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Billings locals born in Ukraine struggling with crisis from afar

Ukraine Russia
Posted at 5:44 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 19:44:26-05

BILLINGS — As tensions continue to rise in Ukraine, a small group in Billings born in the Eastern European country are becoming more worried by the minute for friends and family still on the edge of the crisis.

"It’s very difficult because I worry about the next time I’ll see them," said Iryna Gabriel of her parents, who live in a small village in Ukraine near Odessa.

Gabriel moved to Billings from Ukraine when she was 35 years old, spending most of her time in the capital of Kyiv. That’s where her brother lives now after just retiring from the military.

"I just called my mother this weekend and she was crying because she’s really worried about my brother, that he'll have to be involved," Gabriel said.

Gabriel never saw anything like the current crisis growing up.

"Never. We have a lot of family in Russia, and we always were friendly," she said. "They would come over to Ukraine, but now they’re afraid."

"My family is not aware that anything is going on," said Mariyka Kolyesnikova, a former Billings resident also born in Ukraine. "The propaganda that is fed to them, they think everything is fine."

That seems almost impossible for Kolyesnikova’s family, who live in Sumy, just 50 kilometers (just over 30 miles) from the Russian border.

Sumy, Ukraine
Sumy, a town of about 275,000 people, is just 50 kilometers from the Russian border.

Kolyesnikova now lives in Maine with her mother, and they both feel cut off thousands of miles away.

"This is the first time I’ve talked about it," she said. "It’s affecting my home life, my family life. Me and my mother always get into it - she’s stressed out too."

"You don’t know what to believe," Gabriel said. "Everybody is asking, and I don’t know what to answer because I don’t know what’s true and what’s not."

Gabriel’s parents spent the final three months of 2021 in Billings with her. Now, she leans on friends struggling through the crisis day-by-day.

"We have a lot of people from Ukraine and Russia. We’re all supportive of each other - we’re friends here," she said. "And we all hope for peace."

Like so many around the world.

Related: 'Cautious optimism,' but confusion over Russia's intentions in Ukraine
Related: 'You are not our enemy:' Biden urges Russia to take no action in Ukraine