An article about a good friend of mine and her family still in the Ukraine
She Left Ukraine Years Ago — but Her Sister's Family Faces the Invasion: 'I Cannot Believe This Is Their Life'
Half a world away, Liz Tursi waits for updates from her loved ones: "[My niece] says when she wakes up in the morning, sometimes she's not sure for the first few seconds if she's alive or not"
By Virginia Chamlee and Amy Eskind
March 03, 2022 09:39 AM
Liz Tursi has lived in the U.S. for almost her whole life, but she still feels her heart pulled almost halfway around the world to Ukraine — where her sister, brother-in-law, her niece and her nephew are now stuck in their small village as Russian invasion unfolds.
Tursi was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, near the Russian border, immigrating to the U.S. with her parents when she was 7. Her sister, Oksana, 13 years older and a new bride, stayed behind.
"Ever since I was old enough to help her, I've been encouraging her to come here with her family," Tursi, 36, said in a recent interview with PEOPLE. "She's never shown any interest, never agreed to come visit."
Tursi now lives in South Orange, New Jersey, where she oversees sales operations for an academic publishing company. Oksana lives in a rural area in Ukraine with her husband, Gena, her son Ruslan, 29, and her 19-year-old daughter Elizabeth.
With Russian forces advancing around Oksana's family's country, they have had to take shelter and are sometimes "trapped in their house" with no indoor plumbing and dwindling food reserves, Tursi says. But they remain deeply tied to their homeland, even with the dangers.
"[Oksana] tends to be stubborn, and even now she categorically refuses to listen about going anywhere, leaving, trying to get to Poland," Tursi says of her sister. "I have friends in Poland who would be willing to help. I also have friends who have family in France who would be willing to help, but they are so insistent on just staying where they are."
Tursi says Ruslan has considered volunteering for the Ukrainian military but Oksana, who works as part of a janitorial staff in an elementary school, has been trying to talk him out of it. Oksana's daughter, Elizabeth, stayed at her boyfriend's home, a few blocks away.
None of them have left their homes since the fighting began late last week, Tursi said Tuesday.
She says her sister's family is located "very close to the blasts" they can see explosions and hear gunfire from inside their home.
From left: Liz Tursi; Tursi's niece, Elizabeth; and Tursi's sister, Oksana, in 2010 in Kharkiv, Ukraine | CREDIT: COURTESY ELIZABETH TURSI
"My niece said that she doesn't sleep at night," Tursi says. "She naps during the day but is way too afraid to go to sleep at night. She says when she wakes up in the morning, sometimes she's not sure for the first few seconds if she's alive or not."
Meanwhile, Tursi says she's scared for her family but finds herself without many options all these thousands of miles away.
She says she was able to successfully wire her sister money one day prior to the invasion on Feb. 24, but now that the fighting has begun in earnest there's little else she can do.
"They have nowhere to really go," Tursi says. "There aren't any relatives or friends or anyone outside of Ukraine that they know that can take them in, so that prospect of leaving your home is scary. To go where? And also the solidarity that they have with their neighbors, and their country — they don't feel right just trying to escape, I think. In their particular neighborhood, no one has left."
While not leaving might keep them safe from the conflict, it's been a challenge in terms of procuring necessities, Tursi says.
"My sister told me that she had tried to step out and get food and was turned around by [Ukrainian] military ... so they are basically living on whatever reserves of food that they have. Right now the only people who are allowed outside are military and police, anyone who's volunteering to be in the military," Tursi says. "Random citizens are advised to stay home."
Stuck in their home, the family is communicating to Tursi via Instagram direct message and watching the news when they can. (The internet, she adds, "is on and off.")
"I don't see [Oksana] emotionally falling apart, but I don't see her as super resourceful," Tursi admits. Even if her sister's family decided to leave, she says, it would be a challenge to get out, as moving around is potentially dangerous and the waits at border crossings are hours long.
Tursi says she hasn't visited Ukraine since 2010 — yet found herself deeply affected by the images of the invasion.
"I considered myself disconnected from the country and really felt American, but when this happened my heart just broke," she says. "I'm very proud of the people and the way they are handling it — how strong they are and how resilient they've been. I'm so proud of the president who hasn't given up and who continues to stay and is trying to keep up the morale among all the citizens."