GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As we celebrate our Independence Day, the people of Ukraine are fighting to preserve their freedom.

Nataliya Zaboichenko, 20, who spent a summer in West Michigan four years ago as an exchange student, fled the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the war started in February, eventually settling in Germany. Recently, she left Germany for a visit back to her native country to pack up some loose ends.

Her journey home began May 22. She spent 24 hours on a train out of Munich to Budapest. After that, another train and then a bus to get home.

“My suitcases was very heavy. I was not able to take any dresses or makeup because I needed space for war stuff,” Zaboichenko told News 8 in a recent Zoom call from Munich.

If you’re going home to Ukraine, you need to bring supplies for the troops: things like helmets, military-grade backpacks and coats.

But the Hungarians are not as sympathetic to Ukraine as much of Europe is. Zaboichenko worried Hungarian border guards might seize the supplies but luck was on her side.

“The guy that was checking our bags got a call and another guy came and then another guy thought that guy checked out bags, and we just got to Ukraine somehow,” she said.

Forty-four hours after leaving Munich, Zaboichenko crossed back into her homeland. Her first stop was Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, where she celebrated the birthday of two friends she left behind.

So much had changed. Heavily armed Ukrainian soldiers patrolled the streets.

“I am not complaining about people with guns on the streets because I know why they are there and they should be there. But it’s also an adjustment that you have to make,” Zaboichenko said.

Cafés remain open and, moment to moment, life seems normal.

“You are drinking coffee outside and people are speaking Ukrainian and there are Ukrainian flags everywhere. And you feel like you’re smiling, the best days of your life. And then the sirens turn on and the days keeps going, but now it has this little flavor to it: Oh yeah, reality. The war is going on,” Zaboichenko said.

After Ivano-Frankivsk, it was on to her hometown of Kyiv and the apartment she and her parents fled when the bombs began to drop as Russia invaded Feb. 24. The reality of the war came full circle.

“The mall that I went to almost every day got destroyed,” Zaboichenko said. “You see a dad crying, saying goodbye to his kids. You see girl hugging her boyfriend over there. Because you’re not alone in this misery, and this misery is everywhere, and you’re kind of a part of this big thing. I don’t think it’s a good thing to say but, it kind of make it easier.”

She had returned to Kyiv to pack up the apartment. It was difficult, and there wasn’t a lot of room for keepsakes on her return trip. Then she thought of all the things the Russians had taken away.

“So I kind of threw way everything that I could. It kind of made it easier on the soul, because now I threw it away myself instead of it being taken away from me,” she said.

On the streets of Kyiv, she described how people move about between the air raid sirens going off. Children play, but there’s a different theme to their games. They march holding sticks to emulate Ukrainian soldiers patrolling the streets.

“Military is actually allowed to check your documents to make sure that you are Ukrainian. The kids with the sticks, they come up to you and they say, ‘Where is your documents?’ And if you want to play into it, you kind of (say), ‘Here is my documents, Mr. Military Guy,'” Zaboichenko said. “It might look terrifying, but I’m just happy they are going to grow up knowing the price that their parents and their nation paid for them being Ukrainian.”

Sandbags and roadblocks outside a coffee shop in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Courtesy Nataliya Zaboichenko)
Sandbags and roadblocks outside a coffee shop in Kyiv. (Courtesy Nataliya Zaboichenko)

There is pain over what has been lost and what lies ahead for Ukraine. The Ukrainians have held Kyiv and continue a fierce fight that initially astonished Western observers, but the war is far from over. Despite an apparent overreach as the invasion began, Russian troops have altered their strategy and made gains in the eastern part of Ukraine. They have, however, abandoned Snake Island, a strategic and symbolic point in the Black Sea.

“I think I was done crying in April or March,” Zaboichenko said. “And now I’m just angry.”

But there is also a strengthen sense of nationalism, said Zaboichenko, from friends who joined the fight against the Russians to those who stayed behind. She said everyone she knows is contributing to the effort somehow.

“Some of my friends are translating articles and friends volunteer for the hospital,” she said. “My best friend, he’s donating like half his salary to army. Can you imagine getting $100 for your job then giving $50 away to just military?”

Zaboichenko is convinced her country will persevere.

“When all of your nation is going through this, you feel it as a social experience,” she said. “You’re not alone. You’re all in this together.”