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Ukrainian refugee who settled in San Antonio reflects on the past year

Kayla Padilla
Maria Shvetsova at TPR's studio on March 6, 2023

Nearly one year after leaving their city of Dnipro to escape the Ukraine-Russia war, Maria Shvetsova, 37, and her 4-year-old daughter have gradually adjusted to life in the United States.

She’s fostered connections with other Ukrainians and has attended events held by the organizations Ukrainian San Antonio and Klych. She was recently at a San Antonio rally to commemorate one year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There, she spoke about how difficult it was to leave her home country.

“I remember that morning very well. I had to take my daughter to kindergarten. We all had plans but everything stopped in one moment. All the phones would ring. The war had begun. We will never be able to forget this and the feeling of confusion,” Shvetsova said at the rally.

She currently lives with her 35-year-old brother. He was born in Ukraine but came to the United States approximately seven years ago because it was his dream. Shvetsova recalled starting a phone call with her brother on Feb. 24, 2022, with “good morning.”

“He answered, ‘It’s not a good morning because war started four hours ago.’” she said. “I was out of breath and time stopped. My heart started very quickly.”

On Feb. 24, President Vladimir Putin commanded the Russian Army to seize Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Early that Friday, a series of missile attacks and the use of long-range artillery were reported. Shvetsova's brother encouraged her to relocate to western Ukraine, but she was hesitant.

“I answered him, I have a business. I have [an] apartment. I have a daughter and I cannot go alone with my daughter,” Shvetsova said.

Maria Shvetsova with her 66-year-old father and 4-year-old daughter back in Ukraine
Maria Shvetsova
Maria Shvetsova
Maria’s 66-year-old father visiting Maria and her daughter in Poland

Up until the start of the war, Shvetsova was thriving. She was the self-employed owner of the store Portfel4ik for 12 years, a store that sells educational materials and books. She had just finished her studies to become a realtor. She had her first realtor deal that Friday, but the Russian invasion the day prior, Thursday, altered her plans.

Maria and her four year-old daughter headed toward western Ukraine to Lviv.

“In 20 minutes, I collected documents," she explained. "I got some clothes for [my] daughter and a blanket because we have cold winters. I tried to not cry because I don’t know how to answer [a] small child’s question.”

What should have been a 14-hour-trip by car to the city of Lviv took three days because of traffic congestion.

“We arrived in Lviv. We thought we would be safe but we heard a siren, and we had to take shelter,” Shvetsova said. “Next morning, we found a bus that transported people to Poland.”

In Poland, Shvetsova and her daughter stayed with a Polish family for two weeks. Soon after, she received additional help.

“One man give his apartment for us. He didn’t take pay for it," Shvetsova explained. "His friend and him helped with food and clothes. He helped to find a daycare for children.”

Maria and her daughter stayed with a friendly Polish family for two weeks that helped her with food and clothes.
Maria Shvetsova
Maria Shvetsova
Maria and her daughter stayed with a friendly Polish family for two weeks that helped her with food and clothes.

In April 2022, President Joe Biden announced "Uniting for Ukraine," a new program that would allow an estimated 100,000 Ukrainians to find refuge in the United States.

Shvetsova and her daughter came to San Antonio in May to live with her brother. Under martial law, her husband had to return to Ukraine. Since his return, he has taken over as owner of Portfel4ik. Her father decided to stay in Ukraine because he had built his life there already as a professor at a university.

Shvetsova's husband and father have since grown accustomed to having limited water and electricity. They’ve mostly remained safe, she said, but she was shaken when she heard about an explosion near her daughter’s former daycare.

“It was so hard for me when there was a destroyed home near our daycare,” Shvetsova said. “There lived the children who came to the daycare with my daughter. There lived people which I know. I see [them] in the square, in the playground, in the store.”

The explosion happened over the weekend, so no children were inside during the nearby attack. Her friend is the owner of the daycare. She called her friend immediately.

“It needed a lot of money for renovations," Shvetsova said. "But we talked more about children because money is money. But the most important [thing] is life and safe children. People stopped coming to daycare. But more people continued to come to daycare.”

Maria recalls long lines of cars as she was trying to flee her city of Dnipro.
Maria Shvetsova
Maria Shvetsova
Maria recalls long lines of cars as she was trying to flee her city of Dnipro.

Back in the United States, Shvetsova had to get her driver’s license after realizing how car-dependent life was in the U.S.

“When it got a little colder in September," she explained, "I found a Ukrainian-speaking driving instructor. He taught me to drive. I got my driver’s license. I got a job.”

Shvetsova's job at a university cafe was short-lived after she developed back pain due to long hours standing. She has a master’s degree from the Institute of Railway Support in Ukraine, but she’s struggled to find a job here. She has mostly supported herself through her savings. Now, she is looking for remote or office work.

Shvetsova said that the person she is now is entirely different from the person she was on Feb. 24, 2022. Now, she is much more aware of the kindness in the world and tries every day to live in the moment.

For now, Shvetsova plans to stay in the U.S. Her daughter is enrolled in preschool, and she speaks English well. Shvetsova said she will not wait to live her life until the war is over and is trying her best to be happy every day.

She said adjusting to the Mexican-American cuisine of San Antonio has been interesting. Her favorite Mexican dish so far is enchiladas. She added that the people in Ukraine are enduring so much, but they still meet together. They go to cafes. They try to live life.

Shvetsova said that above all, fostering connections is helping her get through. Despite the tremendous suffering, fear, and obscurity the Russia-Ukraine war has brought to her life, she lives every day trying to build a happy life right where she is, in San Antonio.

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