Many newlyweds choose to head to Europe for their honeymoon. Taking in the famous sunsets on the Greek island of Santorini, strolling through Parisian streets, clinking classes of prosecco in Florence – Europe provides endless opportunities for romance.
For Oak Park’s Maria and David, their European honeymoon will look nothing like what you see on the back of postcards. Married last Saturday in Oak Park, the newlyweds are flying to Poland then crossing the border into Maria’s native Ukraine, where they will fight against Russian forces.
“This is my people. This is my land,” said Maria, whose last name, and that of her husband, has been omitted for reasons of safety.
Maria, 44, has lived in Oak Park for about a decade, but was born in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. At the time of her birth, Ukraine was part of the USSR. When she was 16, she and her family moved to Poland after her mother became sick from radiation due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Her parents later returned to Ukraine, where they currently live in Odesa. Many of Maria’s cousins also still live in Ukraine.
She and David tied the knot in a small backyard wedding March 5, the date of Maria’s grandmother’s birthday. Attendees brought gifts of medical supplies, military gear and first aid kits. The couple expected to leave for Poland March 7, but complications with David’s passport may prevent him from departing as planned. If he is unable to fly out with her, Maria will wait for him in Poland.
“I promised to him that I’m not going to enter Ukraine without him,” she said.
At least 364 Ukrainians have died and at least 759 have been injured since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations. Slightly smaller than Texas, the country of Ukraine faces an extremely powerful foe in Russia.
The Russian military is made up of roughly 900,000 personnel, while Ukraine has 170,000 active-duty troops. The country also recently began conscripting reservists aged 18 to 60.
Maria and David are joining the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine – a volunteer foreign military unit formed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. They will only be provided with a firearm, according to Maria.
The couple believes that the unit will likely operate in English, which will be helpful to David, who doesn’t speak Russian. Maria speaks Russian, Polish, English, German and some Italian.
David is among a growing number of American veterans who are volunteering to fight for Ukraine, but Maria has no military background to speak of. A trained violinist and pianist, she has never shot a gun. Her lack of experience, however, has not deterred her. She told Wednesday Journal that she could not stand by in the comfort of her Oak Park home as war engulfs her homeland.
“I can’t do fundraising or play concerts or walk around with flags anymore,” she said. “I just have to be there.”
Maria has two children from a previous marriage. When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, she was unable to return to help as her children were too young. Now aged 10 and 13, the children will be staying in the United States with their father and stepmother. Their stepmother spent about three years volunteering in Ukraine after the annexation.
Her kids, she said, understand her need to return home. Prior to COVID-19, they spent their summers in Odesa to spend time with their grandparents. It was also an opportunity for them to learn what life looked like outside of the village of Oak Park.
“Life is not perfect,” she said.
Maria’s parents live in an apartment building in Odessa. When Russian troops started shelling, they would seek shelter in a parking garage. They would go back and forth from the parking garage every two hours, according to Maria.
“Now, they just sleep through it because it’s too tiring to go up and down,” she said.
Maria has been able to maintain contact with her parents and her cousins, as well as people at the Polish-Ukrainian border. She speaks with her parents every day, waking up in the middle of the night to call them.
It is unclear how long Maria and David will be overseas. American citizens are authorized under U.S. government regulations to stay in Ukraine without a visa as long as their visit is under 90 days. They don’t know what will happen from there. Maria, for her part, is well aware of the dangers she will face in the pursuit of freedom for Ukraine.
“I don’t really have this sense of self-preservation,” she said. “I’m not afraid of dying.”
Two local churches host events
Organizations across the world are coming out in support for Ukraine. In River Forest, Urban Village Church-West, 7970 Lake St., is holding a prayer service for Ukraine at 7 p.m., March 11. Parishioner and Oak Park resident Tetyana Krutsik, who grew up in Ukraine, is helping to coordinate the service.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 611 Randolph St., is hosting a piano and violin concert for Ukraine at 3 p.m., March 12. The proceeds of the concert will be going to the Lutheran World Relief’s World of Good fund and the Voices of Children Foundation.
The World of Good fund provides families in crisis with food, clean water, shelter and medical supplies.
The Voices of Children Foundation is a Ukraine-based charitable organization that has been providing psychological and psychosocial support to children who have suffered from war trauma.