War in Ukraine reaches Southwest Florida in different ways
23 February 2024
Since Russian guns began firing and bombs began raining on Ukraine two years ago, millions have fled into the diaspora or stayed to fight. Either way, they’ve found their futures on ice. Even in sunny Southwest Florida, the crystals that have encased their lives refuse to melt. A woman waits and worries for her soldier fiancé while a family scrambles to make ends meet in their new and sometimes baffling home. A rising young tenor holds his breath, still hoping for the critical interview that will let him leave his country to star in Gulfshore Opera’s major production, now barely more than a month away. The Ukrainians are not the only people whose lives have totally changed. An Estero man who crossed the border into Ukraine on a lark finds himself returning again and again to help embattled aid givers close to the front line. We visited them as the second anniversary of that invasion approaches Saturday, Feb. 24, to learn what has changed, and what has not. A relationship on long hold A year ago, Olya Alexandrova greeted a Naples Press reporter in slacks and a top, ready to scoop up one of her two cats that had bounced with her through a perilous bus ride around Russian forces and out of Ukraine. This year she is wearing a yellow-and-blue gown, the colors of her homeland, with ribbons, pendants and the national sunflowers that announce her heritage. Alexandrova’s emotions now have steel in them. She refers to Russian president Vladimir Putin with a nickname familiar now to Ukrainians: Putler, a blend of Putin and Hitler. Alexandrova has a part-time job with the Humane Society in a field she loves, working with animals that are being rehabilitated or are going through therapy before they are put up for adoption. But it is a serious business, with no social linkage, she said. “I don’t worry too much about it. I have a hobby”— creating glass bead icons—”I really like it and I’m not worried if I’m not out with people my age.” She has her temporary Florida driver’s license, and she has taken on the job of press secretary for the Naples branch of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America. “She actually lit a fire beneath us in terms of helping Ukraine,” declared Natalie Santarsiero, president of the organization. Kharkiv, where Alexandrova is from, was hard hit, but she knew how to reach volunteers who would distribute blankets and food to elderly people who could not leave the only home they knew. A flow of care packages began. “Because of her we also supplied solar lanterns to these grandmothers,” Santarsiero added. The sun would fuel the lantern during the day. “At night they’d plug them in near a mirror so the mirror would light up the room.” Alexandrova has the advantage of a home here; she has been living with her mother, who had come to the U.S. years back when she married Alexandrova’s stepfather. She has an extended visa, which eliminates the worry of being deported to an unknown destination. Best of all, she can communicate almost daily...