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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Louisiana Native Flees War In Ukraine

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Caught up in the chaos, Corey Yuska witnesses the invasion first-hand

Walking with the aid of a cane through the early March snow toward the Polish border, Louisiana-born Corey Yuska never imagined he would have to flee a war.

“I really thought I’d never be a refugee, but Putin had other plans,” he says from the safety of a hostel in Kraków, Poland.

The 45-year-old chef and restaurateur from Shreveport, La., hoped to live the rest of his life in Ukraine, a country he’s called home for the last three years. But in the early hours of Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a major invasion of Ukraine, quickly initiating the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. In the days and weeks that followed, millions of people would flee Ukraine. After holding out for eight anxious days, Yuska found himself among them, making his way towards the safety of the Polish border and an uncertain future.

Like many, Yuska was caught by surprise by the war. He expected the Russian military to withdraw from the Ukrainian border, as they did in the spring of 2021, during a similar buildup of troops. And although Yuska knew the history of Russian military intervention in Ukraine -- the 2014 annexation of Crimea and fighting in the eastern regions -- he judged the notion of a full-scale war to be unlikely, even after the initial attacks.

“I thought at most Putin would try to annex parts of the Donbas. He’s playing with fire. It’s a war he can’t win and won’t lose,” he recalls, sitting on his bed in a Kraków hostel with the few material possessions of his former life scattered around him – a small backpack, a duffel bag, a cane and a phone.

Russian President Vladimir Putin refers to the war on Ukraine as a “special military operation.” He has criminalized dissenting or anti-war views within Russia; public opposition to the war can result in 15 years’ imprisonment. State media purports that a goal of the war is the “denazification” of Ukraine, a country currently led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish. Yuska finds the notion ridiculous.

“Kill all the Nazis? They’re just bombing random buildings,” he said.

Yuska would have loved to join Ukraine’s volunteer army, the Territorial Defense Force. But he suffered nerve damage in an auto accident at the age of 27 and now walks with a cane and experiences intense episodes of vertigo.

“I’m a Louisiana boy; I’ve been hunting since I was 8, and I’m a pacifist generally, so that really shouldn’t have been my first choice, but I really hate bullies,” he explains.

After first visiting in 2017, Yuska soon decided to relocate permanently. He had spent the previous five years caring for an elderly aunt with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in Louisiana. After her passing, he needed a fresh start.

“It was very much a spin the globe sort of thing. I studied the Russian language for seven years during college, and I knew a bit about the history and literature,” he says. “Then I met a Ukrainian woman, and we fell in love.”

Yuska and his partner soon moved into an apartment in Kryvoi-Rog, a town in central Ukraine west of the Dnipro River. There he began learning the Ukrainian language.

“It was just very pleasant. The people were nice, and I’d always buy a hot dog for the stray dogs,” he recalls. “I made some of my best friends there.”

The relationship didn’t work out, and he soon moved to Mykolaiv, a southeastern city close to the current frontlines, before moving on to Lviv and Pustomyty in western Ukraine, where he spent the last four months before the outbreak of war.

Eight days after the start of the Russian invasion, with no end to the fighting in sight and concerned it might get worse, he decided it was time to leave and purchased a train ticket from Lviv to Poland. Caught up in the chaos of frantic train travelers trying to escape Russian attacks, Yuska found his train seat had been given away and was denied entry. Train station employees, he said, were prioritizing the evacuation of Ukrainians.

But Yuska soon found a ride on a bus that mistakenly dropped him off more than a mile from the border. With snow falling, he walked the last stretch, hobbling on his cane, carrying his backpack and duffel bag, and soon was in the care of volunteers at a refugee reception center in Medyka, Poland — exhausted but safe.

“We were welcomed with open arms. You could feel the love,” he explained. Yuska would spend 18 hours recuperating before moving on to Lublin and eventually Kraków. A few days after we initially spoke, he boarded a plane for Louisiana. Now back in Shreveport, Yuska, like so many others who fled the war, is attempting to put the pieces of his life back together. As a citizen of the United States, Yuska is in a relatively unique position. Unlike most other refugees, he has all the legal rights that U.S. citizenship offers, though, like others, the war destroyed his life in Ukraine.

“It’s frustrating. I set up my life to be there, so I have nothing here, and fleeing as a non-citizen refugee is expensive,” he explains. “Fortunately, I have good friends who are helping me to the best of their means. I won’t be eating filet mignon any time soon, but I’m breathing, out of the rain, and I am not starving.”

Over five million people have fled Ukraine as the war continues through its third month. An estimated 11 million people are internally displaced within the country. While the vast majority are Ukrainian nationals, thousands of people of other nationalities living in Ukraine have also been forced to flee the Russian onslaught. Experiences have varied widely, with numerous reports of African nationals experiencing racism and even detention in Poland. In contrast, Ukrainian citizens have been granted one year of visa-free access to the European Union and free public transportation in many EU countries.

As the war drags on, the future remains unclear for the millions of people whose lives have been traumatically upended. For now, Yuska spends his days anxiously checking in on friends who’ve stayed in Ukraine while trying to find some semblance of normality.

“It’s hard to redesign my present and future, but I’m not the first human being to feel this. I just need to put one foot in front of the next,” he says.

Kris Parker is a freelance journalist and photographer from the United States who currently works in Poland and Ukraine.

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