Op-Ed: “I hadn’t realized the gravity of war” – American Volunteer Shares Her Story

When FNTV Journalist Oliya Scootercaster was fleeing Ukraine, after weeks of coverage of Russian Invasion, she crossed the Hungarian border where she met dozens of kind and helpful volunteers, among them was Kimberly Eilers Brown.

Kimberly Eilers Brown & Oliya Scootercaster

Kimberly shared her experience with us in this opinion and experience piece on a young woman from Kharkiv. “An architecture student in Ukraine, Yana Kholodova, flees as Russian missiles destroy her university”.

By Kimberly Eilers Brown

When Ukraine architect student Yana Kholodova started school in January, she had no idea that Russian missiles would explode her life in a matter of weeks.

“Our Freedom Square is destroyed…my university is destroyed,” she says. The devastation comes with a twist of irony: “We are architects. We hope we are going to have a lot of jobs when the war ends.”

Her composure is impressive, her story one of strength and perseverance in spite of the suffering. It’s a story I had the privilege of hearing on an unplanned humanitarian effort inspired by my stubborn mother.

When Mom calls…

Some people get a calling from God or the universe. My call to go to the Ukrainian/Hungarian border came from my mom–or, rather, her refusal to stay home. 

Just a week earlier, my mom, a retired widow and avid volunteer, texted the family on a Friday to declare that she was going immediately to Ukraine to volunteer with the NC Baptists on Mission, headquartered in Cary. It was the second week of the conflict. My response was swift. “Absolutely not! It’s too dangerous.”

But there was no talking her out of it. If she was going, so was I. The next day, I boarded a plane to join her, and, in less than 24 hours, we were on the ground, one of the first teams there. Yana’s words made me realize how easy and short our journey had been. Hers had just begun.

‘My heart stopped; I loved this place’

Kholodova is from Kharkiv, one of the early targets of intense Russian shelling. She explains that she’s been living in her basement of her 10-story apartment. It’s cold there. Bad. Just the brick walls. She repeatedly calls her grandmother but gets no answer. The bombs have targeted the power in some areas, and most phone lines don’t work.

It takes some time, but she finally makes her way to her godfather’s home, to his basement. 

“We were living there, 20 people. There were armchairs. I was lucky to have armchair to sleep. It’s quite comfortable, the armchair,” Kholodova says, almost smiling.  

“First days we thought no one going to destroy the city,” she continues. “But in four or five days, I woke up and heard the noise. We hear it all the time now. I scroll Instagram. I saw the video of the bomb getting the government building in Freedom Square. My heart stopped. I loved this place. I walked this place. My university is near. I walked every day there through this street and see this building. Now I see it destroyed. I was empty all the day. I couldn’t eat. I was just watching my phone, feeling that emptiness. I still feel it. That bomb that got into the government building—that was just the beginning. They got everything else … they started attacking civilian buildings. It hurts.”

Choking back tears

At just 20 years old, her candor both moved and surprised me. She’d spent the past two weeks crossing an entire country, leaving her family behind, just trying to survive. Her beloved cat, Obbi, was the only family she could bring to comfort her.

She continued to tell me her story as I choked back tears. I hadn’t realized the gravity of war. What it looked like. The devastation. The despair. The longing. 

I remember being flustered as I packed my own suitcase just a day earlier. I had struggled to decide what to pack for this trip while the refugees we met, including Kholodova, had to pack their entire lives in minutes. 

How does someone do that?

It scared me—the gravity of what my mother and I had walked into. 

The refugee center was located in a school in Tiszabecs, just blocks from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. The refugees arrived, exhausted, traumatized and hungry. Some had rides waiting to pick them up, but the majority needed immediate help — food, water, baby supplies, clothes, SIM cards for mobile phones, transportation to other cities or European countries. Some were in so much despair they didn’t know what to do next. Language was a barrier — Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian. English was the only common language and not widely spoken.

Refugee Center

My perspective swirled around me like a horrible bout of vertigo. How could this be happening to innocent people?

‘We made a huge mistake’

Kholodova is desperate to tell her story. A neighbor finds her grandmother in the rubble of her shelled building. Her apartment is destroyed, but she is okay.

“I heard [grandmother’s] voice. She said she is fine, and I am grateful for the people that helped,” says Yana, who was able to talk to her grandmother by phone.

Now, after more than a week of traveling cross-country by car, Kholodova is exhausted but resolute.

Her caravan of three cars, mostly architects, made it across the border. She explains that the wife of her boss, Anna, and Anna’s baby, were with the caravan as well. Anna’s husband stayed behind to fight. The Ukrainian government is calling men age 18-60 to stay and fight. Anna and her baby spent nine days sleeping on the cold floor of the metro station before meeting up with Kholodova to cross into Hungary.

Kholodova asks if I want to meet Obbi. Of course I do.

Obbi the cat with Yana & Kimberly

He’s resting in his cat carrier. She takes him out and snuggles with him, and we go back inside. Obbi comes too. She wants to tell me more.

“It took a long time (to get to Hungary). Just 250 km per day. We made a huge mistake. We decided to go to the border of Moldova. The line was really huge. We stayed for six hours. Then I decided to walk and see the end of the line. Some people say they stayed two days just sleeping in their cars.” 

Kholodova says she’s headed to Austria, where she hopes to find a way to finish her degree. I don’t know about her parents. She doesn’t say, and I’m too scared to ask. She implores me to help the animals at the Kharkiv Zoo. 

I don’t know what to do. We are struggling to help the people, and the need is so great. 

A message to Putin

Kholodova is exhausted, devastated and angry. She has a message for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Stop destroying, stop killing people. Just leave. It’s time.”

It’s both a directive and a plea–one that will likely fall on deaf ears. It’s a country caught between the east and the west and a decades-long struggle for land, for freedom, for life. 

Kholodova wants to make sure I understand that she doesn’t blame Russia or the Russian citizens for the invasion. 

“There are good people that live in Russia. There are also people that believe just the [Russian] television. They think they are saving us. It’s sad. We have many relatives there. Now we don’t speak to each other.”

She knows she has to continue forward, but she wants to go back to her country. 

“No one ever thought that we would experience this,” Kholodova says. “We really want to get back home to renovate the city. Clean everything. Live in our hometown.”

I want to talk more, but it’s time for her to go. We’ve just met, but I feel like I’ve known her for years. Her optimism and courage in spite of all her pain and uncertainty is remarkable.

We hug and say goodbye.


Kimberly Eilers Brown is a former Pricewaterhouse-Coopers consultant and graduate of North Carolina State University, where she earned her B.S. and Master’s degrees in Business. She now lives and works abroad. For more information, visitwww.KimberlyBrown.com. Christa Gala, an instructor in the journalism program at North Carolina State University, contributed to this story.

Videos by Oliya Scootercaster (FreedomNews.TV)

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