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Graduating Cañada student is raising money to help families like her own in Ukraine

Daria Dmytrenko wants to fight complacency with awareness

When Daria Dmytrenko first heard the news from her mother, war was the farthest thing from her mind. It was late February, and Dmytrenko, a 25-year-old Redwood City resident and Ukrainian immigrant, was on vacation with friends in New Orleans.

"I got this message from my mom, and she was like, 'It's already started. They're bombing.'"

Living in Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine, her family had been well aware of the growing tension with Russia. But the reality of full-on warfare was no less shocking.

"I remember I was so devastated," Dmytrenko said. "Even though we heard about it, that something like that might happen…You really can't imagine something like that happening in the 21st century."

The first days were some of the hardest, she said. Dmytrenko was desperate for information and remembers a seemingly endless blur of television coverage and phone calls—to her parents, siblings, friends—just to make sure everyone was still alive and safe.

"I couldn't stop. I never cried that much in my life," she said. "They were more in shock, I think. At that point, no one really understood what was going on."

In recent weeks, Dmytrenko has turned her anger and fear into action. Putting her creative degree to work, she's selling hand-designed clothing to raise money for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. Though she's only sold around 50 so far, Dmytrenko is adamant that no effort or contribution is too small.

Taking inspiration from Shepard Fairey, the American artist best known for his Barack Obama "Hope" posters, Dmytrenko designed a graphic that she had printed onto t-shirts, hats and other items. All proceeds from her merchandise sales go to Nova Ukraine, a Palo Alto-based organization that provides humanitarian aid to people in Ukraine.

"I'm doing something good, and I feel good about it," she said. "Every single action, even a tiny thing, is already good."

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Dmytrenko moved from Ukraine to the Bay Area three and a half years ago to study design at Cañada College, leaving behind family, friends and her home. Describing Kherson as a "green, peaceful city" with small-town comforts, she said she immediately felt at ease in Redwood City. 

"It's such a cozy town. I really liked the community. I really like all those little celebrations," she said, mentioning the Día de los Muertos and Christmas celebrations. Moving alone across the world was scary, she said, but also exciting. And her family has always been supportive of her ambitions.

Now, more than a month since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and with violence escalating, she and her family are trying to figure out how to continue living, worlds—and thousands of miles—apart.

Daily life in Kherson, which is currently under Russian occupation, looks little like what Dmytrenko left behind. Based on first-hand accounts from friends and family, she compared their current experience to the early days of the pandemic. Food is available, though certain products are difficult to come by, and neighbors have started trading amongst themselves to get what they need.

"You can't leave your house and you can't really go anywhere. There's no work, can't go to the office, kids can't go to school," she said. "But much worse."

Without work, her parents fill their days with household tasks, like cooking or fixing up the family car. Her father, "a huge fan of cats," has taken it upon himself to feed a group of feral cats that live in the market where he worked. This particular hobby makes Dmytrenko nervous because it requires her father to pass through a Russian military checkpoint, which she thinks is an unnecessary risk. But she understands that there's a need to return to some degree of normalcy.

"I wish they were more careful." But, she said, "This is their reality…At some point, you're not afraid anymore."

Plus, daytime activities are a necessary respite from long, frightening nights.

"They just want their night to be quiet, without bombing so they can sleep," Dmytrenko said. "It's always about survival, really…If the night passed, it's good."

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When war first broke out, the news was unbelievable both to those living the nightmare and to the many Ukranians, like ​​Dmytrenko, watching from abroad. Now, more than six weeks since the invasion began, she's seeing something even more incredible: people's ability to adapt to their new reality.

"This is what life is for them right now. They kind of got used to it—waking up because of bombing at night and hearing sirens all the time," she said. But ​​Dmytrenko worries that adaptability may lead to complacency.

"It's kind of good because this is how your brain tries to protect your mental health…You can't really be scared all the time," she said. "But at the same time, you still have to remember that there is a war. That the country is at war right now. And it's real, it's dangerous."

Feeling helpless to the suffering happening abroad, Dmytrenko started designing and selling t-shirts, not just to raise money but to give herself something tangible to do. 

Now, two weeks into her fundraiser, Dmytrenko said her only goal is to sell as many as she can and to keep people engaged and talking. Whether they choose to wear the t-shirts or not, she said her customers are putting their money towards "a very good cause." 

But she encouraged people to be more visible about their support of Ukraine—whether through wearing her shirts, homemade blue and yellow ribbons or displaying Ukrainian flags in their homes.

"I just want to cultivate this awareness. Because life here is moving on," she said. "Kids go to school, adults go to work, everything is normal. But somewhere in Ukraine, people are being killed. And it would be great if people showed where they stand."

In Mariupol alone, a coastal city roughly 250 miles east of Kherson, the mayor reported this week that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the ongoing Russian military siege, which began in early March.

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Being away from home for so long has been challenging. 

With graduation coming in May, Dmytrenko is starting to think about applying for jobs or other academic programs. Entering the world as an adult, without the support of her family, is a big step. Still, she said she feels grateful for the security and community that she's cultivated in Redwood City.

"Your friends here, they become your family," she said. "I'm good. I'm here. I'm safe."

Still, her family and their fate are never far from her mind. She hopes, soon, to be able to return to a free country.

"I want this war to stop. I want Ukraine to rebuild its health and to bloom again," she said. "I want to come back and see my family and be together and just celebrate."