Woman, children escape nightmare of battle-torn Ukraine to discover solace in Sweet Home

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

A year ago, Sweet Home, Oregon, was the farthest thing from Daniia Martyniuk’s mind.

In fact, she’d never heard of it.

She and her husband Viktor lived in Odesa, Ukraine, with their two sons, Maksym (Max), now 12, and Daniil, now 9.

“We are an ordinary Ukrainian family that raised two kids,” Daniia Martyniuk said.

They had “plans and dreams,” she said, including one to build a house in 2022. It didn’t happen.

Instead, Martyniuk, 43, is living in Sweet Home, literally halfway around the world from Odesa and her husband, a refugee from the war that erupted early last year with Russia’s invasion of her homeland.

“One day, everything collapsed,” she recalled.

Daniia and her family, including her parents and grandparents, are shown in this photo from her younger years. She stands in the center, in the rear. Contributed photo

The Russian attack wasn’t totally unexpected – the Martyniuks had procured passports for their boys as a precaution, she said. But when the invasion actually came, on Feb. 21, 2022, in Odesa, it carried a sense of unreality.

“I couldn’t believe it when they bombed our city,” Martyniuk said. “But when I saw the tanks, and sounds, and the lights got closer, then we understood it was not a joke.

“When they first started bombing we saw it, but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a horror film.”

The Martyniuks had been married for nearly 14 years when the war came.

She was a teacher, with two master’s degrees, one in geography and cartography (maps) and one in English as a second language.

Viktor made trips to Alaska, where he worked in the seafood industry. When in the Ukraine, he worked at the seaport. They lived in a house, which was a step up from the apartments in which many of their countrymen resided.

Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, is a tourist destination known for its beaches and 19th-century architecture, including the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater. It’s the third-largest city in the Ukraine and a major seaport and transport hub.

Russian influence was not new to the Martyniuks, Daniia said.

The Martyniuk family, from left, ViKtor, Daniil, Maksym and Daniia in happier times before the war. Contributed photo

She speaks the language, her “mother tongue,” but she’s never been there. Still, her own experience with Russians had been tenuous, even before the current war. In written correspondence, she says, she refuses to capitalize the first letter of that country’s name.

“I graduated from university twice. I have got my two master’s degrees. I’ve read books about Ukraine and how Russians humiliate Ukrainians. My relatives have told me about their behavior.”

Though the city actually dates back to Greek times, the modern city was founded by the Russian empress Catherine the Great and during the Soviet era it was an important trading port and a naval base.

Her own grandparents, Ivan and Magda, were farming near Krasne, in western Ukraine. However, they lost their farmland to invading Russians, who were “liberating” the Ukraine in 1939.

“They had land, woods, animals, and different kind of instruments to work in the fields,” Martyniuk said. “They were not very rich people, but lived in abundance. Hard-working people, who loved the land.”

In September of that year, the Russians invaded, and Ukrainians fought back, she said.

“The Russians began to dispossess Ukrainians far away, into Siberia. It’s a very cold region. Mass displacement of people began. Russians took the land.”

Though the family had 16 children, the invaders took everything – livestock, the land, even the crops, she said. Then the Russians burned the family’s “beautiful” house.

Wartime influence: One of young Dan Martyniuk’s drawings shows his mother, Daniia, with a bleeding heart.

“They thought that in the basement of the house was a group of rebels,” Martyniuk said. “There were no rebels. My grandmom could only save the children. When my grandpa came home, he saw a mountain of ashes instead of a house.”

Winter had arrived and the family was “desperate,” she said. The children, including her mother, the third-youngest, and her grandmother stayed with neighbors while her grandfather built a barn, into which they moved for the winter.

Martyniuk lived in western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivisk region until she was 6, when her parents moved to the Odesa region. Her father, a preacher, was engaged in Christian evangelism and worked in the “poorer” areas of that region, she said.

Approximately 15 years ago, she met a couple, Dan and Carol Pollard, who have been working in Russia and the Ukraine for decades as missionaries. She said she helped them with Russian and Ukrainian language work and they became friends. Dan Pollard attended her wedding to Viktor and they’d stayed in touch over the years.

When the war began, she heard from Pollard, who was now in Poland.

“He texted me and said, ‘You should move to Poland. When you get to Poland, I can take you to the States.'”

Her husband also told her she and the boys should get out.

Viktor and Daniiia Martyniuk, below right, celebrate their wedding day in 2008. Contributed photo

Dan Pollard said he had already been working with the Martyniuks, trying to secure green cards for them so they could come to the U.S. to find work, which, he said, was a big problem in the Ukraine even before the war.

“A lot of people go to Poland from the Ukraine to get work,” he said, noting that the Martyniuks had finally gotten drawn in the green card lottery held by the U.S. government “and then the war broke out and they lost all that.”

Pollard noted he has helped Russians and Ukrainians get to America over the years, “but I don’t encourage them.”

The Martyniuks, he said, “had been trying for years to get a green card. We’re letting people flood over the border illegally, while people like Daniia, who want to come legally, are unable to.”

Martyniuk called the trip to Poland “the most difficult in my life.

“It is very difficult to live in my country and my husband, the decision was made by him. He said, ‘I am making this decision for both of us. No matter do you want this or not, you must lead our children to a safe place. You have to protect them.'”

Complicating things were her concerns for her two sisters, one older, and a younger who was pregnant, both in Odesa.

“I wanted to drive myself, because I have two sisters,” she said. “They both have two kids.

“I would have liked to have driven but my husband said no, that was kind of ridiculous because of the traffic and tanks. We could not turn on the lights of the car because it’s forbidden when they send a missile or some kind of rocket.”

The Polish government had sent a train to transport fleeing Ukrainians, but it was hard to get there, she said.

En route to Poland, Daniia holds her younger son Dan on the train. Contributed photo

Viktor accompanied them to the station in Lviv on Feb. 27, where the train bound for Poland, 60 kilometers away, was jammed. Her husband “pushed us in our backs” and literally shoved them into the car, Daniia said.

“It was a very hard journey,” she said. The trip normally took about an hour but this lasted 24 hours.

“We were without water. A lot of people were sleeping on the floor. It was very hard.”

Eventually, she connected with the Pollards and wound up in Oregon, where she stayed in Salem for a few weeks, then moved to Sweet Home.

“In Poland, we lived for almost three months. Then we moved to the USA. Our friends Dan and Carol Pollard became our sponsors. They helped us to get an entry permit and the opportunity to live in the United States for two years. We currently live in their house. I like them.”

Initially, she said, she had difficulty getting Social Security so she could work.

“For, like, five months I volunteered at the school to get more skills for American teachers,” she said. “I cannot stay, you know, without working.”

Early this year she started working as a full-fledged teacher’s assistant at Sweet Home Junior High, working one-on-one with students as well as in the classroom.

“She’s very helpful,” Principal Mark Looney said. “We love having her here.

He said the district is working to get Martyniuk licensed to teach in Oregon.

“She’s fluent in three languages and can speak five,” Looney said. “We really appreciate having her here.”

Meanwhile, while Martyinuk and her sons are in Sweet Home, one of her sisters is living with her widowed mother in Poland – their father died of cancer.

Viktor remains in the Ukraine. Because of a travel ban that restricts most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country, he can’t leave.

There’s been a lot of destruction, even in Odesa, Martyniuk said. Her communication with Viktor is limited due to damaged infrastructure.

“He doesn’t have power for, like, two days. He has like 15 minutes where I can text him or we can talk, though that’s not very often. They bombed Ukraine a lot. They destroyed a lot.”

Dania poses with, from left, her sister Ivana, her mother, and her sister, Natalka. Natalka and Daniia are wearing national Ukrainian costumes, vyshyvanka. Contributed photo

Her husband, like many men who remain in the Ukraine, isn’t working. According to news reports, millions of men are out of work, with savings and food running out, and are at risk of death by bombardment or massacre, particularly in the eastern portion of the country.

“Yeah, he doesn’t work, but if the government calls him, he has to go. But he isn’t in the military.”

Her boys are attending Foster School, Max as a sixth-grader and Dan in fourth grade.

Daniia said their experience has left some scars. The boys were afraid of planes, “and even an ambulance or fire truck.”

Her younger son, Dan, as he is called, likes to draw and used to have fun using multi-colored pencils.

“Before the war, his pictures were bright and colorful,” Martyniuk said. “But then everything became black and white.”

She said Max enjoys reading science books and playing chess.

“He had additional math lessons and IT programming,” she said. “He has a dream to become a scientist.”

Dan likes drawing and is interested in becoming an architect.

“He is going to build a big city in Ukraine. Dan likes the USA, especially the mountains, so he is going to build a whole city here.”

Dan, Max and Daniia in their much happier climes of Sweet Home, Oregon. Photo by Scott Swanson

Martyniuk said back in Ukraine, people, including her husband, have sort of gotten used to the conflict, and go about their lives as much as possible.

“They look out the window and watch the missiles go by,” she said. “He is not a soldier. He is just helping people who need it. Every day we pray for his safety.”

Her boys, she noted, haven’t seen their father in almost a year.

“It’s very difficult for every man to leave his children and return to the country where [there] is a war,” Martyniuk said.

Compared to other regions of Ukraine, Odesa is “quiet,” though the city experiences periodic rocket attacks.

In the first weeks of the war, Viktor helped unload clothes and food, then helped soldiers, she said.

“All the hospitals in the city are full of wounded soldiers,” Martyniuk said. “Local residents bring clothes and food to wounded soldiers. When a wounded soldier is transported to the hospital, all his clothes are separated and thrown into the trash.

“There are such basic needs, things such as underwear, T-shirts, pants, and socks. Every citizen of Ukraine helps as much as possible.

“This war depleted the entire population of Ukraine. But people are determined. Many Ukrainians send money for the army’s needs. The Ukrainian military needs quality medical care.”

Pollard said the whole situation in the Ukraine is “sad.”

“The war should have been over in 2014 if Obama had said, ‘The first Russian soldier to set foot in eastern Ukraine is going to feel our wrath,'” he said. “Instead, he just closed his eyes and they built a base in eastern Ukraine.”

“The interesting thing with Trump is they didn’t do anything. But when Biden became president, Putin said, ‘Oh, now’s our chance.’

He noted that the response of those “against us helping the Ukraine” is similar to that of the U.S. in the early stages of World War I and II, when Japan and Germany began invading neighboring countries.

“They forget what happened,” he said. “Russia’s not going to stop with Ukraine.”

Pollard said the Ukrainians are “caught” between Russia’s attacks and a slow response from other European countries and the U.S.

“If they had the military equipment they needed, they could wipe out the Russians. If we give them the air power, they’d win the war in a flash.”

The Ukraine, he noted, is “the breadbasket of Europe. It’s a jewel.”

The country’s rich farmland makes it one of the world’s top exporters of staple grains, which is why the Russian invasion has threatened the international food supply. It also has extensive natural resources, particularly minerals.

Stalin’s move to take farms away from the Ukrainian people resulted in the deaths of 3.9 million, Pollard noted.

“It’s an interesting situation over there, the way people are treated. It’s just amazing what evil people can do to other people.”

Dan, left, and Max check out a typewriter during a visit to The New Era office. Neither had ever seen one before, their mother said. Contributed photo

Martyniuk said she’s enjoyed Sweet Home, “a nice little town.”

“I try to get used to this town,” she said. “I used to live in the big city. It’s like two different worlds.”

“In Ukraine, people walk a lot; in America you drive. People here are friendly and smile a lot. My people are sad because of the war.”

She has harsher feelings about the situation back home.

The Bible says, “You shall not murder,” she added, quoting Exodus 20:3. “This is God’s fifth commandment. No one has any right to kill. I pray every day. We need this war to end. Innocent people die.

“This horrible and merciless war destroyed our life. This war killed our dreams. ”