At 12 years old, Vira Palamarchuk shouldn’t have a care in the world.
At 12 years old, she should not be tired, or sad, or worried. She should not be glued to the media, closely watching from over 4,600 miles away as Russia attacks Ukraine, her home country, where her father is fighting on the front lines.
At 12 years old, she should not be left to wonder whether he is alive or dead.
“It really is, like, you don’t want to even know what’s happening,” Vira said of the war from her home in Montauk. “I’m not on my phone anymore. I don’t look at the news anymore, because I don’t want to know. I just want to know if my family is okay and if my friends are okay. You see all those pictures and you don’t even want to …”
She paused, her voice hitching. “You feel bad for being safe,” she said. “That’s the feeling I get.”
Last Thursday evening, nearly 100 people arrived at the Hook Windmill in East Hampton Village, blue-and-yellow flags and posters in tow, for the “Stand With Ukraine” rally. Friends and strangers alike approached Vira and her mother, Anya Bimson, with hugs and words of encouragement — among them two Russian women, who apologized on behalf of their country.
“It was very emotional. There were not only Ukrainian people, there were people from all over the world,” Bimson said. “It was very important for me to see people understand what is going on, especially people from Russia.
“Lots of people in Russia have no idea — they think Putin is trying to help Ukraine,” she added. “So I hope they’re gonna know truth, but I think it’s gonna take a long time — and not even everybody will understand.”
The battle for Ukraine began in the early morning hours, local time, on February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a “special military operation” into the country of about 44 million people, in order to eliminate what he called a serious threat, according to reports.
After months building up tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, as well as a series of failed diplomatic talks, Putin claimed the Russian military sought “demilitarization and denazification,” not occupation — even though attacks on multiple cities followed shortly thereafter.
“It’s not a surprise for anybody that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine,” Bimson said. “In Ukraine, it’s something everybody was expecting for years and years, because we, all the time, felt this pressure.”
This, of course, is not the first attack that Russia has made on Ukraine. It follows eight years of tension since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which involved an invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 that killed over 14,000 people.
Compounded by Ukraine’s desire to forge a closer relationship with NATO and the European Union — in effect distancing the country from Russia and Putin, who has said he considers Ukraine a “brother nation,” and one he should control — many Ukrainians saw this day, and war, coming, Bimson said.
“When I first heard about it, I was just so down. I had no hope because Russia is such a big country, you know?” her daughter said. “And then I go on the internet, and people are making jokes and they’re being so positive and hopeful. The Ukrainian people, they’re ready to die for freedom — anytime.”
As scores of everyday citizens have learned how to shoot guns and make Molotov cocktails, more than 2 million people have fled to points west — Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and beyond — according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in what the agency has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been killed.
“People don’t even realize how hard it is to wake up in the morning and have to text your grandparents and just, like, every second, your hands are shaking because, ‘Oh my God, they’re not answering, what’s happening?’” Vira said. “You just give yourself anxiety.”
In the summer of 2019, Vira and her mother moved from Hrytsiv — a small, rural village about four hours from Kyiv, the nation’s capital — to Montauk, where her stepfather, Raymond, works as a deckhand on a local trawler.
She was 10 — old enough for both the kindness and the soul of the Ukrainian people to leave an impression on her, as well as their fear.
“I remember all the people being so scared, I just didn’t know why they were,” Vira said. “I just want people to realize what’s happening and really stop Putin, because he is not just a threat to Ukraine. He is a threat to every single person on this earth.
“It’s like giving a monkey a grenade — like, who gives a person like that?” she continued. “He’s a sick person and they gave him nuclear weapons.”
Last week, Russian troops accidentally started a fire at the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe during an attack, according to the Associated Press, though no radiation was released. Even so, the incident briefly sparked worldwide alarm in what was called “the most chilling turn yet” of the war.
Pharmacies across at least nine European countries have reported a surge in iodine sales amid fear of a nuclear fallout — with many out of stock since the start of the war. But some experts say that iodine is unnecessary at this stage and, ultimately, would not help in the case of an explosion, especially for those in close proximity.
“My parents could go to Germany because my mother’s brother lives in Germany, but they don’t want to leave because they’re taking care of two grandmas, and one of them is 100 percent blind,” Bimson said. “So they told me, ‘No, we’re not leaving.’”
Some of Bimson’s friends are hiding out in Kyiv — “They cannot leave anywhere because it’s very dangerous,” she said — while others have taken the risk and fled. Among them were Marina Vonsovich, a cousin of Water Mill resident and Ukrainian citizen Natalie Massa, who moved to New York two decades ago.
“She’s a single mom in Ukraine and she had to grab her daughter and to run, run,” Massa said. “She was very lucky that her friend had space in her car, so there were seven people in a five-seater car trying to go to the Polish border. There was a newborn in the car and a cat, and they were at the border for 48 hours because the line was not moving.”
Vonsovich crossed into Poland with one pair of jeans, one sweater and no money — “She didn’t have a chance to pack and the car didn’t even have room for any luggage,” Massa said — but she wasn’t alone for long. Massa reconnected with one of her Polish friends, who agreed to meet her cousin at the border, bring her back to her apartment, and keep her safe.
“I cannot even imagine what people are going through — and this is my own family,” Massa said. “I’m 43 years old, and all my friends’ children, they are 20 years old, and if they’re male, they cannot leave the country right now. So not even everybody can leave the country, because they can’t leave their children and husbands and aging parents behind. They’re staying there, all together, to support each other.”
Leveraging her background in finance and project management, and her connections in Ukraine, Massa has launched a nonprofit organization, iLoveUkraine, to support families on the ground in need. She expects to launch its website and start operations in the coming days.
“I decided, you know what? I just need to stop crying every second, every day, and watching news, and I need to do something,” she said. “I cannot change anything in Ukraine right now, but I will do what I can from here — and what I can do from here is raise awareness and maybe somebody will help.”
The effort started with Massa posting to Facebook, soliciting donations for Ukraine, which caught Linda Clifford’s attention. She scrounged up anything she could find — sweaters, down jackets, hats, waterproof boots, hiking shoes, scarves, snow pants and men’s shirts — and arranged for Massa to pick them up at her home in North Sea.
A couple of days later, with a few more items in hand, she swung by Massa’s house to drop them off — and couldn’t believe what she saw.
The driveway was filled with donations — from diapers, clothing and shoes to personal hygiene products, suitcases and blankets — and a half-dozen volunteers were loading them into a van, working as a team.
“Everybody was crying in the driveway,” Clifford said. “We were hugging and crying, even though we’d just met.”
The response was “absolutely overwhelming,” said Massa, who had planned to load the donations in her own car and drive them to Holy Family Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lindenhurst, which would ship them to Poland. But two days later, the volume of donations was enough to fill a van, which the Epley family donated, along with a driver, to bring up-island.
Now, fundraising for iLoveUkraine begins, explained Massa, who will use 100 percent of the proceeds toward goods and shipping costs.
“I feel very grateful,” she said. “I feel very touched with the support from our community, and I feel privileged that my background in accounting and finance and project management, I can use that 15 years of knowledge to actually do something good. Maybe it will help a family that needs a blanket at night, or food on the table. That’s what makes my life meaningful.”
While Massa’s efforts geared toward civilians, Rocco Carriero is busy collecting donations for members of the Ukrainian military — just as his Southampton-based firm, Rocco A. Carriero Wealth Partners, has done for the 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.
“If the world does not watch things closely, this could be 1939 all over again,” he said. “Seeing the bombing of children’s cancer hospitals, orphanages, elderly people, sick people, when they open up a zone to allow for people to leave the Ukraine, they’re shooting those people — the situation is really like nothing else, and we’re all seeing this unfold in front of us on television.
“It’s horrible — I’m literally losing sleep over this at nighttime,” he continued. “I’m horrified based on seeing what’s going on here. As Americans, we all need to do something.”
With help from students and staff at Westhampton Beach Middle School, they will pack 1,000 care packages stuffed with essentials, like socks, toiletries, hand warmers and lip balm, as well as creature comforts, including Tate’s Bake Shop cookies and other snacks, and cards from the kids. They will be shipped to Poland and distributed to soldiers in the field, Carriero said.
“It is a major undertaking, and we’re gonna try to do it fast,” he said, adding, “We absolutely want lots of packages to end up in the hands of the service-people that are out there on the battleground.”
Among them is Vira’s father — 33-year-old Taras Palamarchuk, her “inspiration for life,” she said. He normally works as a border guard in Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine where a humanitarian crisis is now unfolding, according to the Associated Press. As to where Palamarchuk is now, his family doesn’t know. He cannot say.
“My daughter is very worried about him,” Bimson said. “She’s watching news all the time and every time something very bad is happening, she has no idea, maybe her dad is there. She’s waiting every day for his message, or something, just to know he’s alive.”
The last time Vira spoke to her father on the phone was February 24, the day the violence erupted. “It was, honestly, just so horrifying. I could not believe what’s happening,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything, I was tired all the time, I was just sad and didn’t want to do anything. I was ready to give up because you lose your hope.”
When Palamarchuk picked up his daughter’s call, she was already in tears.
“Are you okay?” Vira recalled asking him. “What’s gonna happen?”
“It’s going to be okay, don’t cry,” he told her. “Ukraine is going to win, just have faith.”
She took a deep breath after translating and paraphrasing their conversation.
“It was just … it was just all I needed to hear,” she said, “but still, I couldn’t really stay calm.”
While Vira’s friends on the East End have offered her support — “That just really brought me hope in humanity, in general,” she said — the young girl often catches herself thinking about the next time she will see her friends in Ukraine.
“But then I just remember what’s happening, and I’m like, ‘That’s never gonna happen again in my life,’ because I don’t even know where they are, they’re not in touch,” she said, adding, “You know, the most weird thing is realizing that when you’re gonna come back home, that’s not gonna be the same. Nothing’s gonna be the same.”
In two weeks, on March 24, Vira will turn 13 years old. On the cusp of summer, she will graduate from seventh grade at the Montauk School, with her American classmates by her side. And then, if all goes to plan, she will see her father once again — on the other side of this war.
“Ukraine is Ukraine, and even if they do take over, it will never gonna be part of Russia,” Vira said. “You can make us Russia on the map, but you cannot make the people Russian. They’re always gonna be Ukrainian.”