‘Can this be real?’ Orlando woman worries as family waits out Russian invasion in Ukraine

ORLANDO, Fla. — Zhanna Sklyarenko remembers trips to the airport with her mother, waiting by the iconic indoor fountain near the TSA checkpoint for her father to emerge after a day at work.

Long-distance parenting can often be a feature in the lives of airline pilots, and Sklyarenko’s was no exception. The Orlando-based Southwest Airlines worker would return to a waiting wife and daughter every time. The three musketeers, equals in the decision making in his only daughter’s upbringing.


“We’re venturing out into the world together as a unit as a family,” she recalled. “This is how I’ve been functioning.”

Sitting in her MetroWest apartment complex Thursday afternoon, Sklyarenko looks worn down. A month of sleepless nights, scarce meals and constant Telegram notifications have upended her routine. Her sentences often blend together, her hair gets tousled as she runs her fingers through it. Her parents and previous source of stability are stuck seven time zones ahead.

She doesn’t know if she’ll see them in person again.

READ: Central Florida woman awaiting updates on family in Ukraine

Trapped in Kyiv

Like most Ukrainians, the Sklyarenkos dismissed US intelligence warnings about an impending invasion of their country as fear-mongering. Improbable, they said.

They had spent the first few years of retirement spending more and more time in their home country. Sklyarenko said her mother faced mounting health problems, and the couple saw no need to uproot their lives.

Then, the bombs began falling, and Russian troops beelined for her parents’ city.

READ: Ukrainian family on Disney vacation at time of Russian invasion finds community support

“I think to myself, can this be real? Like, am I overreacting? Is this really war?” she said. “[My father] spoke to me as if this may be the last time I actually see him and at any moment now the connection is going to break.”

It didn’t. Through valiant efforts, the Ukrainians fought back – digging in and dragging the war into a stalemate.

Initial panic gave way to a steady resolve and daily fight for survival. Sklyarenko’s parents, along with 40-ish others who chose to remain in their 22-story building, spend their days taking care of everyone around them. The men trained to repair electric systems and the building’s elevators. The sparse bomb shelter was prepped in the event of an attack. Abandoned pets are given food.

READ: Ukraine refugees’ hopes of return wane after a month of war

Half a world away, Sklyarenko checks in multiple times per day and follows every update on the ground. Her parents forbid her from flying to Europe to try to rescue them, so she collects donations to funnel to their bank account. They use the proceeds to stock up elderly community members’ kitchens.

“These 40 residents who have remained – my parents included – have organized themselves into like a small defense force,” Sklyarenko said, smiling wryly. “This is the brutality of it that we’re witnessing and living in.”

The family now considers it too late to leave, with disturbing videos showing the fates of those who try and encounter Russian troops. They are prepared to wait out a long-term conflict, as long as limited food keeps making its way onto grocery store shelves. They’re aware that residents of other cities, like Mariupol, aren’t as fortunate. Sklyarenko said they avoid talking about sensitive topics in case the Russians have tapped the phone lines.

Live updates: Zelenskyy reassures Ukraine in nightly address

Ukrainians, she said, have been heartened by the flood of international support for them, including the increasing amount of humanitarian aid sent from the west. She said locals often redistributed what came in among themselves, assisting people in cities and towns who urgently needed supplies.

She said she planned to use her international business degree to help rebuild the country when the war ended and would return as soon as the airspace reopened. For now, though, she keeps her spirits up through the words of her parents and figures like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“They are giving me the willpower to move forward,” Sklyarenko explained, adding that she hopes her story can inspire Americans to continue to support her community. “They are helping me see that light at the end of the tunnel. So, when my parents do the same, I feel proud, and I feel like we can we can pull through.”

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