Ukrainians.

By putting costs on sponsors, the administration chose to “outsource its moral obligation to support newly arrived Ukrainians,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said in a statement. “We urge policy makers to consider implementing some semblance of a safety net for those rebuilding their lives from scratch.”

The ongoing Afghan resettlement offers a comparison, as most evacuees entered under humanitarian parole. The U.S. government eventually did provide financial support, but the effort to attract the involvement of everyday Americans through a public-private partnership called Sponsor Circles has drawn about 700 participants.

The Biden administration “missed an opportunity to make more robust use of the U.S. refugee-admissions program,” said Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International. “A parole program that relies on a U.S. relative or tie for all support cannot be a pathway to the United States for some who most need it.”

In announcing “Uniting for Ukraine,” Biden said Ukrainians should not travel to Mexico to try to enter the United States. After Monday, people appearing at the border or other U.S. ports of entry without a visa or travel authorization will be denied admission and referred to the new program.

Schacher said that wrongly limits the rights of Ukrainians, and all other nationalities, to seek asylum at the border.

The State Department intends to bolster “Uniting for Ukraine” by expanding official refugee admissions from Europe under the Lautenberg program, which assists persecuted religious minorities. The federal government also is working to identify particularly vulnerable Ukrainians, including women and girls, children, ethnic minorities, and gay and trans people. Embassies and consulates in Europe will increase the number of appointments available for those seeking visas.

The program offers no assistance to other nationalities impacted by the war.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians who have escaped the war continue to move into the Philadelphia region.

The newest Ukrainian refugees stepped onto dry land on Wednesday, maritime legal battles having trapped them on a docked ship since February. People offered the seven sailors money, chipped in for food, and brought them cheesesteaks.

“I’m very grateful that we received all the help that we got,” said Andriy Tiupa, 19, a steward on the Ocean Force.

“They are part of our community now,” said Mazur, an immigration lawyer.

The men pray that their loved ones in Ukraine are uninjured. Friends have been killed in the war.

Roman Zhukov, a volunteer with the Honorary Consul of Ukraine, said the local community is assisting the sailors — and will help all those who arrive in Philadelphia.

“We are getting ready for everyone that is coming,” Zhukov said. “We’re working on it day and night.”


(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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