Ukrainian women making
a life in Louisville

Maryna Zhmurko, left, and Oksana Dudko posed for a picture with their children at Brown Park, June 3, 100 days into the war in Ukraine. The women fled their native Kharkiv and arrived in the U.S. at the end of April. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

One hundred days into Russia’s invasion of cities across Ukraine — including their native Kharkiv more than 5,000 miles away — Oksana Dudko and Maryna Zhmurko sat in Brown Park recalling how they escaped the war with their young children.

As the children played nearby on a sunny morning June 3, the women, speaking Russian, said before the bombs started falling in the early hours of February 24, they led normal lives.

“I thought it was thunder,” said Dudko, speaking through a Catholic Charities interpreter. The loud booms that woke her up at 4:41 a.m. were bombs that blew the windows out of the high rise in which she lived with her husband and six-year-old son. “We didn’t believe we’d have a war. We’d heard some rumors, but weren’t prepared for this,” she said.

Dudko said she grabbed a few items including travel documents and clothing and went to her mother’s house — the first leg of a two-month journey that ended in Louisville.

Zhmurko recalls the “chaos and panic” of that February morning well, she said. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled a phone call from her brother asking her if she was in a bomb shelter. Zhmurko said she wasn’t. “I had no idea it was a war. I heard the explosions and was scared and confused,” she said speaking through the interpreter. “Nobody knew what to do.”

She and her daughter spent the next five days in a dark, cold basement as explosives flew overhead. The news on the television showed the destruction, she said. “It’s terrible. Many children have died,” said Zhmurko.

Maryna Zhmurko, center, played with the children June 3 at Brown Park. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Dudko and Zhmurko, who are friends, met in Poland weeks after the attack began. Together with Dudko’s son and Zhmurko’s daughter, they traveled to Belarus, Germany, Spain and Mexico. In Mexico, the women and children traveled from Mexico City to Tijuana, a border city south of California.

From Tijuana they made it on foot to the U.S. border, arriving on April 23, Dudko said. The women entered the U.S. on humanitarian parole.

According to a May 16 report from Catholic News Service, 13.7 million Ukrainians have been displaced since the start of the war — 7.7 million people are displaced within Ukraine and more than 6 million have left the country seeking refuge.

“We didn’t have any choice. We took a risk and made it,” said Dudko. Her husband also fled Kharkiv, which is in northeast Ukraine, but remained in the western part of the country, she said. Zhmurko’s mother fled to Poland after her house was
destroyed in the bombing.

Since arriving in Louisville — a city Dudko visited in 2008 — the women have been living off the kindness of strangers, they said. Parishioners from St. Michael Orthodox Church helped them find a place to live and parishioners from St. Agnes Church, on Newburg Road, have donated toiletries and items for their apartment, said Dudko.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries helped enroll the children in school.

They said they are grateful for the welcome they’ve received and that they feel supported by the local community.

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