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Ukraine is their home.  They don’t leave.


Jane Tuv is having so many panic attacks over her aunt refusing to leave Ukraine’s capital Kyiv that she has turned to medication. The recent and terrifying discovery of dead civilians in a Kyiv suburb scared him even more.

Ms Tuv, who lives in Rego Park, Queens, meticulously mapped out instructions with bus and train times for her aunt, Tetiana Guzik. She transferred money and searched for accommodation in Poland, Hungary and Romania. But Ms. Guzik stays put.

“I literally told her the exact steps she needed to follow,” said Ms Tuv, 36. “But she finds all kinds of excuses.”

In a recent WhatsApp interview, Ms Guzik, 53, explained that she had already fled, with all the feelings of panic, fear and loss, when Russia took control of her hometown in Crimea in 2014 It had taken her years to feel like she was home and Kyiv was where she intended to stay.

Mrs. Guzik tries to appease her niece in New York by sending her pictures of food items she is able to find amid the shortages: cherry liqueur chocolates one day, a baguette another.

“To see!” she said to Ms. Tuv during a WhatsApp chat after such a successful search for food, before describing how, on a recent trip to the supermarket, she heard a loud bang. She ran to find that a rocket had fallen and got stuck between two houses. However, that did not discourage her: she stayed.

“Have you lost your mind?” Mrs. Tuv remembers telling her aunt.

“To have you have you lost your mind?” retorted her aunt. “Stop being hysterical and go take your medicine.”

Such tense conversations – between middle-aged and elderly people refusing to join the exodus of four million Ukrainians from their homeland and their panicked and pleading relatives abroad – have been going on from the start. of the war. And many of those conversations involve residents of the New York metropolitan area, which has the largest Ukrainian community in the United States.

The reasons for staying vary. For some, it is a place of choice, a need not to desert the homeland. For others, it’s the crippling fear of unknown factors, like getting caught in the crossfire on a bus, train, or bridge. For those who have seen war and displacement before – something many Ukrainians are familiar with – it can be a triggered response to past trauma and violence, psychologists say.

“You’re in an altered state,” said Sophia Richman, a Holocaust survivor who is a faculty member of New York University’s psychotherapy and psychoanalysis postgraduate program.

“You could justify yourself and that would be a real rationalization – ‘Oh, you’ll be fine. I’m sure everything will be fine. Basically, she says, for many older people who have lived through war situations, a kind of self-defense can kick in.

That makes sense for Nazar Lubchenko, who has parents and extended family in Kramatorsk, a town bordering Donetsk, one of the breakaway regions Russia invaded eight years ago. The city was captured for three months. Once Ukraine regained control of the region, her parents renovated their “dacha,” or summer house, by planting vegetables and pruning their peach trees.

“There is a saying in Ukraine which roughly translates to the fact that there is a cherry tree next to my house and the bees are buzzing. It symbolizes your ideal life in Ukraine – you have your house, your property and your garden,” he said. “So they won’t leave him.”

When the invasion began in February, Kramatorsk was repeatedly bombarded. Mr. Lubchenko, 32, who lives in Hoboken, NJ, urged his parents to take a train to western Ukraine. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

Taras, his father, shared a link that gave instructions on how to operate an anti-tank missile, followed by a flashing emoji. Olga, her mother, explained that a local oligarch would “take care of us”, then shared photos that showed her planting seeds in the garden.

“They won’t grow well in the basement where you’ll be hiding,” replied Lubchenko, who has a nuclear physics degree from MIT and works at a hedge fund.

Although he has the resources to help, no amount of money will change his parents’ minds, Mr Lubchenko said. “They think they know everything about this life and have all their life experience, and they don’t need any advice from me.”

His parents suffered the Russian invasion eight years ago, and they predict the same will happen this time around, he said. “They still have pasta from 2014!”

Liza Gutina, who lives in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, has a 65-year-old uncle who refuses to leave Kherson in southern Ukraine, one of the towns taken by the Russians at the start of the invasion.

At first, his uncle Alexander, a mathematician who asked not to be fully identified, stayed behind for logistical reasons: roads out of town were blocked and some people were killed on the way out. But now the conditions on the streets, his uncle said, have gone from frightening to practically absurd. She worries that he sees life there as a new normal – something disturbing, but survival.

After the Russian soldiers finished looting, his uncle told him, they confined themselves to their armed vehicles in certain parts of the city. Occasionally, he passed local protests on his daily walks, during which he watched soldiers forcibly remove the most active participants. A few days later, they would be released and he would see the demonstrators again, at another rally.

“I feel like I’m in a sci-fi movie where you live a normal life, but you know the aliens are out there, and once in a while they rob people and then give them back,” he said. he said during a recent WhatsApp. conversation.

For some older Ukrainians, familiarity continues to trump uncertainty.

Sasha Krasny, 48, who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, tried to persuade her 83-year-old aunt Ludmila Steblina to leave her home in Kharkiv, where a bomb exploded on her street two weeks ago, exploding the windows of the balcony of his apartment.

“I thought it would shake her up,” Ms. Krasny said. “But she’s like, ‘No. I know everything here. I know what to expect. If I go, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how I’m going to survive this trip. If I have to go in the bathroom, who will I ask for help?”

After the bombing, Ms Steblina moved her bed away from the windows, but then fell ill from the cold wind coming in through the blown windows, she said. Ms. Krasny worked with volunteers to get her aunt a heater. But future help is uncertain – some of the volunteers died amid heavy shelling. When there are bombardments, Ms. Steblina sits in her bathtub.

“It’s so stressful for me to be outside,” Ms Krasny said. “I can’t even understand what it’s like to be there, so I have to be aware of that. Putting pressure on – I don’t think that works.

Ms Guzik, Ms Tuv’s aunt in Kyiv, tried to explain to her niece why she intends to stay in the capital.

“Listen, you are around your own four walls. You feel safer than when you’re just outside wherever you are,” she said from her living room one recent evening, her windows covered in heavy fabric, so the light wouldn’t catch the eye of night missile fire.

She tried to cheer her niece up, describing how she circumvented a recently lifted liquor ban by stocking up on cherry liqueur-filled chocolates and getting lightly drunk.

She smiled at her niece, her cheeks white in the light of her smartphone.

“Someone has to keep the roots here,” she said, “because whoever hasn’t gone yet has to be responsible for keeping the roots.”

Micha Friedman contributed report.

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