Western North Dakota Ukrainians react to Russo-Ukrainian war

“My hope is that the people of Ukraine stand up and fight. Punch Putin right in the nose and kick him out. That’s a long shot, but it’s not unheard of... This is a scary time, and I do believe we have to act fervently," Emil Anheluk, of Dickinson, said.

A residential building is damaged, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Kyiv
A child sits on a swing in front of a damaged residential building, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 25, 2022.

DICKINSON — With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday marking the largest attack on European soil since the Second World War, the news has hit close to home for some Ukrainian families in western North Dakota. The Dickinson Press spoke to two individuals on the Western Edge about the invasion of their cultural homeland — one a mother with two 19-year-olds Ukrainian twins sheltering in bomb shelters in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv; and another who advocates for swift action by the United States and NATO to save his Slavic relatives.

Despite being more than 5,000 miles away from Kyiv, Marie Moe, of Gladstone, has been deeply affected by the Russo-Ukrainian war as her two boys Danil and Denis remain secluded in a bomb shelter as Russian bombs and explosions continue to rain on the capital.

“The boys are very strongly (and) fiercely proud of their country and really believe that Ukraine will prevail, or that the country will be able to stand against this… My hope would be that there would be assistance and help that comes to the people of Ukraine. I think I’ve heard this described as an unjust invasion, and I feel (so) as well,” Moe said, adding, “... My hope would be that somewhere down the road that we could be with our boys again.”

‘In our hearts, they are our sons’: North Dakotan family yearns for orphans in Kyiv

Several years ago, Moe and her family were introduced to Danil and Denis after becoming involved with an orphan hosting program seeking to connect western families with orphans residing in group homes in Ukraine. Moe and her family yearned for an opportunity to be connected with two young Ukrainian boys — twins. The Moes hosted the two boys at their home in the United States for two summers, and once during Christmas break. As part of the agreement under the program, the boys were required to return to Ukraine.

After the Moes hosted the twins, the decision to pursue adoption was made in 2018.


Unfortunately, the two boys had aged out of the legal requirements for adoption before the Moes could complete the lengthy process — once someone is over the age of 16, they cannot be adopted in Ukraine. Despite the hurdle, the twin boys, whose last name has been withheld for their safety, have become a real part of the Moe family.

The Moes decided to carry on with their ties with the twins, she said, adding, “we still feel like they are our boys.” The North Dakotan family keeps in regular contact with them — contact that has become increasingly under threat as Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday.

“... I know they’re young men now… But in our hearts, they are our sons,” she said.

Despite the ongoing turmoil and war ravaged Ukrainian infrastructure causing alarm, Moe has been able to maintain regular contact with Danil and Denis, and noted on Friday that they were both safe despite being very near the area where Russian forces have advanced.

“I think it was unexpected. It’s devastating for the people,” she said, adding that there are others like herself who work with orphans in Ukraine.

Ukrainians head for Slovak border crossing, in Ubla
A man holding a child reacts as they arrive from Ukraine to Slovakia, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Ubla, Slovakia, on February 25, 2022.

Orphans are already a “vulnerable population,” Moe explained, highlighting that some are located in areas where the Russian troops have already advanced.

“They already don’t have parents. They don’t already have a support system and so, for these children and the families that are connected to them through orphan hosting or through working with the orphanages there, it’s just a matter of trying to see how we can best help,” she said. “... I’m really concerned about the children.”

At about 5 p.m. Thursday, Danil and Denis gathered up their passports, vaccine cards and other vital documents needed and headed to a bomb shelter. At about 1 a.m. Friday, they could hear air raid sirens echoing their eerie wail.


“Denis said it was just very difficult to sleep because the situation is very tense and uncertain,” Moe said.

The 19-year-olds are in their first year at a university in Kyiv, studying finance and business — which has been made possible through the support of the Moes. In 2019, Moe and her daughter visited Ukraine, spending time in Kyiv with the boys. Moe recounted how that was the last time she saw her boys in person.

“For us, we just have a strong sense of… peace. We know that we are people of faith and we know that God is the king of all kingdoms and regardless of what the morning brings for them, we know that they have good heads on their shoulders and we’re here to help them. Whatever the morning brings, we’ll get through it together; we’ll figure out what’s next together,” she said.

The Ukraine State Border Guard Service announced, in an attempt to halt the advancing Russian military, that all men aged 18 to 60 were prohibited from leaving the country and were called into service to defend their homeland. The Moes are diligently considering back-up plans should Danil and Denis need to evacuate quickly would Ukraine fall to Russian forces.

“I think the reality of the situation is becoming more clear as the city is being under attack and as they spend the night in that bomb shelter,” she said. “That’s something that I think most of us have only ever experienced through a history book or through watching movies about air raids (during) World War II in Europe. We can’t really conceive of the terror of living in that situation… But to be living it, to be in the bomb shelter, to hear air raid sirens going off, to know that your city is under attack, of course they’re afraid. But they’re very strong and they’re very brave. We’re extremely proud of them.”

‘Punch Putin right in the nose’

Emil Anheluk, of Dickinson, who is of Ukrainian descent, spoke about the little village where his relatives live. The village, located in western Ukraine, borders Poland — a site of growing Russian and NATO forces. On Thursday evening, Anheluk said he spoke earlier in the day with a few of his relatives who said that there were missile strikes in their general area, but nothing that was too close.

“We’re all trying to digest it as much as we can. I’ve been in contact with lots of people that are in the country and different sorts of diplomats today, including talking to our federal delegation or at least tried to talk to them about the American response,” Anheluk said. “It’s a frustrating situation and there is not an easy answer, but if people ever want to use history as their guide. If you wondered how the world could sit by when Germany and Russia split Poland in 1939, this is exactly how it was done. Somebody attacked, the rest of the world said, ‘Oh, stop. Don’t do that.’ And then, bad things happened. Putin is evil in this world, I have no doubt of that anymore. There’s just no way that anybody can think that he is a sane individual.”

Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol
Ukrainian tanks move into the city, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Mariupol, on February 24, 2022.

According to Anheluk, Putin’s endgame is the landbridge from Russia to Crimea, all the way to Transnistria. With the Russian forces seizing control of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Anheluk said the world should watch and that it should be “very worrisome to Europe.”


“I try to let our government govern and it’s very easy to cast aspersions on our elected leaders. I am very disappointed in President Biden’s reaction to this,” Anheluk said. “I think his repeated comments that the United States will never take direct action against Russia is almost a red herring. It’s almost like he’s telling Putin, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to mess with you. You just keep on doing what you’re doing.’”

With martial law in place, Anheluk said he hopes the country will prevail over Russia.

“The one good thing — if you can call it a good thing, it’s probably not a good thing — is that Ukraine is standing to fight and they will fight. Their forces are about one-tenth the size of Russia, so they’re very much outnumbered. But as we know from history, a lot of times that doesn’t necessarily matter, because it’s about the will of the people to rise up against an aggressor such as this... Ukraine needs to fight for this. But I think us sitting idly by, I don’t like the reaction of the world right now,” he said, adding that he believes Russia should be completely “clamped out.”

Anheluk continued, “It seems like President Biden is always three steps behind. It doesn’t seem like any problem — foreign or domestic — he is out in front of all… I hope that there is more to the story... But I haven’t seen anything to give me a whole lot of confidence.”

Reflecting on the United States’ own revolutionary war, fought against a world superpower by an outnumbered and inferiorly armed populace, Anheluk argued that the Ukrainians must stand and fight to retain their sovereignty.

“Maybe it’s not waxing poetic or maybe it’s a little bit lame, I don’t know but I always go back to history, and in 1775, a group of revolutionary patriots took on the greatest military might the world has ever known — the British Empire. And they formed a country called the United States,” he said. “My hope is that the people of Ukraine stand up and fight. Punch Putin right in the nose and kick him out. That’s a long shot, but it’s not unheard of... This is a scary time, and I do believe we have to act fervently. But we should act like Churchill, not Chamberlain.”

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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