Think Out Loud

Ukrainian-Americans reflect on family and friends at risk of Russian invasion

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Feb. 2, 2022 12:58 a.m. Updated: Feb. 10, 2022 12:13 a.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 2

Logo photo representing the Ukrainian-American Cultural Society of OR & SW WA

Logo photo representing the Ukrainian-American Cultural Society of OR & SW WA

courtesy Ukrainian-American Cultural Society of OR & SW WA

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Oregon residents with ties to Ukraine are watching events in their home country with desperation, as Russian troops move ever closer to invasion. Tatiana Terdal is on the board of the Ukrainian-American Cultural Association and Tetiana Korzun is an MD/Ph.D. candidate at Oregon Health and Sciences University, whose entire family is still in Ukraine. Terdal and Korzun are both originally from that country, and we talk with them about what their life is like right now and what they’re hearing from family and friends back home.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Ukrainians all around the world are watching events in their home country with desperation these days as Russian troops mass on the border and tense diplomacy continues. Just this morning, the Pentagon announced that 3,000 additional US troops would be sent to Poland and Romania. We wanted to know how Ukrainian Americans in Oregon are doing. Tens of thousands live in the region. I’m joined by two of them now. Tetiana Korzun is an MD/ PhD candidate at Oregon Health Sciences University.  Tatiana Terdal is on the Board of the Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Welcome to you both.

Tetiana Korzun /Tatiana Terdal: Hi, thank you for having us. Hello, Dave, thank you for having us.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Tetiana Korzun first. What brought you to the US?

Tetiana Korzun: I moved to the US to pursue my education and career in science and medicine. I moved with my husband to Vancouver, first, and to Portland 10 years ago, finished my undergrad here in Portland State and was lucky enough to join OHSU MD /PhD Program.

Miller; When you left was your thinking that you would come back or did you have a sense that you were coming to the US for good?

Korzun:  I would say probably the second. I knew that in Ukraine I probably won’t be able to do everything I wanted to do from the perspective of science and medicine. So I think it was for good.

Miller: How much of your family is still in Ukraine?

Korzun: Sadly enough, all my family is in Ukraine. My mom and dad are in Central Ukraine. My sister is in Kharkiv, Kiev and all extended family live in Kyiv.

Miller: Kharkiv, and that’s just on the, on the border with Russia and the northeast part of the country?

Korzun: Yes, this is correct. It’s approximately 20 km from Belgorod, Russia.

Miller: Tatiana Terdal. You’ve been in the US much longer than Tatiana, since 1991. But do you still have family in Ukraine as well?

Terdal: Yes. So my immediate family is here in the U. S. I actually, when I was a student at T. L. I met a very handsome guy who was a native Portlander. So he brought me here. So I, my husband and my children live here in Portland. My mother also lives now in the United States, but all my cousins and their families are in Ukraine.

Miller: How often have you been talking to them or communicating online?

Terdal: So I’ve traveled to Ukraine in 2016, 2018, 2019, just before the pandemic, personally. But now I mostly talk to my family in Ukraine over the internet. So we mostly like, you know, text each other and do check-in messages.

Miller: What are you hearing from them these days?

Terdal: It’s very tense. It’s very scary. It’s very similar to 2014, just before the Russians invaded in 2014.

Miller: Although, in that case, as you noted, they did invade parts of Eastern Ukraine. When you say it’s very similar and it’s tense, what in particular are your family members or your friends telling you?

Terdal: So there has already started cyber warfare and psychological warfare especially targeting children. Last week for example all schools in the town of Sloviansk which is very close to the Russian occupied territories received bomb threats, so all the schools had to be evacuated. Nothing was found but it definitely created a lot of panic. And I remember in 2014 there was a lot of terrorist activity blowing up bridges, explosions. People dying from explosions. So similar psychological and also cyberwarfare.

Miller: Tetiana Korzun, when you came to the U. S. was there any talk that members of your family would come as well?

Korzun: Really good question. I had continued conversations with my mom and dad to move to the US but for a long time since almost the very first day when I moved here, they didn’t want to move because they have their own lives, their own probably social capital infrastructure and all their friends living in Ukraine. So they didn’t want to move at all. All their lives were revolving around the cause, saving  their  native city. However within the last two months I would say we had a closed conversation about moving to the US because of the security and safety for the security and safety reasons. These days it’s extremely hard to do because it’s almost impossible to file the petition for a family reunion since the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine is understaffed, because the US called back unessential staff and family and released the travel advisory not to travel to Ukraine and move out from Ukraine. So from the normal 2-3 weeks of the closest appointment in the US Embassy in Kyiv, now the closest appointments are in the beginning of November.

Miller: Are they regretting that they didn’t come with you earlier when you said please come to the US?

Korzun: I don’t know, and frankly speaking, I’m really afraid to ask this question.

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Miller: Hm. Because it would seem like too painful a question to ask at this point?

Korzun: Yes, I agree.

Miller: How often do you talk to your family members?

Korzun: I talk to my parents every day in the morning which is eight pm In Ukraine, and I’m getting catched up on all the news from the Ukrainian side and closer to 10 pm, that’s the Ukrainian morning, where I give the synopsis for all the news from the US side and the world. So it’s daily, twice a day.

Miller: What are those conversations like?

Korzun: Very hard and anxiety provoking and overall, my parents are in this mood of fluctuation between denial and severe anxiety; and in between, I have a feeling there is an apparent sense of normalcy, and all the war talks are very unsettling, especially when you’re reading the news that say ‘military disaster,’ terrifying consequences or multiple civilian casualties. Very unsettling.

Miller: What do you hear from your sister? Who you noted is just 20 km, around 10 miles, a little more than 10 miles away from the border?

Korzun: The first conversation about the potential invasion from the side of Russia happened probably a month ago and it was taken as a panic provoking action from my side. However, in a couple more conversations I witnessed more mature responses from her and her husband, kind of like towards ‘be ready and be aware,’ have all the documents together and have medications and ready to go and join my parents in Central Ukraine.

Miller:  Well… you mean that when you first brought this up, your sister said, ‘Oh you’re, you’re just an American who’s overreacting and trying to make me panic.’

Korzun: Yes, I would say so.

Miller: That must be really hard to deal with if you’re legitimately concerned about her safety. But it seems like now she’s more concerned as well?

Korzun: Yes. I think she now has a more mature response to the situation. It’s better to be ready and have everything ready than be in denial.

Miller: Tatiana Terdal. You mentioned that you’ve, in recent years, although not since the pandemic, taken a number of trips to Ukraine. My understanding is that you went in 2016 as part of a Mercy Corps Aid Program. What was that trip like? And I’m wondering how much you’re thinking about those Aid trips these days?

Terdal: So I was actually on Think Out Loud in 2015, just before Mercy Corps started the program in Ukraine helping internal refugees. Because as you mentioned, the Russian invasion started in 2014 and Russia invaded and occupied Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. It’s not a very big percentage of Ukrainian territory, but since Ukraine is very densely populated, about two million people are internal refugees from the Russian occupied territories. So this is a huge number for the country that only has about 44 million people. It’s like half a population of Oregon internal refugees. So Mercy Corps had a US Aid Grant to help these refugees resettle because they had to leave everything. They had to live their entire lives and did not know what to do. And the Ukrainian government did not actually know also what to do with so many people that needed to be resettled. So there were programs starting in and being funded by different humanitarian groups helping refugees start their businesses, helping children resettle, helping with medical care. So when Mercy Corps started that project in 2015, 2016, I traveled to see their offices in 2016. Most refugees prefer to stay close to the occupied territories hoping that they will be able to return one day. Unfortunately, it has not happened yet and most of them are still there. But I’ve seen business trainings that Mercy Corps was doing, teaching people how to write a business plan and helping maybe with some startup costs for the business. There was also a program taking kids from the war zone on a trip to other parts of Ukraine where there is no artillery fire every day where kids are not blown up by mines. And that was also one of the programs. So I’ve seen a town in Ukraine, Sloviansk that I just mentioned that was briefly occupied by the Russians in 2014 and then the Ukrainian army was able to liberate it, but it still had the scars of the war, also had people I talked to because children were killed, just two kids kidnapped from an Easter service in a Protestant church and then later found murdered. So that town was already suffering And now, again, a week ago it had to evacuate all of the children. So it is a very very tense situation.

Miller: Tetiana Korzun, one of the stories we’ve been seeing is that a lot of Ukrainians are volunteering these days to become members of defense battalions – people who have no real connection to the military, graphic designers and market researchers and retired people. Do you know people who are doing that?

Korzun: Yes. Actually my friends, who are in Kyiv, have been joining weekend drills and training on how to handle weapons. So yes, it’s definitely happening.

Miller: Tatiana Terdal, let’s say that Putin backs down. I’m curious what you think, nevertheless, the lasting effects of this escalation could be.

Terdal: Well you know, one of the lasting effects is, Ukraine will be more prepared to resist aggression. One of the things that Ukrainians are talking about right now, kids in areas close to the Russian occupation, are learning about mine safety and now all kids will maybe get training on mine safety because you know the invasion can again happen. The good thing that is happening is Europeans are starting talking more about green energy and being less dependent on fossil fuels because partly, Europe is being blackmailed by Russia because so much of energy supplies come from Russia, gas and oil, and a lot of European countries are very dependent on those flows. So with less energy dependence on Russia, Europe will be less prone to be blackmailed. And that can actually help the development of green energy and improve the environment. So that may be one of the good things that can… would come out of this crisis.

Miller: Tatiana, for the first time since the start of the Cold War, very prominent voices on the American right, I’m thinking about Tucker Carlson on Fox news, for example, have been taking a pro-Russian stance. Did you ever think you would see this?

Terdal: You know, it’s not that unusual. I’ve heard similar stuff on far right and far left. There are people who are seduced by power, and I know that during World War II, just before the start of World War II, when the Nazis and the Soviets already invaded Poland,

there were voices in the US who also wanted to support the Nazis. So that is not unusual. I’m happy to see that there is still a very strong bipartisan support in the US Congress, and again, it’s strong bipartisan. You saw the same in 2014. We actually, our community, met with Senator Merkley and his staff and he became one of the cosponsors of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 and very grateful for him. It was a pretty unanimous support for that legislation and I’m still seeing the same unanimous support in Congress.

Miller: Tatiana Terdal and Tetiana Korzun, thanks very much for joining us and best of luck to you and your families.

Korzun/ Terdal:Thank you very much. Thank you.

Miller: Tatiana Terdal is a Board member of the Ukrainian American Cultural Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Tetiana Korzun is an MD/ PhD candidate at OHSU. Tomorrow on the show, we’re going to talk to two Oregonians who learned to ski at Mount Hood and are about to compete in the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.

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