Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Nation & World

‘I couldn’t stop shaking’: Ukrainians in Tampa Bay angered by Russian attack

Some resolve to support their homeland’s fight against a takeover.
Parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine.
Parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 24|Updated Feb. 25

TAMPA — Anna Iermolaieva couldn’t stop shaking when she heard the news: Her native Ukraine was under invasion by the Russian military.

It was 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Tampa and she was on the job at Moffitt Cancer Center, where she works as a research assistant. She burst into tears and started to shake uncontrollably.

“I was basically having a panic attack,” said Iermolaieva, an 18-year-old biomedical sciences student at the University of South Florida. “My legs and hands would just shake. I couldn’t stop shaking.”

Related: What Tampa Bay’s members of Congress are saying about Ukraine, Russia

It was the beginning of a long night for Iermolaieva. She stayed up until 5 a.m. watching the news and frantically calling friends and family in Kozyatyn, her hometown in central Ukraine. She slept just two hours.

“I just wanted to wake up and it all be a bad dream,” she said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

A senior U.S. defense official told the Associated Press on Thursday that Russia’s attack appears to be the beginning of a multi-phase, large-scale invasion. The attack began with “roughly more than 100 missiles” fired at Ukrainian military targets.

On Wednesday, a woman walks by a memorial for those killed during an earlier confrontation between Ukraine and pro-Russia forces in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region. Fighting returned this week.
On Wednesday, a woman walks by a memorial for those killed during an earlier confrontation between Ukraine and pro-Russia forces in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region. Fighting returned this week. [ VADIM GHIRDA | AP ]

The shock Iermolaieva felt turned to anger by morning. She said her friends at home and 27-year-old brother are off to enlist in a territorial defense unit. Officials there are asking family members to refrain from posting photos of soldiers on social media for their safety.

Iermolaieva said her family and friends at home weren’t scared — or, at least, not showing it — so she would steel herself, too.

She has worried about another Russian attack since the nation annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Now, she plans to support her homeland from afar — working to make people aware of the “atrocities” committed by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

“Putin acts like a jealous ex who can’t let go of his old girlfriend,” Iermolaieva said. “Ukraine is doing great without him, we don’t want or need him, but he just won’t let go. He’s toxic and a threat to the entire democratic world.”

Other Ukrainians in Tampa Bay share Iermolaieva’s belief that the invasion is just the beginning. She believes Russian aggression will continue until it’s stopped.

Nadia Sawa, 44, pictured in blue above with family members in Novi Rozdil, Ukraine.
Nadia Sawa, 44, pictured in blue above with family members in Novi Rozdil, Ukraine. [ Courtesy of Nadia Sawa ]
Looking for real-time news alerts?

Looking for real-time news alerts?

Subscribe to our free Breaking News newsletter

You’ll receive updates on major issues and events in Tampa Bay and beyond as they happen.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Nadia Sawa, 44, is choir director at the Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. She said she’s perplexed by Putin’s decision to invade. Ukraine is filled with people who just want to live in peace, she said. She said she wishes Ukraine had a say in who its neighbors are.

“It’s so upsetting that he thinks he can take something that’s not his — at the expense of innocent lives,” Sawa said Thursday. “He’s a bully and demented person who just happens to have all this power.”

Most frightening for Sawa is the sweep of the attack. Airstrikes struck every corner of Ukraine, not just cities along the country’s eastern border with Russia.

“My family doesn’t even know which direction to run,” said Sawa, who has family in Lviv and friends in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv as well as Ivano-Frankivsk. “It’s happening right outside their windows and it’s difficult to fathom.”

Sawa says her initial reaction Wednesday night was “devastation and helplessness,” feelings shared by parishioners she spoke to at Epiphany of Our Lord church. But by the time churchgoers came together Thursday morning for a special service, she said that fear had turned to a resolve to fight.

“The Ukrainian people have prepared for this,” Sawa said. “We have faith in our military and we’re ready to fight. It’s a feeling we all share here.”

Sawa says some of her relatives are exploring options for fleeing to other Eastern European countries.

Rev. Bohdan Barytskyy prays with parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine.
Rev. Bohdan Barytskyy prays with parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

People gathered again at the church Thursday night to pray for peace in Ukraine. Nearly 100 people filled the pews.

They prayed the Rosary, alternating between English and Ukrainian. Some came in business attire after the end of the work day. Some cloaked their shoulders in Ukrainian flags. Others dressed in traditional Ukrainian clothing.

Olya Czerkas, 70, has been a member of the church since 1983. She came to the United States with her parents when she was only 2 years old and Ukrainian was her first language. When she heard that Russia had begun invading Ukraine, she said her first thought was, “This can’t be happening.”

”It’s unfortunate that one man can make such turmoil in the world,” Czerkas said of Putin.

Seminole resident Elena Kohn, 40, came to the church service Thursday with her husband, Daniel after she heard about it on Facebook. Kohn said she grew up in Russia, but she’s also half-Ukrainian and has family in both countries. She said Ukrainians and Russians are a “sister people” and that not all Russians support Putin’s decision to invade.

”It’s a tragedy because there’s a huge historic bond between Russians and Ukrainians,” she said. “It’s very hard to find Ukrainians who don’t have any Russian blood. It’s very hard to find Russians who don’t have any Ukrainian blood.”

Parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine.
Parisioners gathered at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in St. Petersburg in solidarity with those being attacked by Russia in Ukraine. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Tampa also figures in an effort to evacuate Americans stranded in Ukraine, coordinated by the nonprofit Project Dynamo.

Founder Bryan Stern of Tampa told Spectrum Bay News 9 on Tuesday that his organization is mapping escape routes for Americans in case other transportation options evaporate. Project Dynamo also helped evacuate American citizens trapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, as the U.S. completed its pullout of troops on Aug. 30.

Project Dynamo is a joint operation by two veterans coalitions and gets its funding through donations to a Naples-based nonprofit, Liberty Aviation International Rescue.

Most Ukrainians won’t be able to leave and won’t want to, Iermolaieva said. She believes they’ve resolved to fight to the death.

“Russia should just stop now because Ukrainians will never give up,” she said. “A lot of people are going to die, but Ukrainians plan to fight until we can’t anymore.”

Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge