March 17, 2023
A hazmat suit, a satellite phone, a blue-and-yellow bracelet, and a set of etched metal “rocks” glasses… made from spent artillery shells.
As we pass the one-year mark since russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I can’t help but reflect on the unique nature of gifts I received from loved ones these past several months – see list above. The underlying theme is clear: living through the war. But, why would I – a Chicago-based private equity investor, mother to a five-year-old, and wife to a management consultant – have a “War in Ukraine”-themed series of gifts? Sure, I have Ukrainian roots (my parents emigrated from Ukraine), and yes, wrangling my kiddo can sometimes feel like a job that warrants hazard pay… but I’m pretty sure a hazmat suit is overkill.
Unfortunately, that hazmat suit isn’t actually overkill for my frequent trips into Ukraine. Prior to February 24, 2022, my “day job” at SigmaBleyzer, a private equity firm that has invested over $1 billion in and around Ukraine, had me splitting my focus between Chicago and Ukraine. For several weeks after Russia first launched its missiles against Kyiv, I rolled up my sleeves with my family, friends, and colleagues to get support to Ukraine through our company’s nonprofit arm. But once the shock wore off, it became clear that russia’s war was unleashing a humanitarian crisis that would ultimately require the rebirth of an entire nation. And that type of mission would require a new type of nonprofit organization, one built specifically to support the complex and unique needs that would face the public and private sectors of Ukraine – and its allies – for years to come. So, in May 2022, with the support of an incredible group of people from all walks of life, we launched that tailor-made nonprofit, Ukraine Rises.
I knew then that it was time for me to return to Ukraine. I needed to see for myself what was happening. I needed to visit my colleagues, friends, and family that remained in Ukraine and hear their stories face-to-face. I needed to live the experience myself, so that, in those moments, when the sleepless nights felt too exhausting, I would know in my bones what I was fighting for: Freedom, Justice, Hope. These are the values that guide the work of Ukraine Rises, and these are the values that I have made my mission.
On my first trip back to Ukraine, our teams at Ukraine Rises and SigmaBleyzer got straight to work. Among other efforts, we met with key officials to discuss their priorities for mitigating the negative impacts of russia’s war on Ukraine’s agricultural sector. Ukraine is a top global exporter of grains and a key pillar in the global fight against hunger and food insecurity. Ukraine literally feeds the world, and yet, there we were, learning about Russia stalling Black Sea food exports amidst the wails of Kyiv’s air raid sirens. I left that meeting feeling like I was in a warped reality.
On another of my recent trips to Ukraine, I vividly remember getting ready for the day, when suddenly, I heard a huge explosion and saw the windows of my apartment shudder. Our housekeeper, who happened to be in the apartment at the time, ran to my room, banged on the door, and started shouting about getting to shelter. In that moment, I thought of the trauma-informed coping skills cards that we helped our partner, COPEKIT, translate and adapt for Ukrainian children and their caregivers. As I helped my housekeeper through one of my favorite COPEKIT activities, “5 Finger Breathing,” it struck me just how much this war was leaving its mark on us all. Even those of us living relatively far from the front lines were experiencing psychological trauma at the hands of the Russian terrorists.
After my most recent trip, two things have become abundantly clear: first, the scars of this war – both visible and invisible – will take generations to heal; but second, those scars will heal. Time and again since February 24, 2022, I have been awestruck by the sheer bravery and determination that lives in the heart of every Ukrainian. Walking around Kyiv, even with those air raid sirens in the background, there’s a sense of resilience and hope unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s clear that everyone is on the same page: Kyiv has become the center of the democratic free world, and every Ukrainian proudly stands to defend that future for us all.
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