The small town of Bemidji, Minnesota, may seem like it’s a world away from the scenes playing out every day in Ukraine. But at a Sanford Health walk-in clinic in Bemidji , one nurse knows firsthand that a war a continent away can be felt across an ocean.

Olha Finnelly is an LPN Ambulatory from Ukraine, and her family still lives in the city of Dnipro, about 250 miles southeast of Kyiv, the country’s capital. When the invasion of her home country started in late February, her life turned upside-down.

“I was just crying every day at work. I couldn’t believe that it was happening,” said Finnelly. “I never could imagine that the big brother, Russia, would just attack and start bombing and killing people. It’s not a war that’s happening somewhere in a foreign territory. It’s happening right by our homes.”

“We had to help”

Finnelly’s clinic co-workers noticed that their friend was in distress, and they asked her often about her family.

“She would make mention that she would talk to them from time to time, and then the sirens would go off in the background, and she’d have to get off of the phone and just wait until the next time that she was able to talk to them,” said Erin Petrowske, RN and Bemidji clinic supervisor.

Kim Schulz, a medical laboratory scientist at Sanford Bemidji, said they all knew Finnelly was from Ukraine.

“We’d ask ‘How’s your family?’ One day all of a sudden she wasn’t functioning so well. Very teary-eyed. She was trying to get them out (of Ukraine). When we all heard that, we had to help,” Schulz said. “So we did whatever we could to help her get the funds and anything else she needed.”

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Getting out of Ukraine

As the war continued, Finnelly’s father and brother-in-law decided to stay in Ukraine and help in any way they could. But her mother, sister and 3-year-old niece prepared to leave their homes.

Finnelly's clinic woworkers helped her extract family from the Ukraine.

“They decided to take a train to go to Lviv, which is the biggest city on the Western part of Ukraine, closer to Poland,” said Finnelly.

They traveled 22 hours by train, sharing a room that was designed to sleep four at a time, with 16 people.

“They didn’t have any luggage with them,” Finnelly said. “The only belongings that they had were backpacks. They brought underpants for the little one. Some snacks, because you are not sure if you are able to get some food. And my sister was able to get her laptop because she is trying to keep her job working online.”

When that was done, they took a small bus to the Polish border, eventually making it to Krakow. Luckily for the family, they had been planning on visiting Olha in the near future, so they already had approved U.S. travel visas from before the war began. Finnelly booked them plane tickets to Minneapolis. The cost: roughly $3,000, all raised by her co-workers. After five days of travel, Finnelly’s family arrived in the United States.

“We were all on pins and needles waiting for the final word from her that everybody was safe,” said Petrowske. “And then when we saw that picture of her and her mom and her sister and her niece, and just the look of relief in her eyes, it was so amazing.”

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“Everyone jumped in and tried to help her. And we helped. We got the women out,” said Schulz.

Together again

“Right now I’m smiling because yes, I understand how stressful it still is in Ukraine — and it’s little bit selfish — but the most important three people in my life, they’re right here around the table,” said Finnelly.

Finnelly’s mother Liana Taradaiko, her sister Ksusha Zarubina, and her niece, Masha Zarubina, have been in Bemidji for a few weeks now. Taradaiko cooks food for the family, and has made pierogi for the staff at the Bemidji clinic. Zarubina works each day starting around 3 a.m. to keep her job and stay on Ukrainian time. And Masha? Well, Masha plays with Play-Doh, paints at the dining room table, and dances like a 3-year-old, wearing some of the clothes that have also been donated by Finnelly’s co-workers.

“In our Ukrainian language, we have this saying. ‘Tell me who is your friend, and I can tell you who you are.’ So I’m just so happy with my colleagues. (The) Sanford family in Bemidji … we are really like real family over here,” said Finnelly.

A war is being fought in Ukraine, but in one living room in Bemidji, Minnesota, USA, a family is smiling, happy to be together again.

Jason Anschutz
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