The moment they decided to flee was captured on her cellphone video.
When Olga Nikitenko looked out from her terrace and saw her friend’s apartment building being shelled, a week after the war started, she decided to get her family out of Kharkiv.
“Bombs, many, many bombs,” Nikitenko said in broken English.
The community of Sunny Isles Beach, home to many refugees of the old Soviet Union, has wrapped itself around the Nikitenko family. We spoke to Olga and two of her daughters, Tania and Lisa, at Pelican Park Tuesday. Former Mayor Larisa Svechin provided translation when needed.
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“Oh my God, is it really bombs, and then I thinking it just was a bad dream, now I’m here and everything’s OK, but actually, no,” Lisa said, as she described Kharkiv after the war started.
“I’m sad, I am absolutely sad, and I don’t think I am angry because angry is the first emotion that I had, but now I am really sad about this happening,” Tania said.
After a harrowing journey by car and train, Nikitenko and her daughters made it to Poland, and then here to South Florida. Olga’s husband was in Spain on a business trip when war broke out so he was able to join his family here as well. They are far away from the death, destruction, and misery in Ukraine.
“I’m happy because my family safe, live, and together,” Olga Nikitenko said.
Lisa and Tania are enrolled at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, adjusting to major culture shock with help from some Ukrainian-speaking classmates. None of them can stop thinking about what’s happening back in Kharkiv, about friends who have lost their homes.
“Many friends don’t have houses,” Olga said, breaking down into tears.
“She’s very upset and worried about the people back home because they don’t have that ability to come here,” Svechin said, translating.
“But now we must be strong,” Olga said in English.
That’s easier said than done, but acts of kindness certainly help. Olga’s 6-year-old daughter, Rita, is the new kid at Sunny Isles K-8. The school made a video to thank everyone who donated supplies to the family.
“Thanks to your generosity,” teacher Tali Finestone says, “a family’s arrival to America was greeted with warmth, kindness, compassion and love from a community they didn’t even know existed.”
The family is profoundly grateful. Tania and Lisa are ahead of their classmates academically, but they’re still trying to comprehend why the war is happening.
“I’m choosing to believe that I can get back home, that my home will stay and I still believe that one day I can move back to Ukraine,” Tania said.
I said, “If Ukraine wins.” Tania replied, “When Ukraine wins.”
Olga has the look of a mother who has a lot on her mind.
“She says that at first there was a lot of anger,” Svechin translated. “Wanting to hate all Russians, thinking they’re so stupid, how could they possibly let this happen, and now there is no more strength to be angry, you just want it to end.”
They watch the news and talk with their relatives back home and yet, they maintain some optimism, and they’re glad they landed in the USA.
“Be proud of country you live in,” Lisa said, when I asked her what message she has for Americans.
In America, she said, people can vote and speak their minds. In Russia, the population is under the thumb of a dictator’s propaganda.
For Olga, one of the most difficult parts of this ordeal is that she has family in Russia who refuse to believe that the Russian army is attacking Ukraine. She says her own family there tells her Ukraine is bombing itself.