By Nataliya Boychenko Stone, employee benefits consultant, shareholder, Holmes Murphy
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on the Holmes Murphy blog. Nataliya Boychenko Stone was part of the Business Record’s 2020 Women of Influence class.
As I watch the tragedy and events unfold in Ukraine, it is like watching a piece of my heart break. Places I know, spent time in, or have fond memories of are now rubble. And what might be the scariest part of all is that my mom has been there for much of this.
I am Ukrainian — born and raised in a city called Korsun’-Shevchenkivs’kyi. I came to the U.S. — Iowa, specifically — for the first time when I was just 14 years old as an exchange student, and officially in 2001 for college.
At the time, I didn’t leave my country because I thought it was unsafe. I simply did so for the opportunity to study and live the American dream. Never in a million years did I think I would be witnessing what I am today.
I first want to tell you a bit about Ukraine. It has always been a peaceful country. It is beautiful, and known for its richness of land. If you look at the Ukrainian flag, the blue represents the sky, and the gold represents land and wheat. Ukraine is known as the breadbasket of Europe and is an agricultural driver of many economies. Beyond all of that, though, is the human spirit. Generosity and kindness are woven into the very fabric of the Ukrainian people.
As you can imagine, the fighting is horrific, but think for a minute what it would be like to wage war with family and friends. Essentially, that is what’s happening in Ukraine right now. The Ukrainian and Russian cultures and family trees are so intertwined because we have common roots. Most people in Ukraine have relatives in Russia. In fact, my mom was born in Russia, even though she’s lived in Ukraine most of her adult life.
This war is severing people’s connections. There is miscommunication and misunderstanding, and unfortunately now, a war-imposed separation of cultures. Ukraine did not choose this, and neither did most Russians. Ukrainians do not hate Russians. This is a Russian leadership issue.
Here’s what I can tell you, though: I am extremely proud. Ukraine, as the world bears witness, is showing what it is to be united, courageous, and to fight for their very lives, their country, and independence. From President Volodymyr Zelensky himself (who, by the way, is giving strength to his people through his own passion and will to protect Ukraine) to women who are leaving behind their children to fight for Ukraine — it is beyond remarkable. Their bravery and collective will to be free, coupled with their unwavering kindness (Ukrainian soldiers who captured Russian soldiers are ensuring Russian soldiers can call their families, are well fed, etc.), are something I will not soon forget, and I hope you now carry it in your heart, too.
If there is anything we can learn from what we are seeing in Ukraine today, it is that the power of community will always win over. In the U.S., we sometimes take for granted our freedoms and have become somewhat desensitized to what others are going through because we are so fortunate, and those places may feel so far away.
I feel like this is a great opportunity for us all to pause and to reflect on how much we have simply by living in the United States of America. Political parties aside, the U.S. has a working system with checks and balances and a government that protects us. This is what Ukraine is fighting to keep.
I know many of you — from my co-workers to my friends, clients and people in the community — have been praying for me and my family. My mom was able to make it to the U.S. safely over the weekend. I was so happy to give her the biggest of hugs and just see her face to face!
Thank you to each and every one of you who has reached out to offer kind words, support, prayers, and even ask what you can do to help. Your support means more to me than you will ever know.