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Kensington resident Oleg Bogdanovych made the decision as soon as he heard Russian soldiers were moving forward with a large-scale attack. He would leave Philadelphia and head to his native country to help his family survive.
After receiving some advice and assistance via social media, the 38-year-old formulated a plan: gather medical and humanitarian supplies, fly to Poland, buy a car, and drive into the action.
“All my family members except my mother are currently in the heart of Ukraine,” said Bogdanovych, who came to the U.S. when he was 14 and grew up in Bucks County. “My father. My grandmother. My uncle and my aunt and my cousin and his wife and two of their children, they are all in Kharkiv.”
He’s been in continuous contact with his relatives via the Telegram messaging app, where he said he’s been sifting through Russian propaganda to find trustworthy reports from the ground.
“There’s been some disinformation,” he said. “Yes, it’s dangerous. My relatives are worried about me — but I’m also worried about them.”
Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv is just 12 miles from the eastern border with Russia. It was stormed by troops Saturday night into Sunday morning. As elsewhere in the country, the trained forces are being met with fierce resistance by a militia of volunteers, according to the Associated Press and reports relayed from the scene.
Across Ukraine, street fighting by civilians appears to be keeping the Russian invasion at bay. There has been destruction and tragedy — one estimate on Sunday estimated over 200 civilians killed and more than 1,100 wounded. Upwards of 350,000 people have fled. But the capital of Kyiv is still under Ukrainian control.
Like his compatriots overseas, Bogdanovych said he does not have any military training. In Philly, he freelances as a live event video engineer, cares for a cohort of rescue dogs, and enjoys hiking and bike riding.
Saturday morning, he was on his way to pick up a military-grade helmet and set of body armor someone reached out to donate. He has also gathered several gas masks.
“The donations have been amazing, I’m so humbled,” Bogdanovych said of the response to his social media pleas, where he shared his Venmo, Cash App, and PayPal. “In 24 hours, I got more than $7,700 in monetary donations, and probably another $4,000 in materials.”
Supplies amassed for his trip include first aid kits, bandages and tourniquets, but also more mundane survival needs: wool socks, unisex quick dry underwear, electrolyte salts, water purification tablets and filters. “And cameras, to document everything.”
He’s planning a Monday departure from Newark International Airport, possibly using donated frequent flyer miles he sourced from a reddit thread.
On landing in Warsaw, he’s arranged to purchase a car from a contact who promised to use the sale money to help the Ukrainian cause. He hopes to pick up more supplies — things that wouldn’t be allowed on a plane, like firestarter, or are too bulky to transport overseas, like feminine hygiene supplies and baby diapers.
“There’s news coming from Kharkiv and other places in Ukraine with our children being born in bomb shelters, and subway stations that are being used as bomb shelters,” Bogdanovych said.
The Philadelphia region is home to the second-largest contingent of Ukrainians in the U.S., with nearly 7,000 in the city proper and about 60,000 overall. Bogdanovych never had much interaction with them, he said, having assimilated into American culture as a teen as quickly as he could. But he travels often to his home country, where part of his family runs a construction supply company.
He most recently visited in October, when he said there was no hint of the massive military offensive to come.
“There have been sanctions for the past eight years,” Bogdanovych said, referencing the 2014 crisis when the Russian-backed Ukrainian president was toppled, sparking a move by Russia to annex Crimea, and a spate of intense fighting. “But there was no indication that anything was about to happen, or like, any fear or even any conjecture of something like that.”
Yet he’s not at all surprised by the resilience his countrymates have shown. He described videos posted on Telegram showing Russian prisoners of war.
“What most people are saying is they didn’t even know they’re on Ukrainian territory. They think they were sent to a training exercise. This fight is not their fight, so to speak. It’s not in their hearts. They’re just following orders, ” Bogdanovych said. “They’re just stuck in a bad situation.”
For those who want to help, he shared a card that compiles information with links of how to donate to humanitarian, resistance, and journalism organizations. He’s also still accepting donations himself via Venmo (Oleg-B) and Cash App ($Oleg8r).
On Thursday a stylist friend gave him a haircut, and he posted a selfie on Instagram. “If I don’t come back,” Bogdanovych wrote, “at least I’ll look good in the pictures.”