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Ukrainian woman in central Minnesota supports family from afar

Iryna Wester keeps constant tabs on her family and friends in Kyiv war breaks out in her home country.

Woman in a blue sweater with a flower pinned to her shirt sits at a table with a mug of coffee and glass of water.
Iryna Wester, a Pequot Lakes woman who has lived in Minnesota for 16 years, is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine. Her family still lives in Kyiv, and she is making clay flower pins to raise donations to send to the Ukrainian army and help her country.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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PEQUOT LAKES — Even if it’s as simple as making an omelet or grabbing coffee with a friend, Iryna Wester asks for frequent updates on her mom’s day.

Noticeable pride beams on the woman’s face as she talks about her family while sipping coffee Wednesday, March 2, at Coco Moon in downtown Brainerd. A blue and yellow flower pin adorns her sweater, a subtle indicator of her home country.

While Wester keeps busy day to day with her work at Grand View Lodge and part-time job at Norway Ridge, her mind wanders from central Minnesota to her hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine, where her family and friends are weathering war.

“It’s just hard to see that in 2022 your parents are talking about bomb shelters,” Wester said. “They’re talking about making it through the night. I will not go to bed until I know my mother is awake.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of Feb. 24, a move spurring mass evacuations of the country and civilian casualties in the hundreds, possibly thousands, according to various accounts.

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As of Friday, a 40-mile-long convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles was stalled outside of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Many are leaving, but Wester’s family — her mom, dad, brother, aunts, uncles, friends — are staying put, fighting for their home.

“They’re not going anywhere yet. From the very beginning, I told my mom I would help her if she needs help,” Wester said. “I have friends in Poland that reached out that would help my family, but my dad doesn’t want to leave, and I respect him so much. He’s one of those guys that’s, ‘I’ll stick around and fight, and I will do whatever it takes.’”

A retired police officer, Wester’s dad works part time in security and is still going to work when he can, trying to keep life as normal as possible, considering the circumstances. Her mom and friends volunteer with a civilian protection group, making and serving food to those on the frontlines.

A couple sits, holding a large bouquet of flowers.
Iryna Wester's parents live in Kyiv, Ukraine, and have stayed in their home to weather the war occurring with Russia.
Contributed

“It’s amazing what the people are going through and how strong they’re staying,” Wester said.

Her parents live in an apartment building, which causes concern for their daughter. The taller the building, the higher chance of a bomb strike. Wester’s mom goes to a friend’s house with a cellar overnight most nights, while her dad’s plan is to seek shelter in the garage if the worst happens.

With the eight-hour time difference, Wester sits up until about midnight every night, waiting until it’s late enough in Kyiv to call her mom to make sure she made it through the night.

Wester then checks her phone when she wakes up in the morning, expecting to see updates from her mom and proof she has been active online.

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Fortunately, Wester visited Kyiv in January — just before the chaos started — and two other times last year. But now she’s stuck in Minnesota, which she has called home for the last 16 years, trying to figure out what she can do to help from afar.

After starting a clay jewelry business during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wester decided to put her tools and skills to use for her homeland. She began making blue and yellow flower pins to give to coworkers, but after a friend posted about the initiative online, Wester’s little craft project — and her Venmo account — blew up.

In three days, she raised $3,000 to send to the Ukrainian Army for food, ammunition and whatever other supplies they need. As of Wednesday, she had another $1,500 in her account and about $100 in cash donations.

Three blue and yellow clay flower pins.
Iryna Wester, a native Ukrainian living in Pequot Lakes, is making clay flower pins to sell and raise funds for the Ukrainian army to fight against Russia.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

“I know the whole world is helping, but I feel like the more we help, the better it is, you know?” Wester said. “We just all have to get together and push Russia back because it’s just the beginning.”

While Russian presence in Ukraine actually dates back to 2014, nothing compares to what citizens faced over the past week.

“The things that are happening are insane,” Wester said. “Like, they’re using cluster bombs, they’re using vacuum bombs that are illegal. … It’s just so low.”

NATO confirmed Russia’s use of cluster bombs in Ukraine and news reporters witnessed and took video of Russian thermobaric "vacuum bombs" launchers crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also accused Russia of preparing to use both banned weapons.

Seeing her family struggle, innocent children die and her hometown torn apart is heartbreaking for Wester.

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“Do we need these civilian deaths? I mean, we don’t need any deaths whatsoever,” she said. “If you started a military operation — as they claim to be a military operation, which is actually war — and you are wiping off the civilian population, that is the lowest you can go. That is disgusting, in my opinion. There is no honor in that.”

But honor abounds in the Ukrainians fighting for their home, she said.

“Ukrainians, they have this pride. They always have had, like, a tribal pride, almost. So they will fight. They will not stop. They will not give up,” Wester said.

There are people around the world and even right here in the Brainerd lakes area who proudly want to help, too.

“It’s amazing how the community wants to help and pitch in and try to make as much as possible and do as much as possible and spread the word around the world,” Wester said, adding she overflows with gratitude toward those who have donated to her cause with money, supplies, time and whatever other resources they have.

“People have so much love in their hearts. They have so much to give,” she said.

What else can people far away from the conflict give? They can be aware of what’s happening and spread the word.

Wester believes some people in Russia don’t even know what’s happening, with a lack of internet in some places and the spread of propaganda and false information.

“They would not want this to be happening because we used to be one big union, so we all have relatives everywhere,” she said. “They have relatives in Ukraine; Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, Belarus. And now with Belarus joining the troops with Russia, that’s also scary. You’re being attacked by your two neighbors. What do you do? I know they will fight to the end, but do we need this? Do we need to get to this end?”

If the truth of the situation can spread, she hopes Russian citizens can be empowered to step up.

“How far will the people let their commanders, their leaders — how far will they let them go? Because leaders are supposed to work for the people. The people are not their slaves,” Wester said. “... That’s why I want people to spread the word and show them that you can change something. You just have to really want it and really believe in it.”

But even if that change does come at some point, Wester knows relations between Russia and Ukraine will never be mended.

“The relationship is broken up forever. It’s gone for generations to come,” she said. “... Whatever happens at the end, it will be just hatred. It will never be the same.”

Mother, father and daughter pose for the camera.
Iryna Wester, left, poses with her parents, who live in Kyiv, Ukraine. Wester lives in Pequot Lakes and asks her parents for constant updates on their days as they stay in their home city and weather the war with Russia.
Contributed

How to help

Those interested in purchasing a pin or making a donation to Wester’s cause should contact her through her Facebook profile at facebook.com/iryna.chepurna . A $10 donation is suggested for each pin, but any money is accepted and can be sent through Venmo or arranged to be dropped off in person. All funds Wester raises will go to support the Ukrainian army.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: PEQUOT LAKESUKRAINE
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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