Kurima is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune Community Advisory Board, a management consultant, and president of the board of directors of the SDJACL, a social justice nonprofit established in 1932. He lives with his wife and two children in Carlsbad.
This is the quintessential American story: an escape from the pointless devastation of war, a precarious journey to a faraway land, a hopeful sacrifice for the future of a 2-year-old child.
Olga Ilinska was born in Ukraine in the town of Vyshneve on the Western outskirts of Kyiv in the days when the nation was still a part of the Soviet Union. In January 1990, hundreds of thousands of her fellow Ukrainians joined arms from Kyiv to Lviv, forming a human chain for independence. This “Ukrainian Wave” swelled up and crested over the fall of the Soviet Union the following year. Ukraine was free.
Growing up amid these events, Ilinska could peek beyond the Iron Curtain at opportunities that her parents never had. Though most looked West, Ilinska looked East, falling in love with a “unique and fascinating” Japan. After earning her degree from Kyiv State Linguistic University, she moved to Tokyo to immerse herself in the language and culture. A few years later, she returned to conduct research in international public policy at prestigious Osaka University under professor Toshiya Hoshino, former ambassador and permanent deputy representative of Japan to the United Nations.
After working in project management with the Embassy of Japan in Kyiv, Olga joined the United Nations Development Programme, an organization tasked with eliminating poverty and achieving sustainable economic growth and human development. By early 2022, she had settled into the balance of working and being a new mother to her 2-year-old son, Lev.
In the early hours of February 24, missiles and bombs broke the fog and silence of the Kyiv morning. The local Zhulyany airport had been targeted and destroyed. Rumors swirled that the roads heading west to Poland were already blocked by the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As the invasion escalated, Ilinska packed her entire life into a bag and made the decision to escape just before curfew. “We felt we had one chance to get out,” she said. “There was no time to weigh pros and cons, no time to think about my 91-year-old grandfather, my 83-year-old grandmother, my mother stuck in Kyiv. No time for regrets.”
Her ex-husband drove Ilinska and her son south, navigating traffic jams, waiting hours in line for gas, passing Ukrainian defense forces moving in the opposite direction. They arrived at the border at nightfall of the second day alongside thousands of fellow Ukrainians fleeing Kyiv, Mariupol and other major cities under attack.
Ilinska tensed up as she recalled, “It was here at the Mamalyha checkpoint where Ukraine meets Moldova and Romania where our Ukrainian men could not pass due to martial law being imposed. I saw hundreds of women forcibly separated from their husbands, holding their children and their babies, crossing the border and disappearing into the night facing blind uncertainty. This is what I see when I close my eyes at night. This nightmare that we lived through, I cannot forget.”
While waiting five hours in line at the border, Ilinska met another Ukrainian woman driving her daughter through Hungary towards Italy. She asked if she and her son could join them — and the four of them ended up crossing Romania together, buoyed by the kindness and open arms of the shocked Romanian people they met along the way.
Once in Hungary, a childhood classmate and friend reached out and arranged a flight sending them across the world — to a place called San Diego.
Ilinska has found refuge here in our historically welcoming city. She has been offered provisional housing until she is able to secure Temporary Protective Status, find work and financially support herself and her child. Casa Cornelia Law Center has been instrumental in her journey by offering pro bono legal assistance.
I was fortunate to have been introduced to Ilinska through an old friend, Aleksey Dmitrenko, who recently moved with his own family from the Bay Area to Poway. Conversing with Ilinska in both English and Japanese, I learned I played soccer games on the same grounds where she studied in Osaka, just two miles from my apartment in Minoh City. We found our connection.
Nobody knows what the future holds for Ilinska and her son Lev, and even for her home country. Ukraine sits on Europe’s Eastern flank, protecting it from the world beyond. In the 13th century, Kyiv was sacrificed by Europe to the Golden Horde. Eight centuries later, it is a horde of tank columns and military jets that has once again descended upon the country, birthing this current exodus of refugees.
Reflecting on my discussions with Ilinska took me back in time to the turn of the 20th century, when my own grandparents and great-grandparents stepped off a boat and onto American soil for the first time. What fears and hopes rested in their hearts? Could they have imagined the pain and loss they would endure during the 1940s? Or the peaceful and productive lives their American great-grandchildren would be leading in 2022?
It made me wonder — who was there waiting for my great-grandparents, willing to reach out a helping hand to strangers from such a different shore? And should we all be doing more now, proactively taking a step forward to find that connection that will elicit the compassion to help a nearby stranger in need, somebody living on the street, somebody escaping from war.
Ilinska and I spoke candidly, sharing laughter, sharing tears, musing and imagining what if and what could be. I promised to forward her resume to my local Japanese network and to tell others her story. Perhaps San Diego is not the end of her journey, but rather the beginning chapters of an even longer, more peaceful and joy-filled saga. Perhaps one day, her own grandchildren and great-grandchildren will think back to the events of 2022, to her trek halfway around the world, and they will appreciate and celebrate her courage and the future that her vision and determination provided to them.