Ukrainian Irina Makarchenko, a music teacher, escaped her war-torn home to live with her daughter Zoya in Goose Creek | Photos by Rūta Smith

Irina Makarchenko cried as she recounted her last days in her homeland of Ukraine where she taught children to play piano at Music School No. 7 as artillery shells and gunfire echoed, shaking walls and windows.

The violence in her home, Zaporzhie on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine, was too close for comfort. 

“I wasn’t going to leave,” she told City Paper last week through translator and Mount Pleasant psychologist Viktoriya Magid. 

“I didn’t believe until the last minute that Russia would attack Ukraine — we used to be brotherly nations,” Makarchenko said from her new temporary home in Goose Creek. “Everyone was in shock when the invasion came … but we are realizing now that things must have changed in Russia over time. If they can kill children, rape women and execute civilian men in cold blood — that is not a brotherly nation.”

But an attack on a nearby nuclear power plant was the final straw. 

“Many of us realized then that these people have completely lost their minds if they’re doing this, which could have resulted in a nuclear explosion and be the end to all of us, but also to them,” Makarchenko said. By then, it was early March.

But she wouldn’t go alone. She left with a friend whose daughter lived in Prague. She decided her final destination would be South Carolina, where her daughter, Zoya, had been living since 2016 with an open visitor’s visa. But the journey wasn’t easy. The local airport had already been bombed by then. 

The Zaporzhie train station was crowded, making it difficult to get to the larger city of Lviv.

“It was like in those movies from World War II,” Irina said. “I had one handbag with me, with papers, money and one change of clothes. Once the train pulled up, a wave of people carried me inside, screaming women and children, people pushing each other. It was awful. There were 12 of us in a train suite designed for four. People were laying and sitting in the hallways, doorsteps, everywhere … but nobody complained.”

Local man Mathew Steljes sponsored the purchase of a piano, so Irina Makarchenko could continue teaching | Provided

They finally reached a bus station that took Irina and her friend to Prague, where she hopped on a flight to Atlanta before heading to Goose Creek on March 9. The journey took five days, Irina said. Zoya’s experience in the U.S., beginning with an exchange program in school in 2004 that sent her to Colorado and Maine, has been incredibly positive, she said, but she worries her mother’s time won’t be the same.

“When I came here the first time, it felt like I belonged here,” she said. “I could travel the whole country and probably live anywhere. We have great people in Ukraine, don’t get me wrong …  but the daily life here is much more comfortable and easier. When you work hard and apply yourself, things happen.

“But the rest of our family is in Ukraine. Her life is in Ukraine. She has a social life, and being here is horrible for her. I don’t know anyone else who speaks Ukrainian or Russian, and I work full time.”

Long-term plans are difficult to make. Green cards take a lot of time and money — as Zoya knows personally; Irina is not technically a refugee, due to the visitor’s visa. With asylum status, you cannot leave the country for 18 months, much longer than Irina is hoping to stay. 

“Nothing is available right now,” Zoya said. “So I’m just waiting to see what happens in Ukraine, because [Irina] wants to go home. There are so many buildings that are destroyed. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Of course, Irina is grateful to be here now, she said. 

“I have to talk about the hospitality and the warmth of the American people,” she said. “Their generosity and kindness are well-known around the world, but it has been an understatement. I have never encountered a nation like this.”

“My main concern now is just the well-being of my fellow countrymen and women,” she added. “Thanks to my wonderful daughter Zoya and her family, I have everything I need.”

Her home, Zaporzhie, is home to Khortytsia Island, a sacred place in Ukraine. It’s the home of Cossacks — “the free people and the founders of Ukraine,” Makarchenko said. “Their spirit is in us, and is in all Ukrainians.” 

For now in America, though, she’s still teaching music to kids in Ukraine through the internet, thanks to a local man who bought her a piano. 

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