Escaping war, Ukrainian mother-daughter duo find kindness in Keene
When Kate Karpunina woke the morning of Feb. 24, all seemed well in her life: She was enjoying living with her brother, Alex, and making strides in her broadcast TV news studies. Five months later, she and her mother, Ruslana, found themselves migrating to Keene.
“My career and my professional skills [were developing] bigger and bigger,” Kate, 20, said. “I didn’t imagine that war can come true in 2022.”
The war she’s referencing is the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in 2014 when Russia pushed to annex the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. However, it intensified significantly that day in February as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation” that was an invasion of mainland Ukraine by Russian military forces.
Kate was living in her homeland’s capital of Kyiv, pursuing journalism at the Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts. Up until the days Russia pushed into Ukraine, she said her biggest problem was dealing with remote classes moved online due to the pandemic — “I hate Zoom,” she said.
“After Russian forces started to occupy our territory and put their bombs [in Ukraine] ... I understood that you don’t know what will happen tomorrow and you cannot be sure what has happened,” Kate said of the unpredictability of war.
She had awakened at 9 a.m. that day and turned off her phone as she was attending an acting class for school. When she switched it back on around noon, Ruslana had called wondering where they might go to avoid the war.
Ruslana, 46, was a biology teacher at the time in Kropyvnytskyi, a city about four hours from Kyiv and Kate’s place of birth. By that evening, she and her daughter determined to connect in Ternopil, a city on the western side of Ukraine, and Kate departed for their meeting point by 7 p.m.
“I had with me one bag ... and to be honest I wore only one jacket for a month,” Kate said. “We had more important things [to think about]. I had only a towel, toothbrush, pajamas, [pants] and the jacket.”
From there she and Ruslana traveled to Mykolaiv near Lviv, not to be confused with another city named Mykolaiv closer to Crimea that has seen more frontline fighting in the war.
“We had our cousins there and decided to go, and after two weeks we went to Truskavets, [a city southwest of Lviv],” Kate said. “It was scary, but I couldn’t imagine what people felt in Kyiv.”
Meanwhile, Alex, 27, remained in Kyiv and is still in Ukraine today, where Kate said he helps supply soldiers in the Ukrainian Ground Forces with necessities. As Kate and Ruslana took temporary residence in western Ukraine, a little encouragement from Alex motivated them to keep moving if the war hadn’t de-escalated in six months.
As July saw continued military combat on the other half of their country, Kate’s adept English-speaking skills prompted them to set their sights toward the U.S. and the Welcome.US program, a nonpartisan nonprofit that gives Americans the opportunity to sponsor Ukrainians seeking refuge.
“We didn’t know where we would go, but when we filled out some paperwork on [the Welcome.US] site about who we are ... more than 200 sponsors [reached out],” Kate said.
Among those 200 sponsors were Lou-Anne Beauregard and her husband, Steven Gyory, retirees who have lived in Keene for four years. The couple and their family make it an annual goal to donate to varying charities in what Beauregard described as a friendly competition akin to the “[college] basketball Final Four.”
“This year my husband said we really should take all the money we normally donate to charity and sponsor some people from Ukraine if we can,” Beauregard said. “We got a lot of information from folks who sponsored an Afghan family. The only thing we were missing two weeks before [Kate and Ruslana] got here was an apartment.”
Just in time for the Karpuninas’ arrival in August, they found a local landlord who granted them a short-term lease on Washington Avenue. Beauregard said she was grateful as other landlords declined to open their doors for the mother and daughter, even as Beauregard was planning to cosign their lease.
Since then, she’s said the community has been much more supportive in helping Kate and Ruslana acclimate to life in New England and communicate in English and their native Ukrainian in the states.
“At first I was scrambling for translators, but since [August] we’ve had people come out of the walls,” Beauregard said.
Kate and Ruslana arrived in Keene on Aug. 20 following a series of flights across Europe and into the U.S. They flew from their homeland to Warsaw, Poland; from Warsaw to Oslo, Norway; and from Oslo to New York City.
“We were scared because we had never flown before,” Kate said. “... We met a lot of Ukrainians in the airports.”
In their first few months in the States, Beauregard and her husband have given them samplings of New England culture. They’ve taken them to Boston, the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass., the Londonderry Farmers Market and a Vermont Country Store.
Kate said if there’s one thing she’s learned from the war, it’s the value of local culture. She named Ukrainian figures like Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince, or ruler, of Kyiv from 1019 to 1054, and said Russia has sought to eliminate Ukraine’s history over time. She added that she feels it’s one factor Putin started the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014.
“We want to be Ukrainians, not Russians,” Kate said. “Even though some people in Ukraine speak Russian, it’s because only 40 years ago we got our independence [from the Soviet Union].”
The Karpurninas say they’ve appreciated their time so far in Keene, highlighting Halloween, the Clarence DeMar Marathon, where Kate served as a volunteer, and witnessing the midterm election season. Their experience hasn’t been without a lot of assistance from the community, however.
St. James Episcopal Church members such as Kathy Frick have worked with Beauregard to help with Kate and Ruslana’s needs, like donating gift cards to local retail and grocery stores so they can purchase home furnishings and food, or donating bicycles for transportation. Others have volunteered to chauffeur them to English language classes, Frick said.
“There’s quite a lot of people involved,” Frick said. “Steve, Lou-Anne’s husband, is associated with the Lions Club that has helped a lot as well.”
Kate is still attending classes remotely in Ukraine, proven more difficult because of time zones but she perseveres. She’s also taking a class on life skills at Keene State College, which Beauregard said is supported by a grant.
“She wakes up at night and she takes a class, so by 10 o’clock in the morning she’s a wreck,” Beauregard said as she and Kate laughed.
After talking with immigration lawyers, Beauregard and others were able to get employment authorization for Kate and Ruslana. She said the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services has also granted the two benefits to help cover rent and food costs.
Ruslana is readying for a job at Cheshire Medical Center, which Beauregard said is in the process of bringing on a translator to aid in communication. Ruslana will be working an evening shift and leaving the hospital around 12:30 a.m., so Beauregard said she and others are seeking ways for Ruslana to get home safely late at night.
“I like Keene because it’s a very beautiful, very nice city,” Ruslana said, noting that she’s grateful for their apartment and hopes to take time to learn more English as she and Kate live through their first winter in the Elm City.
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