Artist Elina Ra sat in the conference room of the Stevenson Ranch Library, where her art is now on display, with her 17-year-old daughter, Deyna, by her side. She cried as she talked about her beloved hometown in Ukraine: Irpin, which now lies in ruin.
Ra and her daughter barely escaped Ukraine with their lives. Irpin was a key target for the Russian army as it invaded Ukraine in February of last year. The city lies just under 16 miles from Kyiv and had an airport Russian forces needed to launch their offensive into the capital city.
The Ukrainian army was able to take back the town a month later, but by the time they did, somewhere between 200 and 300 civilians had been killed, according to a Reuters report, and the city was decimated.
To put the war in perspective, Ra described Irpin as being similar to Santa Clarita — a modern up-and-coming suburb of a large city.
“I mean, it was hip, [full of] young people. Everyone’s working, there were families, small children. Everything’s modern. And then, just to have full tanks, like no questions asked, shooting at people, shooting at children, shooting at grandparents, with no announcement to go flee,” said Leena Waller, a children’s librarian who works at the Stevenson Ranch Library who acted as Ra’s translator. “Those who could escape, they escaped, and Deyna and [Ra] were very lucky.”
When Russian forces invaded, there was a scramble by residents to flee. According to Ra, there was a point when only women and children were able to board a train out of the city. Men wished to flee as well, but they were needed for the fight. Deyna’s father was one of those men.
Because of security reasons, Ra wished that details regarding Deyna’s father be withheld, because Russian soldiers have been known to target soldiers with contacts in the United States. Ra and Deyna have had minimal contact with him since he went off to fight.
“The experience that the Ukrainian people are going through is so horrific and they wouldn’t want to wish this experience on their worst enemies, this horror that has befallen citizens,” said Waller on behalf of Ra. “I mean, we’re not talking about armies. These are regular citizens, living normal lives.”
After fleeing Ukraine, Ra and Deyna were able to settle in Denmark for some time, but wanted to come to the United States. They eventually made their way to Mexico and were able to take advantage of a small window in which refugees could cross over the border into the U.S.
This was where they met Waller. After hearing about the war in Ukraine, Waller wanted to help in any way she could. Her parents fled Ukraine during World War ll and she spoke fluent Russian. When she heard refugees were crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, she drove down to the border to see if she could help.
While there, she discovered Ra and Deyna with just two small suitcases in hand. Waller listened to their story and agreed to take them to Los Angeles where the two could find temporary housing.
Ra and her daughter lived a normal life in Ukraine. Deyna went to high school and her mother, who has a master’s degree, worked for an organization that educated young people on traditional Ukrainian culture. She did this by making traditional Ukrainian dresses, known as a Vyshyvanka.
When Russian forces invaded, everything was destroyed — both her dresses and her family’s way of life. But this didn’t deter her from carrying over her mission: to make sure Ukrainian culture doesn’t die.
Although she doesn’t have the resources to continue making dresses, she creates paintings using traditional Ukrainian symbols — dazzling geometric shapes patchworked together and decorated with vibrant colors.
Ra said Ukraine is a nation of farmers, of givers, with a culture of feeding people. Her art is born of the feelings presented by the war in Ukraine — the confusion of why a nation that has never invaded another was itself invaded and the pain of watching her compatriots suffer while she’s safe in America.
But Ra also said her work is not meant to entice pity, but rather serve as a message to Americans.
“Her artworks are messages to the American people to cherish daily, what you have. To cherish your family, to cherish your home, to cherish your community,” said Waller on behalf of Ra. “Because what the Ukrainian people are going through, they have lost everything overnight. And you think it’s not going to happen, it’s just talk, you know, it can’t happen, but it happened to them… It’s a reminder: Don’t take it for granted, what you have here, don’t take it for granted… all the freedoms that we have, all the wonderful things America has for us.”
Ra is currently supporting her daughter and herself by selling her artwork while they live in temporary housing for refugees near the University of Southern California. However, their future is uncertain. The temporary housing they’ve been living in is just that, temporary. Soon, they will have to make it on their own, in a new country, far from home and unable to return.
Like her mother, Deyna has artistic aspirations as well. Their dream is for Deyna to attend a local college such as College of the Canyons and possibly, one day, California Institute of the Arts.
Ra’s art will be on display at the Stevenson Ranch Library until March 24.
To donate to Ra and Deyna’s relocation GoFundMe page, visit bit.ly/3kBUOpp.