Television images of the devastation in Ukraine are particularly painful for a Mount Airy resident who is originally from that country and still has relatives there who are struggling to survive the Russian invasion.
“I have a heavy heart of mourning for all the Ukrainian people who are suffering,” said Irina Ilyasova about the human toll that accompanies the conflict which has now raged for more than a month.
Bombed-out buildings and ravaged streets are hard enough to deal with – there’s also the emotional fallout gripping the citizens there and those of this country who care.
“I can’t imagine how much people struggled,” said Ilyasova, a former longtime resident of Ukraine and Russia whose fluent English is punctuated by a heavy accent.
While she now lives a secure, albeit unstable, existence in North Carolina, her family members in Ukraine who have been affected by the crisis are not.
Among them, his younger sister, Nyla, who recently fled the capital kyiv, a brother and his two children.
“He’s still in Ukraine,” said Ilyasova, whose relatives there also include an uncle in his 60s and the man’s family.
The local woman was particularly worried about her sister as she was in the big city and was bearing the brunt of the Russian attacks.
Ilyasova managed to monitor Nyla’s well-being through sporadic internet connections.
“She was in an air-raid shelter for almost three weeks in Kyiv,” said the local resident, who was worried about Nyla’s well-being as she would have to leave the shelter for food and thus be exposed to the violence. “It was difficult for her.”
However, Ilyasova said her sister actually seemed to be handling the ordeal better than her, including sending periodic messages to Ilyasova such as “I’m fine” and “Trying to calm myself down.”
Nyla was eventually able to leave Ukraine by train and travel to Lithuania, located in northern Ukraine, with the nation of Belarus in between. His daughter Diana lives in Lithuania.
“At first, people spent weeks waiting to get on a train,” Ilyasova said of the difficult situation faced by around 10 million people displaced from their homes who have had to seek refuge elsewhere.
After taking the train, Nyla boarded a bus to complete her journey to Lithuania, where she and other refugees received a warm welcome including free food and mobile phones.
“It took two days to do it,” Ilyasova said.
Meanwhile, his brother and other relatives are staying in Ukraine, said the local resident, who is reasonably comfortable with their safety as they live in rural areas away from the main part of the fighting.
“You hope everything will be fine, but you never know,” she said of the uncertainties surrounding the war. “You can’t really feel good, because it’s all over.”
Ilyasova painted a scenario reminiscent of farming families in this region, who grow produce which they can then store or store in cellars – where people are now also hiding to be better protected from attack.
It’s one thing for armies to engage in conflict in the traditional way – on remote battlefields with limited impact on the population, but that hasn’t happened in Ukraine.
Civilians were inevitably caught up in the street-to-street fighting in some cases as combatants killed each other.
“People survived World War II and now they are dying in the 21st century,” Ilyasova observed.
Some ordinary citizens have taken up arms against the Russian invaders and naturally suffered casualties, but the local resident is struggling to deal with attacks on innocent, non-combatant civilians in places like theaters and shelters.
“It’s beyond war,” Ilyasova said.
Still, she believes Ukrainians will continue to hold their ground and resist Russian intrusions, with a key factor in their strong reaction so far involving defending their homeland.
“Who wants to give up part of their land? she said of a possible consequence of a power grab by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seeing the aftermath of the conflict via television coverage has been difficult for Ilyasova, who says the best news she has received from Ukraine so far “was hearing that my loved ones are alive”.
“Brother Against Brother”
Irina Ilyasova, a former pediatrician, has lived in Mount Airy since 2005, when her family moved here after her husband, also a doctor, accepted a position at the Northern Regional Hospital. Ilyasova has a 30-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter.
The family moved here from New York.
But Irina’s story – as far as the current conflict is concerned – actually begins much earlier, when she was born in Ukraine.
Ilyasova left at age 15 to live in Moscow, where schools existed to kick off her medical education, which was before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In addition to her relatives in Ukraine, Ilyasova knows many people in Russia as she has lived in Moscow for 27 years.
Although she strongly supports the cause of the Ukrainian people, to some extent Ilyasova’s loyalty lies on both sides in the conflict between like-minded people.
“I couldn’t believe how much brother can fight against brother,” she lamented. Although influenced primarily by the struggles of the Ukrainian people, “my heart is on both sides,” Ilyasova said.
“It breaks your heart.”
Local assistance helping
Ilyasova was heartened by the support received from this community since the start of the invasion.
“I get a lot of phone calls,” she said, as well as people bringing her flowers.
Ilyasova is a member of the Rotary Club of Mount Airy, which supported him throughout the ordeal.
Additionally, a fundraising event is scheduled today at 1 p.m. at Miss Angel’s Farm, located at 252 Heart Lane, to aid Samaritan’s Purse efforts. This organization provides assistance to people in physical need as part of its Christian missionary work and now has teams on the ground to respond to the Ukrainian crisis.
“Bring comfortable shoes, as we will be marching around the perimeter of the farm at 1:30 p.m. to show our solidarity with Ukrainians abroad and at home,” reads a Facebook announcement for Miss Angel’s Farm.
“Afterwards, Ukrainians from our community will talk about what’s happening and how you can help and cultural music will be provided by Gypsy Laurel to celebrate Ukraine,” the announcement adds. “Feel free to make posters and bring flags if you have them to this event.”
Irina Ilyasova greatly appreciates such gestures, but says the ultimate gift will be a breakthrough in the conflict which now shows no signs of waning.
“I hope it will stop,” she said. “I would like to have peace between countries.”