Igor Radchenko grew impatient Tuesday morning as he waited for the rest of his family to meet him at Denver’s airport. His youngest kid, nine-year-old Nazar, leaned against bags packed with flak jackets and medical supplies as Vitalii, 14, held a place in a long Lufthansa check-in line. They had an important flight to catch and precious cargo to carry.
After months watching Russia’s invasion of their country from across an ocean, they were preparing to travel home. Igor, a Major in the Ukrainian military reserves, would go straight to Ukraine. His wife, Nadiia, and their four youngest children were bound for Poland, where they’d bring supplies to refugees and do whatever they could to ease peoples’ spirits.
Though the children were heading towards the tragic reality of war, they felt excitement as the trip grew closer.
Igor and his family moved to the Denver metro from a city outside Kyiv, Ukraine, about three years ago when they won a shot at a green card. Though his kids were sad to leave their friends behind, he and Nadiia were glad to give them access to better schools and opportunities.
Then, in February, they watched from across an ocean as Russia invaded their country. Their eldest son, who remained in Ukraine when they moved, was thrown into the conflict. Their second-eldest, who moved with them to Colorado, immediately booked flights to return home to help with the war effort. But the Radchenko parents and their four younger children stayed home to finish school and keep tabs on the invasion as best they could.
“Especially for my younger siblings, the first couple days were really hard,” 16-year-old Taras said. “My sister and brother, they were talking with their friends on FaceTime and their friends were showing how they slept in bomb shelters and it just – it felt terrible.”
Social media has changed the way humanity processes war. For communities split across continents, watching events unfold from afar can be both a source of comfort and terror. For his family, Igor said the long distance was a source of frustration.
“Of course it was really hurtful,” Taras said, translating for his father. “We felt that way, that we couldn’t do anything.”
But while the news drove many of their American friends and neighbors to horror, Taras told us his family’s perspective on things had already been blunted. They have relatives in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which Russia invaded eight years ago, and have had to think about violent conflict for a long time. Flying close to home did not scare them.
“We saw exploded tanks and all of that, so we know what it is. It’s not the first time we have had to go through it. I feel I’m even more happy than worried to go there,” Taras said. “Man, I want to be closer to those people. To my nation. To my friends. I’m excited about it, seriously!”
A lot has happened since they visited last autumn, Vitalii said, and he sorely wanted to check on his friends who fled with their families over the border.
“I’m feeling good that we’re going there, because I want to see my friends from Ukrainian school, my neighbors that moved to Poland,” he said. “I want to see them and just talk to them, to ask how they feel, help them, support them.”
Even Nazar, the youngest, was vibrating with joy as he waited to pass through Denver International Airport’s security checkpoint. He’d put on a blue shirt and a yellow tie for the occasion, and though in-flight games and movies were top of mind, his older brother was also in his thoughts.
“I love him so much that I want to see him,” he said, still leaning on a camouflage vest. “I’m feeling happy because I’m going to see by brothers and my grandma and everybody else.”
Hauling supplies, letters and love, the Radchenko family hopes they’ll see the end of the war during their visit.
The bags at Nazar’s feet read “To Ukraine with LOVE from Colorado” and contained 64 care packages for kids displaced by Russia’s war. The packets, which contained toothpaste, sunscreen, soap and handwritten letters, were prepared by Colorado students in an effort organized by Ukrainians of Colorado, an organization that predates Russia’s recent incursion but mobilized with new energy once it began.
Dmitriy Moldovian, a volunteer who delivered the suitcases to Igor at the airport, said the organization has been very busy over the last few weeks. Just the day prior, he delivered a bag full of tourniquets to a mission of doctors heading to his home country. He added he was grateful airlines like Lufthansa waived fees to get bags on their way.
Though nations around the world have sent money and aid to the country, Moldovian said people who’ve left their homes still need more.
“They need shelter, they need food, they need medical supplies,” he said, “and we’re providing everything we can.”
Igor told us he joined the military when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Even before Kyiv came under Russian fire, he felt deeply about his role in his country’s special forces.
“Back then, he understood the land can feed people, can hold people, but someone has to protect it,” Taras said, translating for Igor. “He understood he had to protect the land.”
That sprit of service to his country is one he’s now passing onto his kids, through both military service and with the luggage filled with sunblock and letters. But he said he’s thinking more about the message their trip sends to their countrymen, who have begun to re-enter Ukraine, not necessarily what his children will learn from their journey.
“It’s not as important for us, but it’s really important for kids in Ukraine, for people that we knew, that they will see that we came from the United States,” Igor said through Taras. “They know it’s really far, but they will feel the love and that someone actually cares about them and someone wants to help them.”
Though Taras said he’s not worried he’ll be fazed by what he’d see when he arrived, he does know he’s not flying into a regular summer vacation. Any small thing he does to alleviate the pain of his people will be a worthwhile effort.
“We feel the pain, the pain of people that lost everything. For some people it was family members and people lost houses, people lost jobs, everything. We can’t imagine how people feel and we want to help them,” he told us. “But we’ll see how it goes. Everything is in God’s hands, and we’re hoping the situation gets better. Maybe we’ll celebrate victory over there, who knows?”