Chicagoan home after escaping war in Ukraine: ‘I’m incredibly lucky’

Olga Tsoi, 31, had hoped to bring her Ukrainian mother with her. Instead, Oksana Tsoi will resettle in Canada since it opened its boarders to Ukrainian refugees first.

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Olga Tsoi, 31, outside her Rogers Park apartment on the North Side.

Olga Tsoi, 31, who grew up in Ukraine and was visiting her mother there when war broke out, is now back in her Rogers Park apartment on the North Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Last week, Olga Tsoi boarded a plane in Poland, headed home to Chicago after escaping Ukraine.

And she had this gut-wrenching feeling she had failed her mission.

She had not arrived in Poland by choice. Home for a visit to her native Ukraine, she’d fled when Russian forces invaded in February.

After making it to Poland with her mother, Tsoi spent 90 days there, working in soup kitchens and delivering bags of groceries to families in need. She helped find housing for families by putting them up in hotels and tried her best to help those displaced develop a course of action — such as where they could relocate.

Olga Tsoi in Krakow, Poland, making a food delivery.

While Olga Tsoi was in Krakow, Poland, she worked at a soup kitchen and helped deliver food to families.

Olga Tsoi/Provided

She did this all with her mother, Oksana Tsoi, at her side — and Olga pledged she would bring her back to the United States with her. But the Rogers Park resident soon realized that was untenable.

“In my head I thought — because Poland right away opened its borders to Ukrainians — I thought every country was going to be the same,” Olga Tsoi said. “I figured I was just going to take my mom home to the United States and, well, that’s not how it works.”

It wasn’t until April 25 that the United States launched its program to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees — two months after the invasion.

Refugees wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on March 7, 2022.

Refugees wait in a crowd for transportation after fleeing from the Ukraine and arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, in March.

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

“We kept waiting, waiting, waiting, and by the time the United States said we could do some sort of sponsorship, we decided to get my mom into Canada,” Tsoi said. “I’m moving my mom to Canada because, first, it was faster, and if she came to the U.S., there were more restrictions, like she could only stay for two years and wouldn’t be able to go back to Ukraine.”

That’s how she returned to Chicago alone after exhausting the amount of time she was allowed to stay in Europe as a U.S. resident. Returning to Chicago was somewhat bittersweet.

“I always get so happy when I come home to Chicago, and that’s how I felt when I landed,” Tsoi said. “But I also must acknowledge I’m incredibly lucky. Like, I’m able to come back to my apartment just how I left it. All my things are intact and not in shambles. So many Ukrainians are left with nothing right now.”

Olga Tsoi (left) helps distribute meals to refugees from Ukraine at a facility in Krakow, Poland.

Olga Tsoi (left) helps distribute meals to refugees from Ukraine at a facility in Krakow, Poland.

Provided

Her mother, meanwhile, will be moving to Toronto, where another daughter has just relocated in the wake of the war. Olga Tsoi takes comfort in knowing her mom has family in Toronto and is only a two-hour flight away.

She lives in Rogers Park but grew up in Ukraine and was back there to spend the holidays with her mother just before the war. She had knee surgery while there, and her recovery took longer than expected, forcing her to stay longer than planned.

Just a few days before she was finally set to fly back to Chicago, she was awakened by the explosions of Russian bombs hitting Kyiv.

Russia had launched its attack just before sunrise, with artillery strikes hitting Kyiv and other major cities.

The war, now past 100 days old, has displaced over 6.5 million Ukrainians, many into neighboring countries, including Poland, according to estimates from The UN Refugee Agency.

Workers begin to remove debris from a Kyiv apartment block the was hit by a Russian missile in March.

Workers are shown in June, beginning to remove debris from a Kyiv apartment building that was hit by a Russian missile in March.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Countries across the globe were quick to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, and within weeks Russia was accused of committing war crimes for deliberately attacking dozens of hospitals throughout the country. Russian soldiers were also accused of committing sexual violence against Ukrainian women and executing civilians.

In Bucha, a city just outside of Kyiv, there were reports of people being killed by the Russian troops were occupying the territory for some time. There were bodies found burned, some with hands bound, according to the Associated Press.

Olga Tsoi called the reported war crimes “terrifying and awful,” saying it is difficult to watch people from her home subjugated to such atrocities, whether she knows the people involved or not.

Refugees seeking refuge, as Olga Tsoi of Rogers Park and her mother did, inside a bomb shelter in the basement of a school in Kyiv, Ukraine, hours after Russia launched airstrikes on the city

Refugees seeking shelter, as Olga Tsoi of Rogers Park and her mother did, inside a bomb shelter in the basement of a school in Kyiv, Ukraine, hours after Russia launched airstrikes on the city in February.

Olga Tsoi

She said those very things could’ve happened to her and her mother, who were stuck in a bomb shelter at the beginning of the invasion. Had they not found a way out of Kyiv, Tsoi said, they planned to stay at her sister’s apartment, which they considered safe.

Instead, that apartment building was raided by Russian troops, who tore down doors, destroying personal items they found inside. The building now is unrecognizable, Olga Tsoi said.

She doesn’t want to think about what would’ve happened had they been there.

“It could’ve been us,” she said. “It’s crazy how close it was to us.”

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