Song for a war-torn heart: This Ukrainian has an American dream, but here’s why she stays

‘Don’t forget Ukraine’: Fatigue sets in over a year after invasion, but Utah-based nonprofit August Mission urges Ukrainians still need help

Viktoriia “Vicky” Tarasiuk gasped when she saw the glossy black piano.

Our group, a handful of members of a delegation from Utah, was exploring a soon-to-be opened wing of the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Center, a rebuilt structure connected by a glass bridge to the Lviv First Medical Union, a hospital in a western region of Ukraine that has taken in thousands of the war’s wounded.

“Why do we call it Unbroken? We have an unbroken spirit. The body can be broken, but the spirit will live forever,” our guide, Christina Klymko, Unbroken project manager for the Lviv Fist Medical Union, told us.

Light poured in from the windows in the bright white hallway where we had gathered. We were chattering about what we had seen: a Soviet-era nuclear bomb shelter in the basement, modern hospital rooms, prosthetic workshops, and other facilities meant to heal Ukrainians torn apart by war — both physically and mentally. Faces of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who have lost hands, feet, arms, and legs line the walls.

Vicky is a 33-year-old Ukrainian mother employed by August Mission, a Utah-based humanitarian nonprofit that was among the first to touch down in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February of last year.

Today, as part of her work for August Mission, a key partner in making the Utah trip a reality, Vicky was herding us to the many destinations on our packed schedule. We joked she was our “mom” for the week, keeping us on track, at times with a stern “let’s go” when we were running late.

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But Vicky also found time for joy, like at this moment in the bright hospital hallway when a piano happened to appear.

Before Vicky worked for August Mission and before her previous job as a hotel manager — where she’d eventually have her first encounter with Americans — she was a music teacher. She has played piano since she was 7 years old.

Vicky settled at the piano. Her short blond hair curled under her chin as she tilted her head slightly down to the keys. Then she began to play.

The sad, haunting and yet somehow joyful notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” rang out and filled the hall, drowning out our group’s chitchat. We fell silent and watched.

With a gentle, graceful stroke of a finger, Vicky ended the song on a soft high note. We broke out in applause.

“I needed that moment,” Vicky said, with a sheepish smile. Then she stood abruptly, closed the piano, and said, “OK, let’s go.” We burst into laughter.

It was a fleeting but special moment on our last day in Ukraine, where we had seen not only the pain and destruction Ukrainians have suffered — but also their humor and resilience despite countless nights of terror from air raids that continue to hammer even the country’s western regions, far from the front lines in the south and east.

Viktoriia Tarasiuk, country manager for Ukraine and director of the August Mission Foundation of Ukraine, looks over the debris of an Antonov AN-225 at Hostomel Airport in Ukraine on Thursday, May 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Music is Vicky’s emotional outlet, she’d tell me later, a strategy she uses to survive a mentally exhausting war even for Ukrainians who have not been wounded or displaced.

Vicky doesn’t show it, but she’s tired.

It’s been well over a year since Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine shocked the world. Fatigue is setting in, not just among Ukraine’s citizens, sleep deprived from relentless overnight aerial attacks, but also for small nonprofits like August Mission, which its founder says has seen a slowdown of private donations as the war has dragged on. What was initially a tsunami of contributions has waned to a trickle.

But the missiles and drone strikes keep coming. Sometimes they evade Ukraine’s air defense system. They’ve struck residential buildings, health care facilities and critical infrastructure, at times depriving millions of heating, electricity and clean water. Men, women and children have died in the explosions or from falling debris.

Nowhere is completely safe. And even though Vicky has a standing offer through her employer to live in the U.S. — as well as a dream of American life since she was a little girl — she stays.

***

It was just before dawn on May 13. Ukraine’s sky was gray and quiet. But not for long.

Sirens wailed from the heart of Khmelnytskyi. From her parents house on the outskirts of the city, a sleeping Vicky didn’t hear the distant alarms at first.

The single mother of two daughters stirred awake and checked her phone. Those were indeed air raid sirens — a common occurrence for Ukrainians even this far west from the front lines. The alarms had grown almost routine for many Khmelnytskyi residents, not necessarily meaning their city was in immediate danger.

Vicky rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. So did her parents, along with her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, who was sleeping on the floor below her. That day, Vicky’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, 9, wasn’t there; she was with her grandmother in another village.

Then — BOOM. A massive explosion ripped through the air, blasting through Vicky’s open bedroom window. She lurched awake. In the distance, she could see the gray sky glowing red.

Vicky grabbed her phone and started filming through the sheer curtains draped over her bedroom window. Silence. Ten seconds later, another horrible blast. The curtains jumped as if electrocuted. The explosion cracked like thunder and echoed for miles. Car alarms blared in its wake.

That was close. Too close. Vicky and her family headed downstairs. They huddled in the basement together. A third explosion. Then a fourth.

Over the span of three hours, 14 explosions terrified Vicky and her family, shaking the walls and rattling the windows. One of the booms resulted in a massive, white mushroom cloud that Vicky could see from her bedroom. Reports later would indicate the Russians struck an ammunition depot west of the city.

This happened a week after members of Utah’s humanitarian and trade delegation returned to the U.S. after eight days in Ukraine. Vicky sent us her videos in a group chat. We received her texts just after 9 p.m. May 12.

“Explosions right next to my house,” Vicky messaged us.

When my phone buzzed, I was sitting on the lawn at the Kilby Block Party in Salt Lake City with my husband and some friends. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing, but I don’t remember the song because I stopped hearing it as soon as I saw Vicky’s videos.

A sickening wave of guilt washed over me. Here I was safe at a music festival, surrounded by people dancing and taking selfies while Vicky huddled with her family, holding her breath and hoping one of those strikes wouldn’t hit her neighborhood.

This wasn’t the first time Vicky and her family would experience terror from air raids. But it was “absolutely the worst” day so far, she later told me in a video chat.

After hours of explosions, Khmelnytskyi again fell silent. When Vicky stepped outside, the familiar, dreadful smell of burning metal filled her nostrils.

The overnight attack wounded 21 people in Khmelnytskyi, according to the region’s administration. Russia had launched 21 drones, and Ukraine’s military managed to down all but four of them. One hit an infrastructure facility between settlements, and multiple civilian infrastructure sites were damaged as a result of blast waves, the Kyiv Independent reported. Residential buildings, educational and administrative buildings were also damaged.

***

Viktoriia Tarasiuk, country manager for Ukraine and director of the August Mission Foundation of Ukraine poses for a photo while touring a rehab hospital in Ukraine on Saturday, May 6, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Vicky I came to know in Ukraine dressed sharply and stylishly — often a blazer with a brown belt that matched her loafers. But when I saw her again on a video call a week after our trip, I could see the toll the nightly attacks on Khmelnytskyi were taking on her. She had dark circles under her eyes. Fatigue dragged her voice. But she still seemed in good spirits. She wore a gray and red Utah T-shirt.

Vicky said the air raids have gotten so bad, she now dreads nightfall. Evenings, she said, are full of anxiety. She worries that just being in their own home when it's rattling from the explosions has traumatized her kids.

“You remember the feelings, the sounds. Literally, the house is shaking. Doors are opening. Windows are shaking.” At times, she said, the glass shatters.

“My mental health right now? Oh yeah ... I just need to go out of Ukraine and not hear any air raids (for a while),” she said with a faint laugh.

Vicky’s daughters have been asking her about temporarily leaving Ukraine — it doesn’t matter where — to “just rest.” She’s considering spending a week out of the country, maybe in Albania. But she’s torn.

“In my mind, I’m thinking how can I leave Ukraine (during) the war? Like, no. We’re helping people. So many people. In occupied territories, it’s thousands of people who just need your help.”

Mattresses and cots line the floor of a hotel in the city of Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, in February 2022. Staff at the hotel where Viktoriia Tarasiuk worked turned the hotel into a makeshift refugee center in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 | Viktoriia Tarasiuk

This is Vicky. Rather than herself, she’s thinking of the some 7 million displaced Ukrainians. As August Mission’s country manager for Ukraine, she helps coordinate humanitarian projects on the ground as well as organize the nonprofit’s warehouse in Khmelnytskyi.

August Mission discovered her while she was working as a hotel manager in the city. In the early days after the invasion, the luxury boutique hotel and restaurant where Vicky worked turned into a makeshift refugee center. Like almost everything else in Ukraine, the hotel and its restaurant shut down — but employees including Vicky still came to work that day. They started asking themselves, what could they do?

So they collected blankets, pillows, and mattresses and lined the first two floors with beds for refugees. They offered them showers, food, and any other supplies they could get their hands on.

To learn more about August Mission and donate to its cause, visit augustmission.org

When August Mission’s team touched down in Khmelnytskyi, Vicky was just the person they needed. They were looking to deliver supplies to refugees, and Vicky not only spoke English, but could tell them exactly where they could deliver it. She knew where all the refugee centers were, and even where they could buy food even though many of the markets had shut down.

After three months of volunteering, August Mission hired her full time, impressed by her hard work. “Everybody loves Vicky,” her boss, August Mission founder Bruce Roberts said.

Even though Roberts said he’d support her if she ever decided to move to the U.S. and that August Mission would act as her financial sponsor, she grapples internally with leaving her country at its darkest time.

This is even though “I’ve been dreaming about going to America since I was 15,” Vicky told me.

August Mission Foundation Chief Development Officer David Edgel hugs Viktoriia Tarasiuk, country manager for Ukraine and director of the August Mission Foundation of Ukraine, at their small warehouse in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

She learned English by watching American movies. “Beethoven,” the wholesome film of a lovable St. Bernard and his family, was a favorite. Young Vicky fell in love with the picturesque suburban neighborhood depicted in the movie, how all the front yards seemed so open and connected. She contrasted that with the walled off yards that segregate the typical Ukrainian home. And she marveled at how the family allowed such a big dog inside. Ukrainians tend to keep big dogs outside.

“I was like, ‘I want to live that life,’” she said.

Vicky was 20 when she married and had kids. Years later, she and her husband divorced when they realized they didn’t want the same things in life. It was a hard time for her, but it spurred her to travel and see the world. The first time she left Ukraine, she went to Turkey, alone, then again with her daughters.

Eventually, Vicky would visit 10 countries, including the U.S. Earlier this year, she traveled to Utah with August Mission. She had planned to stay five days, but the trip stretched to three weeks due to extended meetings. Those talks helped lead to the Utah delegation’s trade and humanitarian mission to Ukraine.

But at least for now, those trips out of the country are temporary. She always comes home.

During a tour of August Mission’s warehouse in Khmelnytskyi, Vicky beamed with pride as she showed us her desk nestled in the corner. A blue and yellow Ukrainian flag covered with signatures from front-line soldiers who had received a shipment of hygiene supplies, hung on the wall behind it.

Viktoriia Tarasiuk, country manager for Ukraine and director of the August Mission Foundation of Ukraine, shows a few items she keeps at her workstation with friends and delegation members while at their small warehouse in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“This is the most special thing in the warehouse,” she said, choking back tears. She said she keeps it here to show volunteers how thankful fighters are for the aid they’re delivering.

That was just one of many moments when Vicky’s pride and patriotism for her country boiled over into raw emotion. Another was in a delegation meeting with Violetta Labazuik, head of the Khmelnytskyi Regional Council.

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I heard Vicky’s breathing become shallow and shaky as those around her expressed their support for her country. Her eyes welled with tears. She took several deep breaths, fighting to keep them at bay. Later, in a shuttle on the way to a hospital caring for wounded soldiers, Vicky told me it touched her that we would fly from the other side of the world to simply show up for Ukraine.

“Those are very important words for me: You are not alone. We just need to know that we are actually not alone. That’s it.” Vicky said through tears. “And you can see they’re saying it with their whole heart.”

Viktoriia Tarasiuk, country manager for Ukraine and director of the August Mission Foundation of Ukraine, becomes emotional as she sits in on a meeting with government leaders of Khmelnytskyi Oblast Ukraine on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

***

Roberts, August Mission’s founder and CEO, and I sat in the back seat as we jostled our way down a rough road on the last leg toward Kyiv. The closer we got, the more often we saw bombed out buildings and homes.

Roberts was already running on almost no sleep just days into the whirlwind tour across Ukraine. Without August Mission, the trip wouldn’t have been possible. The idea started with Roberts before it grew to a more than 30-person delegation. The August Mission team worked day and night behind the scenes alongside World Trade Center Utah to connect with Ukrainian government officials and sort out travel logistics.

This day, perhaps like most days, Roberts was anxious about the challenge to keep fundraising steady so August Mission can keep bringing aid to Ukraine. Even as the prolonged fighting makes daily headlines, it’s not at the forefront like it was at the onset of the invasion.

“We’re seeing donor fatigue,” Roberts said.

“Like most small businesses, most nonprofits fail in the first five years because they fail to raise money. And it’s extremely difficult to raise money consistently. And the excitement and motivation around specific causes sort of waxes and wanes.”

Though August Mission poured a lot of its resources into Utah’s delegation, it didn’t result in any financial gains for the nonprofit’s humanitarian work, Roberts told me in the weeks following our return. Delegation members paid their own way, but time and logistics are costly. The August Mission team facilitated all operational planning across Poland and Ukraine.

“We’ve made nothing from this trip. As a matter of fact, it was actually maybe even a loss for the cost we incurred, then spending a couple of months doing it.”

What he’d hoped to help accomplish, however, was to forge tight bonds between Utah and Ukraine that he hopes will last well beyond the war and for decades as Ukraine rebuilds. The aim was to “drive long-term economic development and bring billions of dollars into their economy” through business relationships.

Bruce Roberts, founder and CEO of August Mission, stands on a bus talking with delegation members as they travel into Ukraine from Poland on Monday, May 1, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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The trip was a “huge success” on that front, Roberts said. He was there, along with other members of the Utah group at 55 separate engagements, including with 10 government ministries and a concluding visit with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“But those are the types of things that are hard to leverage for fundraising,” Roberts said. “It’s not the type of thing that drives people to open their wallets.”

In 2022, he said August Mission delivered more than $18 million worth of humanitarian aid in Ukraine, from mattresses to medical supplies to hospital generators. He describes the organization as the “Swiss army knife of nonprofits. We do a little bit of everything and try to focus on solving problems for people rather than trying to specialize in any one area.”

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Roberts’ team is starting new projects in the weeks and months following the trip. Today, they’re fundraising to help Khmelnytskyi repair the damage from the May attacks. Roberts also hopes August Mission will organize three more delegations over the next six to nine months that will focus on energy infrastructure, agriculture and medical support. Meanwhile, August Mission continues to ship aid through Poland.

Utah and Ukrainian officials are also exploring establishing an official sister city relationship with Khmelnytskyi.

For Utahns and other Americans, Roberts has this plea: “Don’t forget about Ukraine.”

***

Children and adults play in a fountain in a square of Lviv Oblast in western Ukraine on Friday, May 5, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On our last night in Ukraine, my colleague, photographer Scott Winterton, and I wandered the streets of Lviv, taking in the strangely romantic, even fairy-tale-like scenery around us.

The historic European architecture. The cathedrals. The cobblestone streets. Kids played in a splash pad at the city’s square. Restaurant patios were packed. Teenage girls wearing crop tops danced while filming a TikTok. Couples hugged and kissed in the streets. Ukrainians carried on despite the war, relishing moments of freedom, joy and beauty.

On the street, a violinist played a rendition of the popular pop song, “Titanium” by David Guetta. The lyrics sounding in my head made me think of Vicky, the musician, the protective mother and the fiercely loyal Ukrainian who has so much love for her country. And I thought of all the other Ukrainians like her who lie awake at night with fire erupting in their skies.

“Fire away, fire away. You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium.”

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