SARANAC, Mich. (WOOD) — It was Feb. 15, 2022. Nataliya Zaboichenko, her mother and father drove through the dark of night in a desperate attempt to escape their hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine, and make it to safety in Romania.
“I don’t remember the road because I was stuck on my phone, trying to read news,” Zaboichenko recalled of her family’s flight.
“So I remember like gas stations, news, news, news, news, news, news. Hotel room, news, news, news, news, news,” she continued, miming scrolling through her phone. “So I don’t remember the road real well, not because it was that traumatic, but because I wasn’t paying attention to the road.”
Four years ago, during the 2017-2018 school year, Zaboichenko was an exchange student in Saranac. She stayed closed with the family that hosted her and is back in West Michigan now to visit them.
She is still dealing with the emotions she felt the night she fled Kyiv.
“It feels like a fever dream now. It feels like it did not happen to me,” Zaboichenko said. “This is kind of weird to be not connected to the person who woke up on the 24th of February.”
Now 21, she eventually settled in Germany and is finishing up her undergraduate degree work. Her parents are living in Houston.
While she’s safe now, anger over the invasion has been difficult to overcome.
“When you would be making your coffee, you’d be thinking about it. And then you would stare at your window and you start thinking about it. So it’s like a constant thought, like a white noise in the back of your mind, always happening,” Zaboichenko said.
She still has friends and family in Ukraine. She worries about them.
“We say that every time that one Ukrainian is crying, a Russian is happy,” Zaboichenko said. “We try not to sacrifice our happy lives and we try to be enjoying life no matter what, because if we don’t enjoy out life and we are sad and miserable that’s kind of a win for Putin.”
As she tries to figure out her life moving forward, Natalie is planning on continuing her university studies and considering a master’s degree in journalism.
“I just like the idea of contributing to the world in any way. And after what I went through, I see the power of journalism that it can have,” she said.
She’s not sure where life will take her in the future. For now, she’s a person without a country. She would like to return to a free Ukraine, get married and raise her children as Ukrainians. But she knows the road to realizing that dream has many barriers.
One thing she is sure of is that she’ll never settle in a Russian-occupied Ukraine.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be under Russian control because we’re putting so much energy and effort into not letting that happen,” Zaboichenko said. “But I’ll never go to Russia. I’ll never go to any country that is occupied by Russia.”