Refugees in Florida mark Russia-Ukraine war anniversary amid loss, uncertainty

MIAMI – Olga Pliushchenko is among the estimated 8.1 million Ukrainian war refugees. She has been living in Florida, the 5th state in the country with the most Ukrainians — with some 100,000.

At first, Pliushchenko didn’t think that Russia’s invasion was going to escalate, so she and her three sons left their apartment in Kyiv and moved to her mother’s home in a village about an hour west of Kyiv.

When Russian troops invaded the village, Pliushchenko said they had to cover all of the windows with blankets and they weren’t able to make phone calls or communicate in any way.

“We didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have any gas. We didn’t have any connection,” Pliushchenko said.

Natalia Yurchenko, 29, lights a candle during a memorial service to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the Russia Ukraine war, in Borodyanka, near Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Ukraine's president pledged to push for victory in 2023 as he and other Ukrainians on Friday marked the somber first anniversary of the Russian invasion that he called "the longest day of our lives." (AP Photo/Thibault Camus) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

For 10 days, Pliushchenko said she counted about 20 rockets. They were able to escape to Kyiv to pick up items from their apartment and drive to The Czech Republic and then to Spain where she applied for U.S. asylum.

“Florida actually experienced one of the first waves of Ukrainian refugees,” said Rafi Nagli, the president of Florida For Ukraine, a nonprofit organization based in Hallandale Beach.

Karina Moisiieva, a Florida for Ukraine board member, said they have a network to help new arrivals, but the needs have grown as the war continued.

FILE - A man stands atop a destroyed bridge in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Quantifying the toll of Russias war in Ukraine remains an elusive goal a year into the conflict. Estimates of the casualties, refugees and economic fallout from the war produce an complete picture of the deaths and suffering. Precise figures may never emerge for some of the categories international organizations are attempting to track. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File) (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The United Nations reported nearly 2.9 million refugees fled to Russia, 1.6 million to Poland, and more than 880,000 to Germany.

The UN also estimates there have been 8,006 civilians killed and 13,287 injured in Ukraine during the war. Ukrainians reported 9,000 troops killed and over 100,000 injured in battle.

Russia reported 5,937 troops killed, but the British estimate the death toll is much higher —between 40,000 to 60,000 dead.

Soldiers carry the coffin of Eduard Strauss, a Ukrainian serviceman who died in combat on Jan. 17 in Bakhmut, during a farewell ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Even when the war ends, the Kyiv School of Economics estimated Ukraine will have to deal with over $138 billion in damage.

President Joe Biden’s administration announced new sanctions targeting 200 people and entities and a new $2 billion weapons package, which includes electronic warfare detection equipment.

Biden told ABC News on Friday that the U.S. will not be sending F-16 fighter jets.

“I am ruling it out for now,” Biden said.

A woman carries her child as they evacuate from a residential building which was hit by a Russian rocket at the city center of Kharkiv, Ukraine, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Russian shelling killed at least five people and wounded 13 others during the previous 24 hours, Ukrainian authorities said Monday as the Kremlins and Kyivs forces remained locked in combat in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko) (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Meanwhile, Pliushchenko said her sons worry about their temporary immigration status in the U.S., and about the length of the war.

“The youngest one always asks me, ‘And if the war is there right now, how can we go back?”

Dozens of demonstrators marked the war anniversary Friday night with flags and signs to express solidarity with Kyiv during an event organized by Florida For Ukraine at 400 S. Federal Hwy., near Gulfstream.

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About the Authors:

Jenise Fernandez joined the Local 10 News team in November 2014. She is thrilled to be back home reporting for the station she grew up watching. Jenise, who is from Miami and graduated from Florida International University, also interned at Local 10 while she was in college.

Ben Kennedy is an Emmy Award-winning Washington Bureau Chief for Local 10 News.