Tryon couple asks for support for Ukrainian friends
Published 12:19 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022
For most of us, the war in Ukraine feels far off, involving a people whose country and history we may know little about. While horrific to watch on the nightly news or on our social media feeds, when the images are too graphic, we can scroll past or change the channel.
One Tryon couple, however, feels an intense closeness with the country, a fondness for Ukrainian friends who have remained in the country or scattered, and a worry-borne fear that has gripped them since Feb. 24 when Russia invaded. They are unable to look away from the country now under attack or abandon friends struggling for survival.
“I didn’t think Putin was going to invade,” says Todd Constance, a commercial diver and chef who has worked at several area restaurants including McGourty’s, Twigs, Elmo’s and Harvest House. “But I knew that if they did, they wouldn’t have an easy time of it.”
The resilience of the Ukrainian people was one reason that Todd and his wife Julie Burke, an eighth-grade math teacher, fell in love with Ukraine while Julie was teaching at Pechersk School International in the capital, Kyiv, from 2016 to 2021.
After teaching middle school math in Polk County for 13 years, she was at a point in life where she wanted some adventure. A teaching contract abroad would afford her an opportunity to see a bit of the world. Todd refers to himself as the “trailing spouse.” He became involved as a cook with an organization that made homemade soup and bread to feed the city’s pensioners and less fortunate.
They quickly made friends with everyday Ukrainians, including the “flower ladies” like Ira who sold flowers at the entrance to the metro station; the grandmotherly babushkas who served as doormen to apartment buildings monitoring who came and went; and Yuri, an injured homeless veteran of the former Soviet army who fought in Afghanistan.
They also counted as friends the university students who gathered in their back courtyard for drinks, teaching assistants, journalists, other expats, and housekeepers.
The couple described Kyiv as “a beautiful and active city,” where you could join yoga in the park, enjoy outdoor music in squares, art walks, craft fairs, movies in the park, and public morning exercise. There were four cathedrals within a 10-minute walk of their apartment, restaurants at which diners lingered over their meal for hours, oddities such as the Jellyfish Museum, and more Bentleys, Maseratis and Teslas than you would find in any American city, according to Todd.
Since 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine’s national vision and political alignment has pivoted westward towards Europe.
“I loved that when they were deciding who they wanted to be, when they took down the Lenin statue, they put up a statue of Shevchenko,” Julie says. Taras Shevchenko is the poet laureate of Ukraine (1814-1861).
When the couple left Ukraine last summer after Julie’s teaching stint came to an end, they had no way of knowing that the country they had come to love and the friends they had made would be thrown into the desperate chaos of war.
Many expat friends and those connected with her international school and embassies had the resources to leave the country quickly.
Their Ukrainian friends, however, are now either refugees in Poland with little more than a suitcase, or they stayed behind in the capital by choice or circumstance. When not sheltering in metro stations, Todd says that Ukrainians are fashioning sandbags and homemade Molotov cocktails. One housekeeper they know is making camouflage netting. Others are using their cars to deliver supplies where needed.
One woman, according to Julie, returned to Kyiv to do her company’s payroll so employees would have access to their money wherever they were, and then evacuated people in her car on her way out of the city.
The couple spends anxious days trying to communicate with friends and keep tabs on their safety through texting and Facebook messaging. It is the desperate pleas for help from those who remained to fight that drove Julie and Todd to start a GoFundMe campaign (Help for Friends in Ukraine, by Julie Burke) and blog (Julieukraine.blogspot.com).
Remarkably, says Julie, banks and ATMs have remained open in Kyiv, and her friends have been able to access the money she sent. Julie set up the GoFundMe account to aid five friends specifically, but on her page she posted a link to a document that lists dozens of other organizations and individuals working to aid Ukrainians. Humanitarian and medical assistance, refugee care, military gear wish-lists, pet rescues, legal aid and more are included.
“They are people just like us,” Julie says. “They have homes and families, and they love their children just like we do. Through no fault of their own they are being asked to defend their homes and lives against an immoral invasion. They are incredibly brave and resolute in the face of terrible atrocities. They will not back down, but they need our help to save lives. Donate. Call your leaders. Tell them you want weapons and airplanes for Ukraine.”
“They’re not going to give up,” says Todd. “They’re not going to lie down.”
In a display of resilience, defiance, and hope, says Julie, Ukrainians are cleaning the streets, planting tulips at St. Sophia’s in the shape of the trident, the symbol on their flag, and singing the national anthem. “They don’t say ‘When the war is over…,’ they say, ‘When we win…’”