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Suitcase Stories: How a Cup of Coffee Transports Maryna to Happier Days in Ukraine

  August 22, 2023

Maryna, a Ukrainian refugee, was living in Kyiv with her daughter when Russia invaded the country in 2022. In her recent Suitcase Stories performance she shared the story of her difficult and brave decision to say goodbye to family and friends in Ukraine with no idea when they may be reunited, and her determination to give her daughter a safe home in the U.S. Maryna came to IINE as a client and now works as an Employment Specialist on our Career Services team. Every day, she helps fellow Ukrainian refugees and other immigrants to acclimate to life in the U.S. and secure employment. The following is a transcript of Maryna’s story in her own words.

Maryna shares her story at IINE’s International Women’s Day event

Since moving to the United States last year, I have visited many coffee shops in Boston, including Starbucks, Tatte, and Panera. I like Starbucks coffee the best. I order my latte with soy milk and one sugar. I am allergic to regular milk. I like how everything feels normal when I am drinking coffee. But sometimes, when I am sitting at a coffee shop and I hear the sounds of airplanes in the sky, I am immediately transported back to Ukraine. The sound makes me nervous, and I feel like I should run to a shelter. This is a kind of associative feeling from which it is very difficult to leave.

In Ukraine, I was a successful businesswoman. I worked in retail, setting up new businesses such as H&M and Adidas in malls.

I remember when I used to worry about such trivial problems as a broken nail or some kind of ugly hairstyle. This all changed on February 24, 2022. I remember waking up at 4 am as usual because I have a five-month-old daughter, and I needed to feed her. I saw fireworks at the window, or I thought it was a firework. Suddenly, I received an SMS from my friend who lived in the north of Ukraine. He wrote me: “Maryna, take your daughter, dog, and cat, and drive to a safe place. The War Has Started.” I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I called all my neighbors to tell them to take their stuff and drive. In one hour, my neighbors came and helped me to package all my stuff. When we finally left, I was driving with my 5-month daughter, cat, and dog and two neighbors (because they had no car).On the road, there were traffic jams, panic, horror, and crowded queues to fill up the car. I called my friends to know which road will be good. We were driving towards the border with Poland and hoped to find friends who could take us for the night. A drive that should have taken five hours took twenty-one. When we got to Lviv, our friends accepted us. Instead of taking a hot shower, resting, or having a bite to eat, we went straight to a shelter because we heard sirens throughout the city. I thought we would stay with them for one night, but instead, we stayed for three months. I did my best to stay busy. I volunteered, collecting donations coming across the border and distributing them to people. I remember my daughter crawling among the boxes.  We had to stay busy, or my mind would go to dark places. The whole time I thought, “We will go home in a few days, we will go home in a few days.”  But a few days would be another week.

Eventually, my neighbors and I decided to return to Kyiv. It was our home. We resigned ourselves to the fact that it will not be the same as before and that we would learn how to live in a new reality. We would be strong. Still, it was hard to return. People were different. People smiled less, and many businesses were closed. I could not return to work because international companies were no longer opening stores in Ukraine. I learned that the nanny who had watched my daughter when I went to work had been killed.

Still, I didn’t want to leave Ukraine. It is our home. I wanted to be strong.

This changed one day when a rocket flew into a neighboring house, and a five-year-old girl lost her parents and became an orphan and disabled. At that moment, I realized the same thing could happen to me and that my daughter could be left an orphan. I told myself I need to move. I found a program that helps Ukrainians to move to the U.S.A. My friend sponsored us, and after we got approved, I packed two pieces of luggage with our belongings and left. Again, the road was hard, and with every distant kilometer, I understood that my heart is in Ukraine, but I want to have a safe future for my daughter.

Upon arrival in Boston, I had to complete all the documents to legally stay in this state of the country so that we could be citizens of this community, and other Ukrainians suggested to me that I could apply to IINE. And I am very grateful to them for assisting in the preparation of all documents, for obtaining insurance, for helping with job searches, and for the fact that now I am part of them and can help Ukrainians like me.

One of the things I remind other Ukrainians is to find joy in the small moments. For me, that is a cup of coffee. Sometimes when I miss home, I actually go to the Natick mall and order a cup of coffee and walk around. It reminds me of my life in Ukraine, and I feel a little less anxious.

Plus, you can’t hear the airplanes from inside the mall.

Suitcase Stories invites storytellers to develop and share meaningful personal experiences of migration and cross-cultural exchange with others—from large audiences to small groups—of all ages. Everyone has a Suitcase story. Learn more about Suitcase Stories.


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