IDAHO FALLS – Until just a few weeks ago, Svitlana Miller had no idea if her father was dead or alive.
The Idaho Falls woman grew up in Kyiv and has spent many sleepless nights worrying about her family members in war-torn Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.
Miller and her dad lost touch about a week into the conflict when a town 18 miles from Kyiv — the place her dad was living — was wiped out in an attack.
“It was really strange because I didn’t know if I should mourn (his death) or — we were just in limbo,” Miller tells EastIdahoNews.com.
Miller’s parents divorced when she was a kid and Miller and her dad have never been really close. But that didn’t make the potential loss feel any less tragic to her.
She explains that her dad doesn’t use email or social media but enjoys writing letters. Before the war began, he’d sent a letter to Miller and her kids.
“He wanted us to tell him all these things. I never replied to it and when the war broke out, (it was hard) to believe he might be dead,” Miller says.
Miller just returned from her third visit to Ukraine in the last four months and she was relieved to learn, after all this time, that her father is still alive.
“He’s ok. He’s fine, so it was an amazing last trip to connect with him,” says Miller.
Apparently, his phone was disconnected shortly after the attack and he was staying at Miller’s late grandmother’s house.
Many of Miller’s cousins and extended family members remain in hiding as the conflict rages on. She speaks with them on a regular basis, encouraging them to flee to safety in Poland.
But many of them would rather die than give up their property and freedom, says Miller.
Though she still worries about them, Miller feels much better knowing all her family members are accounted for.
What life is like in Ukraine
After visiting Ukraine several times and witnessing the situation firsthand, Miller compares some of what’s happening to the initial panic that occurred in eastern Idaho at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when people were hoarding toilet paper and store shelves were empty.
“COVID was good preparation for my trip to Ukraine,” she says. “Cars on every major road are lined up. You can’t get anywhere. People are rushing to the bunkers and stores have no food.”
Many have been displaced from their homes, leaving them without food or water. Miller says money is scarce because people have lost their jobs, which makes it difficult to buy anything.
Though there are similarities, Miller says the comparison to COVID still doesn’t do it justice. The things happening in Ukraine are much worse than the pandemic, she says, and most people in the U.S. don’t comprehend what they’re going through.
“Take all the chaos from the pandemic and imagine rockets dropping everywhere you see,” Miller describes. “On the rockets, they (the Russians) write, ‘For the children in Ukraine.'”
The death toll since the conflict began is unclear but many cities have been destroyed. Officials continue to discover bodies of people who’ve been trapped underneath the rubble for months and many others are injured.
Along the southern and eastern border, the front lines are more than 1,300 miles long.
“In and around the capital, Russian troops have been kicked out. They’ve never entered the capital … but the small towns around (it) have paid a heavy price,” she says.
For many women and children, that price came in the form of rape and slaughter by invading Russian soldiers, according to Craig Chandler, a 68-year-old man from St. Anthony who spent a month helping people in Ukraine.
“It’s just horrific some of the texts and emails I’m getting from these guys,” Chandler says.
Miller crossed paths with Chandler during her second trip to Ukraine and learned he’d come there at his own expense with no stake in the game out of a genuine desire to help.
“The whole world’s watching this play out like a movie and no one’s really doing anything. I just couldn’t stand it,” Chandler says. “I just wanted to help get people out.”
But with no internet access, Chandler had no GPS and was navigating streets on his own. There were times when he was unknowingly putting himself at risk.
“Sometimes, we were 10 miles from the Russian border. I don’t speak the language, I don’t know the road signs, I don’t know east, north, south, west … and if you get turned around and go the wrong way, you’re in trouble,” says Chandler.
Chandler spent a month in Ukraine doing what he could and returned home in May. During his time there, Chandler came to love the people like members of his own family. He describes them as some of the most kind, humble people and he’s hoping to return again soon.
Touched by Chandler’s efforts and seeing people all around her who needed help, Miller felt compelled to do something about it.
To Ukraine with Love
Miller and her husband recently formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit called To Ukraine with Love. It’s funded entirely by donations, all of which goes directly to the people in Ukraine.
More than $1.2 million have been donated since its inception, according to the website, and several students — including Miller’s son, Chase — are working to raise $15,000 to buy modular homes for three Ukrainian families whose homes were destroyed.
Chase has gone door-to-door in his neighborhood gathering funds and has a table set up at Broulim’s in Ammon this week. As of Tuesday night, Miller says Chase has $4,460 left to reach his goal.
There are many people in eastern Idaho who want to help, but don’t know what to do. As people become aware of Miller’s organization, she says people have come out of the woodwork to contribute and she’s surprised at how generous they’ve been.
“I got a Venmo transfer of $1,009 from a preschool teacher in Arizona. All it said was first and second graders did a drive for the children in Ukraine,” says Miller. “I’m so touched by the community. There’s a lot of good out there.”
Both Miller and Chandler say the Ukrainians are so grateful for the support they’ve received from people across the country.
The battle rages on
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Miller would’ve never guessed it would still be happening four months later.
After witnessing the carnage and destruction, she says it shows no signs of slowing down.
“They’re making $1 billion a day (selling oil to the U.S. and other countries),” Miller says of Russia. “They’re putting that money aside for this. When you buy from people who have evil plans, they’re going to use it.”
Though the Ukrainians recognize and appreciate all the support they’ve received from people all over the world, Chandler says many of them are concerned that the U.S. and others “will get worn out” and forget about them as gas prices continue to rise.
“If they could spend a month with them like I have, no one would ever abandon or leave them. They would fight tooth and nail to the very end and I’m praying that’s what America and the United Nations will do,” Chandler says.
Despite America’s efforts in sending tanks and cannons to help the Ukrainians win the war, Chandler says it’s not enough, and much more needs to be done to ensure Ukraine emerges victorious.
“They keep saying, ‘We gotta make sure they win the war.’ I think we need to quit dipping our toe in the water and get involved,” he says. ”
For those who want to help, Chandler offers this suggestion from his own experience.
“Lots of prayers and lots of donations is what will help those people,” says Chandler. “They would give us a list. It would go on forever, but basically, they need everything to survive.”
To donate or learn more, click here.
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