Mission Ukraine finds connections in Mercer Island | Hamer

I spent a couple of hours with Nataliya Lukyanova. This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Next weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Switzerland for a “global peace summit” on the war in Ukraine.

Here on Mercer Island, a young Ukrainian woman named Nataliya Lukyanova has been visiting and talking to people about the war in Ukraine and how it has affected her country, her family and her friends.

Before the Russians invaded, Nataliya was a successful property-management entrepreneur. She and her husband managed 100 rental properties around Kyiv. The invasion shut down their business overnight. Since then, they have slowly built back about 50% of their business.

I spent a couple of hours with her. This is an edited transcript of our interview.

What is the main goal of your visit here?

“My big mission is to tell people that the war in Ukraine is still going on, and that we are fighting for our country’s survival. We need the help and the support of America. We cannot do this alone. We are fighting for the values of the Western world – for freedom, for democracy, for sovereignty, and for secure borders. We have a crisis, and we need the support of America.”

Nataliya is a friend of Dan and Daria Absher, longtime Mercer Island residents, and their friends Sue and Jamie Colbourne of Bainbridge Island. I first wrote about them in a March 15, 2023, column, “Mercer Island couple helps Ukraine with Refuse to Quit.”

The Abshers and Colbournes formed a nonprofit organization called Refuse to Quit to help women and children impacted by the war in Ukraine. They started taking food, clothing, medical supplies, generators, and other essential items to displaced Ukrainians in nearby countries, and in to Ukraine. With Nataliya’s help — they bought and delivered supplies to shelters, orphanages, clinics and soup kitchens.

Inspired by the work of RTQ and others, Nataliya launched Mission Ukraine (missionukraine.world), a Kyiv-based nonprofit she started with her husband, and her friend, Oksana Schocher.

RTQ is contributing its own funds and seeking help from more donors for Mission Ukraine. All donations made to RTQ resulting from Nataliya’s visit will be passed through directly to her organization.

In a visit to Covenant Living at the Shores, residents enjoyed hearing her story. Several donated generously. “We just got another $1,000 from someone,” said Daria.

They have also met with employees at Columbia Hospitality Group, Absher Construction, and several other groups and individuals.

How have you been received?

“People are very supportive and full of hope. I tell them not to listen to the negative voices, like some celebrities. People of America are 80% supportive of Ukraine.”

For example, she said, there was a May 25 concert by the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra at Benaroya Hall that was sold out. The concert featured a guest appearance by world-renowned trumpet player, and Mercer Island resident, Allen Vizzutti, who played his original composition, “Love & Tears for Ukraine.”

What are the greatest needs in Ukraine today?

“We need more weapons. The military resources of the other side are so big.”

But her main focus is on humanitarian aid.

“Mission Ukraine is focusing on people who need help. We have so many displaced people who live in very difficult conditions. Many are disabled or sick. They can’t afford pills or things like kidney medication. Hygiene products are in short supply, such as adult diapers. We don’t have what they need.”

What is the morale of the soldiers fighting today?

“Many of them have PTSD and burnout syndrome. Veterans come back from the front lines, and about 90% have burnout syndrome. We don’t have enough psychologists or counselors to help them.”

Are some men reluctant to go fight, and trying to avoid being drafted?

“Not every man is a warrior. Without training, some men are afraid to go to the front lines. And we do need men in the towns to take care of their families or businesses or farms.”

What is the general morale of Ukrainians now?

“There has been what we call waves. We paid a huge price. Many bright men died. We were losing, so there was a wave of despair in society. Today, there is an optimistic wave — especially after the U.S. government approved more funding for Ukraine.”

Do Ukrainians still have hope?

“Those who lost family members are sad and angry, especially wives. Why did my husband have to die, and also my children? All men who are capable should be fighting, they say.

“But when I talk to soldiers, they are willing to stand and fight. They believe there will be a counter offensive. They believe we can win. But many of the strongest, most capable men have been killed. We are losing the best.”

Is there resistance to the draft, as I have read?

“All men are given a number, based on their age and their past military experience. My husband is 43 and doing post-graduate studies, so his number is not likely to be called.

“My brother volunteered in computers and took a 3-month course on how to make drones. Many men now assemble them at home.”

Do you have enough electric power today?

“In Kyiv they turn out the lights at 8 p.m.

“We now have only 50% of the electric power we used to have, because the Russians have destroyed our power plants. We must prepare for a very cold and dark winter.”

Sue Colbourne told the story of a woman who lives about 3 hours outside of Kyiv, but only gets one hour a day of electricity. So when it comes on she cooks several meals, charges her phone, etc. But she never knows when it will come on.

What is your most important project today?

“The Children’s Hospital in Kyiv. With the support of RTQ, we are now opening a new aqua-therapy rehabilitation center. The pool had been closed for decades. We rebuilt it and put in new heating and air conditioning. Therapy rooms. Sauna for kids. More than 2,000 children will get therapy. That wouldn’t have happened without RTQ. It is located between the French and Polish Embassies, so it probably won’t get bombed.

“We’re a very small organization. The hospital is our largest area of support. We also focus on premature babies who are in intensive care. We have lots of children from war areas. They need wheelchairs and other expensive equipment. We have some of the most complex children.”

When the invasion began, about 20,000 children were stolen from their families and taken to Russia. ‘Return Our Children’ is a special UNICEF program that tries to help these kids get clothes, medicine, equipment, etc.

“Many are special-needs kids. Orphans who cannot find their mothers. The Russians told them their mothers didn’t want them anymore. But one boy found his grandmother and is now living with her.”

To sum up their mission, Sue said: “The theme here for all of us is our soft spot for children. That’s why we focus on women and children — and I would say especially children.”

John Hamer is a former Seattle Times editorial writer and columnist and co-founder of the Washington News Council. He has lived on Mercer Island for 25 years. He and his wife have four grandchildren, including a grandson who uses a wheelchair.