Chicagoan unites with uncle, aunt who left Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, plans to help more people

Jackie Birov, of Wicker Park, didn’t want to stop at just helping family. She’s been able to assist at least six other people in leaving Ukraine over the last week — and she’s not done yet.

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Jackie Birov embraces her uncle, Mark Shoykhet outside the exit of the international terminal at O’Hare Airport on Wednesday, March, 9, 2022. Birov has spent the last week working to get her aunt and uncle to the United States from war-torn Ukraine.

Jackie Birov embraces her uncle, Mark Shoykhet, outside the exit of the international terminal at O’Hare Airport on Wednesday, March, 9, 2022. Birov has spent the last week working to get her aunt and uncle to the United States from war-torn Ukraine.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mark Shoykhet smiled in relief when he saw his niece standing outside the customs doors in Terminal 5 at O’Hare Airport on Wednesday night.

He and his wife, Ada, were exhausted after nearly a week of wondering whether they would be able to flee Ukraine as the invasion by Russia escalated.

Mark Shoykhet, 83, tightly squeezed his niece, Jackie Birov, causing the shot glasses in her black tote bag to clank.

The first thing Shoykhet told Birov was that he was tired and unshaven. He also said he had at least one glass of whiskey on the flight from Warsaw, Poland — guess there was no need for the vodka that Birov packed with her after all.

Then came Ada, 81, out the doors. She got emotional when she embraced Birov, who had a bouquet of flowers for her.

Birov was finally united with her uncle and aunt, whom she spent countless hours over the last week helping to get to Chicago.

“They feel more regret that they had to leave,” Birov said, translating for Ada, who spoke Russian. They didn’t believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would actually “force them basically out of their homes, and they’re sad … for their friends and people that are still there.”

Birov, whose parents came to the U.S. from Ukraine before she was born, had spent weeks trying to encourage her aunt and uncle, who live in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, to leave.

At first, they resisted.

“They didn’t believe that this would really happen,” Birov, 32, said. “And then they understood that they had to leave.”

As Birov scoured Signal, an international messaging app, for available travel arrangements for her family, Ada and Mark Shoykhet spent a lot of time in a bomb shelter in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, which is about 20 miles south of Kyiv. While down there, Birov said, a bomb fell on a residential building less than a half-mile from where they were.

“It’s unimaginable to see the scale of what’s happening there,” Birov said. “I’ve cried so many tears over it that now I think I’m just numb.

“The overwhelming feeling is helplessness… What can we really do? Talking to people there, these strangers, especially on the phone when I was making these calls, trying to get info for my family... I felt like it was like talking to somebody who was on the Titanic as it’s about to sink.”

Birov didn’t want to stop at just helping family. She’s been able to assist at least six other people in leaving Ukraine over the last week — and she’s not done yet.

Birov is currently helping a mother and her two children find a safe place in Europe.

“It’s hard to feel like you can rest when there’s … just around the clock stuff to do,” said Birov, who encouraged people to donate to an online fundraiser she’s organizing to buy and send bulletproof vests to Ukraine. Birov has raised more than $6,000 to aid Ukrainian efforts.

Travel-weary Ada and Mark didn’t have many words to share before leaving the airport with their nephew, whom they’re staying with in Wheeling.

But Ada Shoykhet made sure her niece translated one important message: “Ukraine will win.”

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