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When war began, Anna Marynyak, 62, walked miles to Poland to reach safety

Anna Marynyak’s trip to her native Ukraine in late December was meant to be a family reunion. Her plan was to stay until Feb. 27 and then fly back to New York and on to her home in Riverhead.

The morning of Feb. 24 she was in the western part of the country when air raid sirens went off.

“The Russians invaded,” said Ms. Marynyak’s stepson, Nazar Podola. “No one believed they would do this, that it would really happen. But the war started and she realized she had to get out of the country.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Podola, his stepmother and his father, Roman Podola, attended the Ukrainian-language Mass at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead. Nearly all of the church’s pews were filled; some worshippers stood in the back, listening to the Rev. Bohdan Hedz’s homily.

Afterwards, people gathered in groups to talk. The war in Ukraine was on everyone’s mind, as it has been since the first morning when Russians began bombing the country and moving troops over the border in a wholesale invasion unlike anything seen in Europe since World War II.

In a time of war, the Rev. Hedz’s church on a quiet street in Riverhead near Merritts Pond has become the spiritual center for the North Fork’s Ukrainian community. They come to pray in their native language and to talk to fellow Ukrainians about news of family members caught up in the fighting. 

But the church is more than that. Downstairs, the church’s basement has become the epicenter for efforts to get needed supplies to the more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees that have fled into neighboring Poland.

One day last week, Julia Brativnyk and Ulyana Zyulkouska sorted through large bags of donated clothing. As they worked, car after car pulled up to the church and more bags of clothing and other needed supplies were brought to the basement.

A printed notice tacked to the church door lists in columns everything that is needed, including “compression bandages, tourniquets, tactical first aid kits, bandages, gauzes, antiseptics, anti-burn gels,” along with boots, winter hats, socks, thermal underwear, sweaters and sweatshirts.

The two women carefully folded the clothes and put them in boxes, along with rolled up sleeping bags and a small mountain of blankets and winter coats. Nearly every day, boxes are loaded onto a truck and driven to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, where they are placed aboard a plane bound for Poland.

Ulyana Zyulkouska, left, and Julia Brativnyk helped sort through donations at the Riverhead church. (Credit: Steve Wick)

There, the donated items are distributed to church parishes and hastily setup refugee centers housing mostly Ukrainian women and their children. Men younger than 70 have stayed behind to fight the Russians.

Both Ms. Brativnyk and Ms. Zyulkouska have close family members still in Ukraine. “It’s very, very bad,” Ms. Brativnyk said. 

“Some members of my family want to stay in Ukraine,” said Ms. Zyulkouska. “They want to stay and fight. We are here praying for them.”

After the Sunday Mass, Ms. Marynyak, Nazar Podola and Roman Podola gathered in the rear of the church to speak to a reporter. All three were emotional as they spoke about the war and the destruction of Ukrainian towns and villages. Ms. Marynyak has been in Riverhead since 2005.

“He is destroying everything,” Nazar Podola said about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. “The Russians are destroying the country.”

Ms. Marynyak, 62, spoke in Ukrainian to her stepson, who translated her story for the reporter. She held her emotions in check as she spoke, visibly struggling to explain the inexplicable – why Russia has invaded her country and children are dying.

“When the fighting started,” Nazar Podola said after his mother had told her story to him, “all the flights were canceled because the airfields were being attacked. The sirens going off told her she had to get out of the country, but how?”

From Riverhead, the family worked to get her a plane ticket from Poland. First, though, she needed to get to Poland.

The flags of the U.S. and Ukraine wave outside the Riverhead church. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

“She was driven to the Polish border by family members. But there was a huge line — 10 miles of cars,” he said.

Back home, they secured a plane ticket from Warsaw to Istanbul and then to New Jersey.

“She could see it would be days to get up to the border, and then through to Poland and on to Warsaw,” Nazar Podola said. “People were deserting their vehicles and walking. She knew she had to do that. She left everything she had packed behind and took only her purse.

The Ukrainian flag waves at a rally in Riverhead last week. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

“So she walked. With her was a young mother with a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old,” he added. “She helped carry the baby and the young mother walked with her 2-year-old. She left for the border around 4 p.m. that day and got to the border at 8 a.m. the next day. It was something like a 16-hour walk.

“She crossed through,” he added. “There were so many volunteers on the Polish side of the border. They had hot food, water, simple snacks. They gave her something to eat. There were many people offering their vehicles for rides and she found a minibus to take her to Warsaw.”

In the massive crowds of refugees at the border, Ms. Marynyak made sure the young family she walked with was OK.

“The young woman was named Oksana,” Nazar Podola said. “Her 2-year-old was Dennis, and the baby was Maryana. The mother had a sister in Poland who met them. They were OK.”