Karyna Oliinyk raises donations for her mother in Ukraine to distribute to people in need through a “vast” personal network
Karyna is on the phone with her mother. Something is off; she hears a constant woo … woo … woo behind her mother’s voice. She is alarmed and demands to know where she is.
Her mother responds, “I’m coming home with groceries,” as though it is the ambient sound of cars honking or people talking. She is unfazed by the sound though it signals possible explosions from the air.
The alarms may go on for six hours straight. She asks, what am I supposed to do, sit and hide the entire time? The Ukrainian government sounds the alarms urging citizens to hide in a corridor or basement, somewhere without windows. When the war began, people did hide. Now, they fall asleep to the sound.
“I feel as if it’s a bad dream. I can’t wake up. I feel like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and ‘oh it was just a dream’,” Karyna said.
Karyna Oliinyk came to the United States five years ago to take English courses with the goal of becoming an English teacher in Ukraine.
She is from Dnipro, central Ukraine, which has become a haven for refugees fleeing the surrounding cities invaded by the Russian army. Her mother, brothers, and sisters live in Ukraine.
Karyna changed her mind about being a student and now works as a photographer—her dream job since she was 16 years old. She is also a server at Viale, an Italian restaurant in Cambridge.
The loud music, people chattering, cups clinking, ice shaking against glass, and the sound of the phone ringing every twenty minutes or so make it hard to hear oneself think—which is exactly why Karyna asked to be given “as much work as possible.” As she darts from table to table holding drinks in her hands and orders in her mind, there is no room for thoughts of what’s happening at home.
But when she finishes work, goes home, and gets on her phone, she is thrown into an endless stream of news. She would be lucky to get two to three hours of sleep a night.
“My mind was exploding, what should I do, how should I help? You feel so helpless, you can’t do anything and people are just dying,” she said.
Shauna Reyburn, who is the co-owner of Viale, came up with the idea to start raising money to help Karyna’s family. Shauna concocted a special recipe and called it the Free Ukraine cocktail. The drink is now being sold at Trina’s Starlite Lounge.
As the restaurant started to raise money, Karyna felt a bit better to be helping her country in some way.
Initially, the fund was to help get her mother out of Ukraine. But despite Karyna’s attempts to convince her, she did not want to leave her country. The fund turned into donations for Ukrainian refugees, soldiers and orphans—some of whom lost their parents in the war.
Her mom maintains a sense of normalcy in her daily life, which has inspired Karyna to do the same.
“She’s that person who believes in [the] best,” said Karyna. Her mother tells her, “Don’t be scared of anything.”
Karyna’s mother distributes the money and communicates with a vast network of people across Ukraine. Having friends and relatives throughout the country has facilitated this communication. She helps get food and other necessities for orphans, some of whom are babies as young as a few months old.
“She keeps herself busy, same as me,” Karyna said.
She leaves voice messages and calls her mom at least three times a day, immediately asking “how was the night? Was it quiet? Did anything happen?”
Her mother usually responds with, “the night was quiet, all good.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to show me that she’s afraid. Or maybe she’s actually not afraid,” Karyna said.
They discuss her mother’s plan for the day, which may be going to a shelter. Sometimes, she tells Karyna the stories about the people she is helping that particular day.
Karyna hears optimism in the voices of her brothers, sisters, aunts and relatives.
“Everybody’s so up, yeah, we will win. It’s gonna be great, our country will be even better,” she said.
Her coworkers at Viale all wear a little blue and yellow Ukraine ribbon on their uniforms to show their support for Karyna and for Ukraine.
“I’m proud for our people. They’re so strong,” Karyna said.
Since she began working at Viale, customers have always asked where she is from after hearing her accent. She would be slightly disappointed at this question, taking it as a sign that she needs to improve her English and make her accent less noticeable.
Now, she lets her accent come through with pride.