When Russia invaded her home country of Ukraine, Maria decided she had to get there and help defend it, even if it meant leaving her fiance in Chicago days after her wedding.
Maria and her fiancé, David, tied the knot on Saturday in the backyard of an Oak Park home – the venue offered at the last minute after Maria asked for advice in a neighborhood Facebook group.
On Monday, she plans to fly to Poland and then travel to the Ukrainian border, with the ultimate goal of volunteering to fight for her home country.
Maria, who requested that her last name not be published because she feared for the safety of her family in Ukraine and the United States, said she lived with her parents in Kyiv until 1991, when the family moved to Poland.
She met her ex-husband while studying music in Austria and more than 20 years ago they moved to her hometown of Chicago, which has the second largest Ukrainian-born population among American cities.
Since the start of the war, she has used Facebook messages and calls to stay in touch with her parents, who took refuge in a parking lot during the attacks on Ukraine’s biggest port city, Odessa. But she said she hasn’t been able to reach her cousins in Kyiv for the past few days.
Three days after the invasion began, Maria decided to return to Ukraine, determined to find a way to help. She said she had no medical or military background, but feared a Russian takeover of Ukraine would embolden the country to threaten more places around the world.
“I have to go,” said Maria, 44. “I can’t do protests or fundraisers or wave flags. We’ve been doing it since 2015, Ukrainians, and I can’t take it anymore. »
Her fiancé refused to stay behind despite Maria’s resistance to him accompanying her. But since David has to apply for a passport first, she plans to leave on Monday and wait in Poland before crossing the border.
“He knows how stubborn I am and knew he wouldn’t have a chance to convince me otherwise,” Maria said.
David, 42, said he felt responsible for doing what he could to keep him safe.
“Because complacency and conformity are pretty much the same thing,” he said. “And you can only turn a blind eye to people who have been bullied for so long. And if it happens to them, you might be next.
He also asked that his surname not be published to avoid endangering Maria’s family.
Ukrainian forces are outnumbered and outgunned, but their resistance has prevented a quick Russian victory. Ukrainian leaders called on citizens to join the guerrillas this week as Russian forces gained ground on the coast and took control of a major port city.
Associated Press reporters at the Medyka border checkpoint in southeastern Poland found Ukrainians queuing to return from other countries in Europe in recent days in response to the president’s plea Volodymyr Zelensky for volunteers to come and help the country’s army.
The White House has since urged Americans not to travel to Ukraine, but Maria and David said that hasn’t changed their plans.
The couple met last year, got engaged in October and had already planned to marry in a courthouse on March 5, a nod to Maria’s grandmother’s birthday.
After deciding that they would try to reach Ukraine, they accepted the offer to throw a party in their backyard. They also asked people to buy needed items for Ukrainian troops through an Amazon listing that includes rain ponchos, medical supplies and boots rather than wedding gifts.
Maria said she wasn’t sure what to do after arriving at the Polish border with Ukraine; friends who live near the border crossings told him it takes days to get through. Her parents have also questioned her decision to volunteer, she said, as they don’t want to worry about her safety on top of their own.
“If the army doesn’t take us, we’ll be as close as possible,” Maria said on Wednesday. “There is always a need for volunteers. I’m strong enough, I’m not afraid of blood, I’m good under pressure.
Natalia Blauvelt, a Chicago immigration attorney who has helped dozens of clients trying to help their families leave Ukraine and Russia in recent weeks, said she hasn’t heard of others seeking to enter Ukraine in order to join the defense of the country.
But she advised anyone considering it to contact the Ukrainian embassy in the United States and speak with an immigration attorney to discuss plans for returning to the United States.
Photographer Matt Marton contributed to this report.