When Sofiyka Bezpala woke up Feb. 24, 2022 in her apartment in Kharkov, Ukraine, she heard a distant booming sound … just one phone call to a friend informed her that Russian forces were bombing her home.
It’s a nightmare the world has been watching ever since Russian military crossed the border into Ukraine that day, but local families have felt its peril in a very personal way – as former host families to Ukrainian foreign exchange students. One in particular, Kurtis and Amy Krtek of Webb City (and children Eva, 18, and Abram, 11) have kept close vigilance over Sofiyka with every move she makes – most recently, to safety in Poland. With Amy’s help, Carthage News Online conducted a Zoom call with Sofiyka to give local readers this perspective of a young woman who has found herself a refugee – doing her part in supporting her country, her family and her future.
“Before war started I thought about traveling the world and living in a different country. I never believed in the war. When people called it a conflict, that was something between two people. Now three regions are occupied and I know many people living there and most didn’t have opportunity to leave.
“People are comparing this act to Hitler because it was early morning when the city was attacked then. But there was no panic (on Feb. 24) People went to work – I had just been to drum class.
“The house was shaking and my cat was running around. When I called my friend, they were already getting out. Another student had called Amy and she then called me to beg me to get out, too.
“In that moment I was thinking, ‘if I die I want to die with my family.’ I messaged my friends to wake them. It took an hour for my dad to get to my apartment, and I only took electronics, documents and my cat. That’s it. I thought I would be coming back – I have no idea what’s growing in my fridge – or my apartment might be destroyed now, I don’t know.
“At my parents’ house, we didn’t leave for six days. We left on the seventh day. We were always checking online to see what was bombed. The space under the house was flooded so we pumped water out, but it was cold, wet and then humid. That and maybe the stress of it made me sick on the second day.
“They (Russia) would concentrate on one district at a time. Ukrainian army is – the way they are fighting – since first day, cannot be described in words. They did not let the Russian army in the city. So they bombed from the air because the tanks or anything on ground, we are destroying it. So they don’t come in – but we can’t protect the air. Majority of the city is in ruins.
“I used to be a musician so I can hear well. I’d go by the door and listen. One day, it was 2 a.m. and we went outside and the sound was, if you could imagine 1,000 cars going to some place – we never knew for sure what it was.
“There were 11 people in our group – three families – and we had an argument over whether to stay or go. A house not far away had survived WWII and was now gone. It’s something no one can predict – it’s a terrifying situation because then we were in the car six days.
“My dad is a cancer survivor and is disabled, but there is a law in Ukraine that men 18 to under 60 have to stay and serve in the military. So we had to go to a military place (to get approval) for dad to leave with my mom and me.
“Leaving was hard because there was so much traffic. At one point we were stuck for 20 hours, and we slept in the car. Other than that, I had friends along the way who hosted us. It took us six days to get to the border. It would have been faster to walk.
“We got to the Polish border [March 9] and looked for a hotel but it was very difficult. We were helped by this one angel – we call her an angel – and we could stay with her for a week. We could ‘relax.’
“I have this fear and I’m pretty sure I won’t lose this fear. I was in a safe city when the bombs started. I still worry. When I wake up and hear from my friends, it’s ‘I love you’ instead of ‘good morning.’ There isn’t electricity at home, or water.
“My dad and I have been volunteering, doing what we can for Ukrainian refugees like us. [Sofiyka speaks Polish as well and volunteers as a translator.] The Polish people have been great. Everyone has a Ukrainian in their house. And I’m so proud of the people I’ve been able to help. I have felt blessed in this.
“I don’t know how to sum this up other than to say I am so proud of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Each person has a place (a role) whether it’s raising awareness, giving someone a ride, speaking another language for them so they can get medicine … No one ever, or nothing ever, has united the Ukrainian people like this. There’s an understanding that we all have lost something.
“I know people who have died. My friend was 27 – his life was just starting, he was sharing crazy ideas and had just fallen in love. Now he’s gone. There’s a saying in Ukraine that heroes never die. And we have a bottle of whiskey we will all drink together when this war is over, in his honor.”
Sofiyka was 15 years old when she spent a year with the Krteks 2016-2017 on a FLEX scholarship with ASSE International Student Exchange Programs. Her kind and enthusiastic spirit made a tremendous impact on her host family as well as the Webb City community. Such an impact that to this day Amy calls her “daughter.”
“I have felt helpless in this,” Amy said. “If I had a million dollars and a plane, I’d be over there with her. I love her humor. I love her heart. I’m so proud of her maturity and strength. My heart goes out to all of my students I’ve hosted.”
In the meantime with prayerful efforts, Amy has created a fundraising page for Sofiyka and her family.
“I am thankful and so appreciative to everything we hear about,” Sofiyka said. “The way people give, and pray for us, is motivating. There is no boundary to my relationship with Amy. As a Christian I think it’s a huge blessing I got to stay with her family. My parents are in love with them, too. My life changed entirely when I was there. It started my adult life. The experience, the moments, the volunteer work – it changed my perspective on how I see this world. I don’t know what I would be without them … It will be some time before we get to go home. But when we have blue skies again, we will rebuild. I am so proud of Ukraine.”