(NEW YORK) — Nearly three weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, more than three million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes seeking safety. And while the number of refugees who have left the country has risen at a staggering rate, many others, like Nina Sideleva, have sought safety in the Western part of Ukraine.
Sideleva is a mother of two from Kyiv, who said before Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine, she was just like anyone else.
“I had a family, I have kids, I went to my job,” she told ABC News’ Start Here podcast, with her brother Alex Sidelev aiding in translation. “We lived a regular life with our plans, with our dreams for the future.”
Like many Ukrainians, Sideleva said she didn’t believe the reality of war would come so close to her family’s home. But on Feb. 25, when she saw so many others in the capital city fleeing their homes for bomb shelters, it began to feel real.
Initially, she hoped to stay in Kyiv with her children, husband and parents. But in the early days of the Russian invasion, one of the blasts killed Sideleva’s former boss. His death left Sideleva no choice.
“I need to leave my parents and save my kids,” she said.
All Ukrainian men of fighting age are now required to stay in the country, so Sideleva’s husband decided to remain in Kyiv to keep her parents safe. Through tears, Sideleva described what could be her final goodbye to her husband.
“I promised that we are going to see each other soon,” she said at the time.
“But she thinks that she doesn’t know anymore,” Sidelev said, describing how the horrors of the ongoing war have shaken his sister’s vow.
Sideleva’s escape took her and her sons on a lengthy train trip, arriving first in Lviv, and later traveling to Vyzhnytsia, a smaller town near the Romanian border. And while she was greeted by a large number of people prepared to provide help to people arriving from cities farther east, Sideleva said she struggles with accepting that assistance.
“It is difficult to think that she needs help because she feels that she can care about herself,” her brother told ABC News. “But it needs to have settled in her mind that it’s she needs help and people are helping her out while she wants to have everything back to normal.”
Now, staying with people she knows in Vyzhnytsia, Sideleva feels safe, but knows that feeling could vanish as quickly as it did in Kyiv.
Sidelev, who works as a structural engineer in New York City, said hearing his younger sister’s story left him feeling desperate and powerless, and that his ultimate dream is to be with his family.
“Every time I wake up, I want to wake up from reality, I want to wake up in a world with no war in Ukraine,” he said.
For now, Sideleva and her children feel safe in Vyzhnytsia, with plans to celebrate one son’s 10th birthday there. While it’s not how any of them wanted to celebrate, she says, it is the best place for them to be right now.
Still, she knows she must remain ready in case the terror of war approaches her current reprieve. If that does happen, Sideleva said she would want to be with her brother in the United States.
“The only family member who she knows outside of Ukraine, any country, it’s only me,” Sidelev said. “I’m her brother. And she says that I want to be with my brother if I need to leave the country. I want to be with my family member.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed on Tuesday that the number of Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries, including Poland, Moldova and Romania, has surpassed three million. The agency estimates that the war has internally displaced an additional two million people.
The fog of war leaves so much of what comes next in doubt. But Sideleva said she holds out hope for her country to remain a sovereign democracy, as it has been since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I am a Ukrainian citizen. It’s my motherland. I want to be free. I don’t want Russia here. I really want to be free in my motherland, I want to be in Ukraine,” she said.
That is a sentiment Sidelev echoes, saying, “Ukraine is our land. We don’t need any of this. We don’t need to go through all of this. It means we are Ukrainian, we want to be free in Ukraine. We don’t need Russian involvement.”
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