Less than two weeks after Russian forces opened fire on Ukraine, Liliya Chernous was on a flight from North Carolina to Poland.
“When I came to the United States, I told myself, ‘I will learn everything that Americans are doing in order to help my country,’ ” Liliya said. She never thought helping Ukraine, her home, would mean tending to people fleeing war zones.
“It is a different (kind of) help, but I want to do it.”
When Liliya and her son, Eduard, boarded a 12-hour flight to Warsaw, they didn’t have a set agenda.
The Chernous family immigrated to Asheville from Western Ukraine in 1997. Since then, they’ve made annual trips back to visit Ukrainian family and friends — many of whom have fled the country in recent weeks as Russia widened its attack.
Most of Liliya and Eduard’s Ukrainian family has escaped the country safely. Some are choosing to stay and fight, despite Liliya’s pleas otherwise. One cousin, a frontline fighter in the war, hasn’t been in touch with the family in weeks.
The Chernouses didn’t start their humanitarian work in Ukraine when they landed in Europe. Back in Western North Carolina, they helped put on a vigil in Asheville days after the war began.
But this trip to Eastern Europe was different from previous ones. Instead of sharing meals with family or revisiting fond childhood locations, the pair spent the three-week trip in Germany and at Ukrainian borders and Poland.
They didn’t join humanitarian organizations offering aid at the borders, such as Doctors Without Borders or the International Committee of the Red Cross. Instead, they reached out to people they knew personally through family and church to offer help.
“We found it more effective to be on a personal basis because the turnaround time is a lot quicker,” Eduard said about joining Polish church and community groups in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, and the border town of Hrebenne. “You can get directly connected to people.”
The mother and son also served in German cities, including Stuttgart, Pforzheim, Neubulach and Bad Liebenzell.
After joining forces with these connections, Eduard and Liliya transported refugees to safeplaces and registered them for international passports and social services.
Liliya, who was a registered nurse in Ukraine and works as a medical translator in North Carolina, also assessed people for medical issues. Group leaders told her to be cognizant of potential sex trafficking and approach incoming Ukrainians with listening ears.
The Chernouses quickly realized, however, that the biggest task ahead of them while working with displaced Ukrainians was tending to their emotional needs.
“I just tried to hug them and kiss them,” Liliya said.
“Ladies were crying constantly and asking, ‘Why? Why has this happened, Liliya? Do you think the world will end soon?’
“They still hope … to go back. They want to rebuild Ukraine, and they were even asking me, ‘Liliya, do you think the world will help us to rebuild Ukraine?’ ”
During their nearly month-long trip, Liliya and Eduard heard heartbreaking stories from refugees about their arduous journey across the Ukrainian border.
One refugee family, while passing through a Russian block post, watched soldiers fire at a vehicle carrying a family with small children. Another had a friend who watched his wife die after being shot.
“They lost track of the days of the week,” Liliya said about a refugee who spoke about staying in the basement with her seven foster children for 19 days after Russia invaded.
“This lady … she said ‘I so appreciate that I can see … light. Everything is different. Everything is much brighter.’
“Sometimes we don’t see colors, but those refugees, they can see colors much brighter than us.”
Eduard and Liliya flew back to Asheville on March 30, but they don’t plan to stop assisting Ukrainians. As soon as it’s logistically appropriate — they had to pay for the trip on their own and with the help of a GoFundMe — the pair plans to return to Ukraine’s borders or wherever they’re needed to help their homeland.
In the meantime, they hope that the world outside of Ukraine doesn’t become accustomed to the violence saturating the ground of their home country.
“The more identity we give to the (Ukrainian) people, the better,” Eduard said. “We can only hope that people don’t forget about this.”