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Ukrainian refugees find succor in AOA doctor, executive director

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Transfixed, Viola Kanevsky, O.D., could escape neither the enormity of the humanitarian tragedy playing out in Ukraine nor the tidal wave of memories that came crashing home. Flashbacks of cold train platforms; a small suitcase stuffed with sheet music, records and a change of clothes; and her mother’s painfully tight, lifeline grip on her toddler hand as they left Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipro) in Ukraine for Moscow—and years later, the United States—came flooding back.

The Russian invasion in late February came as no surprise to anyone growing up in the former Soviet Union, Dr. Kanevsky says. Still, nothing prepares you for the sights and sounds of everyday life completely, abruptly rent apart.

Some 4 million refugees have since fled Ukraine while another 6.5 million are displaced throughout the war-torn country. Long lines of people cross borders at places such as Przemysl, where Polish families lined a train platform with strollers for Ukrainian mothers, or Sighetu Marmatiei, a small town in Romania where its citizens have lined a pedestrian bridge with toys for children who left with nothing. Estimates suggest almost one child per second is becoming a refugee of the war in Ukraine, per UNICEF.

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The helplessness and weight of it all turned Dr. Kanevsky to tears. Her very soul felt numb. But on a phone call one night after the invasion, Dr. Kanevsky’s mother shared some wisdom that came to profoundly shape her weeks ahead.

“Crying doesn’t help anyone,” her mother shared. “Focus on one person at a time—find that one person and help that one person. Then do it again.”

Helping Dima

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An immigrant herself, Dr. Kanevsky arrived in the United States as a child with no community, no commonality with the other children and no sense of belonging—“the eternal immigrant … stuck between worlds, between cultures,” she writes as New York State Optometric Association president today. This drive to belong took two very different paths: one that saw her ultimately find that community in optometry, while the other saw her family establish an international arts program. The latter brings together children under 12 years old from different cultures, nationalities and languages to work together for an arts and music showcase; 17 events over the years, she fondly recalls.

But in early February, Dr. Kanevsky’s thoughts turned to two Ukrainian brothers, Dima and Vladik, young musicians who had once joined them from Dnipro. With a Russian invasion looking increasingly likely, Dr. Kanevsky reached out to their mother, Olena, to inquire about getting them out of the country. The urgency turned even more critical with the declaration of martial law. Suddenly, now-20-year-old Vladik couldn’t leave as he was of conscription age. After a heartbreaking decision to leave one child behind to save the other, Olena and 15-year-old Dima immediately boarded a train from Dnipro to Lviv with Dima’s bassoon, some sheet music and a couple points of contact in their possession.

“We had friends from five different countries pulling together to get Dima, his mother and several others traveling with them out of the country,” Dr. Kanevsky says. “It was simply a nightmare for them.”

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To make matters worse, a 14-year-old diabetic girl among their group was running out of supplies at a time when simply finding regular meals was difficult. When the mother asked how much to get a new pump, Dr. Kanevsky took the request to her optometric community on social media. The response was overwhelming when donations and offers to help began pouring in. In only a matter of days, the community found everything the young girl needed, from insulin, sensors and pumps to much-needed cash for food and shelter: “The community stepped up, and it’s been amazing.”

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On April 5, Dr. Kanevsky awoke to find the following message from a friend in Germany who delivered the package:

“Здравствуйте, дорогая Виола! Сегодня Марине пришла посылка от Вас! Огромное, большое-прибольшое Вам спасибо! Это невероятно и Вы даже не представляете, как вовремя! Мы бесконечно благодарны Вам за помощь!”

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“Hello, dear Viola! Today, Marina received your package! An enormous, huge thank you! It’s incredible and you can’t even imagine how timely. We are endlessly grateful to you for your help!”

Successfully leaving Ukraine is only the beginning of Dima’s story, however. While many nations lifted or amended refugee requirements, the U.S. has yet to do so and Dr. Kanevsky’s desire to bring Dima to her New York home on a tourist visa was delayed considerably. The earliest available visa interview at the embassy is in late August. While Canadian colleagues have reached out with generous offers of shelter, Dima’s mother is understandably reluctant to send him off to strangers.

In the interim, Dr. Kanevsky has reached out to every politician she knows, as well as connecting with music schools in the area that might sponsor Dima on a student visa for a summer program. She’s optimistic that a sponsor and interview for Dima will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, Dr. Kanevsky implores her colleagues to write their legislators and encourage changes to the U.S. visa policy.

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As for Olena, as soon as she knows Dima is in safe hands, she intends to return to Dnipro where Vladik, his father and aging parents remain.

“She’s making the only choice she can make: to protect one son and then go back and help the other,” Dr. Kanevsky says. “That’s an incredible amount of courage.”

Not knowing where to turn

Now six weeks since Russian military forces invaded Ukraine, much of the country’s northern, eastern and southern regions remain open warzones. Daily artillery and air strikes in the western and central parts of Ukraine have devastated civilian centers, infrastructure and supply routes there, too, making travel treacherous at best. The United Nations warns its conservative estimates of civilian casualties—exceeding 3,600, including over 160 children—dramatically undercount the full impact of the war, while military casualties alone could exceed tens of thousands. Mounting evidence also suggests civilian massacres may have occurred in formerly Russian-occupied towns, including Bucha, outside the capital city of Kyiv.

The tragic and volatile situation has created one of Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crises since the Syrian civil war with many Ukrainians fleeing to neighboring European Union (EU) nations.

“The stress in this house has been palpable,” says Kim Jones, executive director of the Optometric Physicians of Washington. For the first 24 hours after the Russian invasion, Jones and her partner, a Canadian citizen who emigrated from Ukraine during the late-90s, watched news reports with helplessness.

“You feel like there’s nothing that can be done, nothing that can be done from here really,” she says. “It was just this numb, stressful and helpless feeling.”

That shock didn’t last long, however. The two knew time was of the essence to contact family, some in Kyiv and others spread around the country, and encourage them toward the borders once commercial flights were canceled. But initially, they found resistance among her partner’s aunts and cousins; mothers didn’t want to leave their grown children and wives didn’t want to leave husbands. It took several days before the family acquiesced that it was time to leave, Jones says.

Ultimately, eight members of the family, ranging in age from 11 to late-70s, started on their journey toward the Polish border with a goal of meeting in Warsaw and then onward to Dijon, France, where friends had arranged for an empty, 15th century chateau to host the group. But the group was plagued by delays from the outset: what should have been a six-hour journey to the Polish border for one family took three-times that only to get halfway there due to the refugee crowds.

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By the fourth day, Jones and her partner began raising additional funds via social media to help the extrication efforts. The families needed money for train tickets, hotels and food. Jones explains that a years’ worth of salary in Ukraine still isn’t enough to purchase six train tickets from Warsaw to western Europe. While free hostels and train rides are available, they’re overcrowded by the sheer number of fleeing civilians.

“We take so much for granted as Americans,” Jones says. “To get from Warsaw to the south of France is 2,500 miles or similar to going across the U.S. But when you’re traveling across Europe, it’s several different countries. You’re dealing with language barriers, making transfers, cell phones that lose service, or being unfamiliar with things like how to order food.”

Once in Dijon, the challenge has been navigating countries’ visa requirements. While one aunt had a preexisting U.S. visa and embarked for New York, other members of the group have been coordinating with embassies in Paris. While the process for a U.S. visa has been cumbersome, Canada adjusted its requirements to allow for an easier visa application. Such is the case; family in Canada are preparing to receive some of the group and the social media campaign—which generated $15,000 over a two-week period—will also help fund their travel. Jones and her partner couldn’t be more grateful for the support.

Still other family members await in the Dijon chateau in hopes the war winds down soon. Jones says they’re “taking things day by day.” In the meantime, Jones and her partner take solace in knowing they could help their family, but images on news reports still hit home.

“When you see video of people flooding out of Ukraine, you recognize that those are all individual human beings with their own stories and their own grief. You see a picture of women walking across the border, you think, ‘did they all have those same feelings leaving their own sons,’ or does their apartment even exist anymore?” Jones says.

“At the same time, we feel very blessed to be able to help the families that we could. If we can help eight people, then maybe there are eight other people out there who can help eight more, and we spread it around to make it not such a heavy lift.”

Dima (left) plays his bassoon while brother Vladik (right) stands behind a xylophone during the ‘Ship of Tolerance’ concert in Chicago several years ago.

Dima (left) plays his bassoon while brother Vladik (right) stands behind a xylophone during the ‘Ship of Tolerance’ concert in Chicago several years ago.

Dima (left) and his brother Vladik (third from right) stand beneath the sail created for the ‘Ship of Tolerance’ concert in Chicago several years ago.

Viola Kanevsky, O.D., her children, Dima and Vladik pose for a picture during the ‘Ship of Tolerance’ concert in Chicago several years ago.

The ‘Ship of Tolerance’ in Chicago was created by an international group of children and local carpenters, and launched to a commemorative concert.

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