I met Valeriya Rudyaka at the Plaza in March at an event in support of the people of Kaniv, our Sister City in Ukraine. When I saw her recent post on NextDoor, I asked her if she’d like to get together to share her story. We met at Peet’s on a warm afternoon after she had finished a day’s work as a housecleaner and walked the half mile from where she is living. We talked for a couple of hours.
Valeriya, 28, brims with energy and a kind of forthrightness that one doesn’t often see among American women. If you are listening, she’ll tell you what’s in her heart, but politely of course.
“Ukraine is not Russia,” she said as we settled into our chairs on the patio. “It has its own culture, its own language, its music and art. It has been that way for hundreds of years.”
The war in Ukraine has disrupted her life dramatically.
She had come to Sonoma early in February to see her boyfriend, a young man she had met on a cruise ship in 2018 where she was working as a vocalist. Their happy interlude was shattered when Putin invaded Ukraine. Valeriya was in shock. “Nobody thought there would be a war,” she said. “It’s 2022. Who does this?”
For weeks she could not do anything. “My emotions were all over the place. If someone asked me how I was, what could I say? How could the person whose country is under bombs feel? Heartbroken, and without any idea what to do.”
Her family – mother, stepfather, and two younger sisters – remain in Cherkasy where she was raised. Santa Rosa’s Sister City, Cherkasy is located in Central Ukraine, 124 miles south of Kviv. Fortunately it has not been bombed. “If the Army sees a plane coming across their screens, sirens warn people. So far no one has been injured or killed. We are lucky in that way.”
Her grandmother has fixed up a little room down in the cellar in case she has to stay there during bombings.
“Displaced people from other parts of the country have been coming to Cherkasy. Now there are, hmm, maybe 14,000 refugees. People are volunteering to help them. They also prepare food to send to the men at the front.”
Various aid agencies provide funding for food and supplies.
There has not been much work in Cherkasy since the war. Her stepfather’s company shut down for weeks. Meanwhile, “the price of food has gone through the roof.” People buy things like rice and flour that can be stored. Vegetables are too expensive. Farmers have been unable to plant their crops, it is too dangerous out in the fields.
“People are relying on backyard gardens to grow the food that they can prepare and store, pickles and maybe some canned vegetables.” Valeriya’s mother is helping her grandmother with her garden.
Valeriya cannot send them money as she used to because she doesn’t have a job. She needs work, not only to support herself but to send home. No one will hire her unless she has a Social Security card but she can’t get Social Security until she has a work visa. She doesn’t know how long that will take, maybe six to nine months.
For now, she is doing housecleaning and babysitting. Having helped her mother care for two younger sisters since they were born, caring for kids comes easily. NextDoor has been a big help.
Later, she’d love to get a job in hospitality, where she has worked since the age of 17. She likes organizing events, interacting with people. Helping to plan weddings, that would be great. She speaks excellent English.
Most of all she’d like to continue her career in music. She has a degree from the University in Kiev, to teach singing and music. She used to have her own band, and would love to find some musicians to work with.
Despite the shock of the war and finding herself marooned so far from home, she is staying focused now, making lists, writing down her goals. Getting a car is at the top of the list. This month she and Raphael will be moving into a more affordable apartment. “It took me some time to wrap my thoughts around how much things cost. In Cherkasy, people might be earning $350 a month, and here, what can you do with that?”
With a little luck, Valeriya will be able to make the best of a bad situation. “People have been so kind.” You can contact her at [email protected]
This piece first appeared in the Sonoma County Gazette. Stephanie Hiller has lived in Sonoma County for 20 years. She is a journalist and editor, and teaches writing and storytelling in the Older Adults Program at Santa Rosa Junior College. Email Stephanie [email protected]