Olha Tsvyntarna was sleeping when the first bomb hit the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on the morning of February 24. She woke up with her husband shouting, “Wake up, wake up our son!” Get your stuff ready! »
The threat of war with Russia had hung over Ukrainians for some time, but that moment still did not seem real. Tsvyntarna, 43, found herself frozen in fear and unable to understand exactly what was going on.
Her husband calmly gave her specific instructions on what to do next. Then he made her a cup of coffee because, she said, he didn’t want his wife to pass out if her blood pressure got too low.
Within an hour, Tsvyntarna was in a car with their 17-year-old son and two other families heading west, leaving behind her home and the man she loved for 20 years – uncertain about the journey who was waiting for him.
“He saved us,” Tsvyntarna, now in Chicago, said Tuesday. “I can’t find the words to express how hard it was. [to leave him] for this man, I loved him with all my heart. We have been together for 20 years, we support each other, we love each other and we have a beautiful family. And we had a lot of plans… for our son, for ourselves. We were enjoying a happy life.
“There’s a piece of my heart that was taken away from me, and I really hope we meet again and be together again, but I can’t rely on that and it tears me apart.”
While her husband stayed to help Ukraine, Tsvyntarna and her son, Dymtro Tsvyntarnyi, spent the next seven days in cars, buses, planes and stood nearly 20 km across the border to reach Chicago, a place they settled because of their familiarity with the city.
The mother-son duo are currently staying with friends in the Ukrainian village on the west side of town with nothing more than a suitcase they’ve shared between them.
Being away from home has been a constant struggle for Tsvyntarna. She said she didn’t feel well; her hands are shaking as she speaks. She has been suffering from panic attacks since she left.
“But I’m not able to complain about my condition right now because I know that in Ukraine ‘it could be worse,’ she says.
Tsvyntarna feels “helpless”. She looks for ways to help her homeland, despite being over 8,000 kilometers away.
As Tsvyntarna fled Ukraine, Chicago-based artist Ira Antelis watched the Russian invasion unfold on the news. He felt “devastated” and “helpless”. But he also felt an “urge to do something” and turned to music.
“Whether you go back to ‘We Are The World’ or things like that, [songs are] just very powerful stuff,” said Antelis, who composed “We Sing for Ukraine.”
Tsvyntarna, who was related to Antelis through a mutual acquaintance, was one of five Ukrainians who joined 15 other local artists to record “We Sing for Ukraine”, which was produced Monday night at Audio Tree Recording Studio in Bucktown. The song, which will be released on Tuesday evening, will cost $1 per download, with all proceeds going to Abundance International, an organization that helps support orphanages in Ukraine.
Antelis said producing the song was an emotional experience.
“The [were] lots of tears… You put yourself in their shoes, you think, ‘Oh my God, like this woman a week ago was in a house, with a child, and it’s all gone,’ said Antelis, whose goal is for bands everywhere to record their renditions of the tune and send it to him so he can add it to the website to help generate more money for the cause.
“To hear [Tsvyntarna] singing was… very moving. And hopefully we can start a little movement to help in any way we can.
Tsvyntarna said people at the studio offered their support and help after the song was recorded.
“It unites, it inspires, it helps a lot,” she said. “We feel like we’re not abandoned…we have friends, we have support.”