Svitlana Cano lives in two worlds.
The first is safe and normal in Stamford, where Cano goes to work each day and raises her son, who is nearly 4, with her husband and help from her visiting mother.
The second is far away, reachable only by signals in the ether that allow intermittent cell phone connections, text messaging and Facetime videos. It’s a world full of suffering, and completely horrifying.
It’s Cano’s native Ukraine, where her father, brother, sister-in-law, grandmother and other relatives and friends live day to day on prayers that invading Russians will not kill them.
“It was February 23, 10:01 p.m. local time, when I heard that Russia had invaded my country. That time stamp will forever be imprinted in my brain,” Cano said. “At first I could not talk about it. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t lift my head up. I am across the ocean, but I am very affected.”
Cano has on her cellphone an air-raid alert app set up by the Ukrainian government to warn against approaching Russian planes.
“It keeps going off, sometimes every 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it stays on for two hours at a time,” Cano said. “You don’t know what kind of bomb was dropped, what kind of missile it was, if there were fires after it hit.”
On April 2 her 62-year-old father was outside his home in central Ukraine when the Russians dropped a bomb nearby, Cano said.
“He said the plane was flying so low that he could feel the heat from it,” she said. “After that he developed chest pain. He had shortness of breath. I thought, ‘My heart would have stopped, too.’ They ended up taking him to the hospital and while he was there they bombed his area again.”
Her father’s condition is not improving, Cano said. She also is worried about her grandmother, whose neighborhood was bombed while they were speaking on Facetime.
“I could hear the explosions, and the force on her front door. It has not closed properly since then,” Cano said. “My grandmother was a kid during World War II and remembers those bombings. To hear the sound of bombs again makes her so afraid.”
And then there is her brother, who left his pregnant wife to go fight the Russians, even as he learned to be a soldier.
“My brother was never a soldier before; now he is with the Territorial Defense Forces. Some regions started preparing a few months in advance of the invasion, but my brother did not have much training,” Cano said. “He is allowed to contact us only once every 24 hours, and all he can do is send a word: OK.”
In Stamford, Cano is concerned about her mother, who came months ago to help Cano while her husband underwent cancer treatment.
“She is not taking it well. She cannot get back to Ukraine because everything is bombed. There is not even an airport to fly to,” Cano said. “She doesn’t know when she will see our family again; if she will see them again. She is heartbroken.”
Cano, who came to the United States as an exchange student nearly 20 years ago, said she has put feelings of devastation aside.
“Now I have mobilized myself,” she said.
News of atrocities by the Russian invaders motivates her. The organization Human Rights Watch reports evidence of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, including executing, raping and torturing civilians, including children, looting homes and other cruelties.
Cano said she is reading what news outlets in Ukraine report.
“The Russians bombed a chicken farm. At another farm, they slaughtered the cows. They put mines in the fields because this is the time farmers sow the wheat. Their objective is not just to shoot and bomb Ukrainians, it’s to starve the ones that are left,” Cano said. “To break Ukrainian families, they are kidnapping children and bringing them to Russia, saying they are evacuating them. Then they are expediting the adoption process in Russia. What will the kids be used for? I am scared to think.”
The Ukrainian military is intercepting cellphone conversations between Russian soldiers and their mothers or wives, Cano said.
“The soldiers are breaking into people’s homes, stealing TVs, refrigerators, washers, computers, kids’ toys. On one of the calls a woman says, ‘Can you bring me a blender?’ One Russian soldier told his wife or mother, ‘I just executed a family in their car,’ and the woman says, ‘Good. Kill more of them. They deserve it.’”
Ukrainian people are “made of steel,” Cano said, so whether from Ukraine or Connecticut, the fight is on. She works with a U.S. nonprofit organization called Revived Soldiers Ukraine, formed after Russia began attacking two Ukrainian regions, Crimea and Donbas, in 2014.
Revived Soldiers Ukraine delivers medical supplies and protective gear to soldiers and those affected by conflict in military hot spots in Ukraine. To donate, visit rsukraine.org.
“I don’t think Americans realize that a lot of people in Russia hate Americans just as much as they hate Ukrainians,” Cano said. “If [Russian President] Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there. I don’t think we’re safe, even in America.”