Alex Podebryi has barely slept in three days.
In the dead of night he scans livestreams for updates on the Russian forces invading his home country. He zooms in on social media videos of tanks rolling into Ukrainian cities.
He watches images on TV of shell-shocked Ukrainians fleeing for their lives and wonders how long it will take for the Russians to reach the western city of Lviv, where nearly three dozen of his relatives live.
Whenever he gets new information he calls his father in Buffalo, New York. His father, also glued to the news, calls him too. Podebryi’s phone buzzes at all hours.
“He’s distraught and distracted,” his wife, Lauren Podebryi, says from their home in this Atlanta suburb.
“He wakes up in the middle of the night to check the news. He doesn’t sleep. He’s constantly on the phone with his dad all hours of the night.”
He feels a complex surge of emotions
There are over 1 million people of Ukrainian ancestry in the United States, according to 2019 census estimates. Like Podebryi, many have worried for months that Russian President Vladimir Putin would launch an attack after soldiers and weapons began massing near Ukraine’s borders.
As Russia fires air and missile attacks, and ground forces enter the capital city of Kyiv, Podebryi and other Ukrainian-American families are watching the unfolding crisis with terror.
Before the Russian military started firing rockets at Ukrainian cities, the dentist spent his evenings sprawled on the floor playing with his 3-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son.
The last few days, he’s been too preoccupied by the constant hum of news on the Russian invasion – suddenly consumed by the grim reality unfolding some 5,000 miles away.
On Friday afternoon Podebryi sits on a gray sofa in a sparse living room dotted with children’s drawings and Ukrainian mementos. His eyes dart between a flurry of news coverage on his phone and a television perched in the center of the room.
The infant’s occasional squeals punctuate a room where the only other sounds are blasts from Russian airstrikes on television.
One of Podebryi’s most prized possessions – a spiky Ukrainian club called a bulava and considered a symbol of strength in his home country – sits on a shelf nearby.
But Podebryi, 39, doesn’t feel that strong these days.
“It’s very depressing. We’re just getting slaughtered. It’s like a modern giant that takes over and crushes everyone,” he says of Russia. “Imagine how many wives will be left without husbands. A whole generation of kids will lose their fathers.”
His emotions oscillate between anger, fear and regret.
“People who have no experience are picking up weapons to fight. In Ukraine, we’re so proud of where we come from, even with all the pain and all the suffering. That’s why a lot of people are in the streets fighting, even though they know we’re outnumbered.”
Podebryi has visited relatives in Ukraine several times, but not in the past eight years. He hasn’t had a chance to take his wife and children to his home country, something he wishes he could change now.
“I had so many excuses – first I was in dental school, then it was babies and the pandemic,” he says, his voice shaking. “I wish I’d have visited more. I feel like we’ll lose Ukraine, like there’ll be no Ukraine to go (back) to. At least not the Ukraine I know.”
His mother, Olga Tourtchina, who’s visiting from Buffalo, quickly interjects.
“If he was in Ukraine, he would be on the streets fighting – 200%,” she says.
For his mother, the invasion brings back frightening memories
Whenever Tourtchina, 71, comes to visit her son, she usually whips up five-course Ukrainian meals – including borscht soup and Pierogi dumplings – for him and his family. But this time she’s been so busy keeping up with the news that she hasn’t done much of that.
Like her son, Tourtchina has a lot to say about the Russian invasion. As a child growing up in the Soviet Union, she heard horror stories about dictator Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror.
Putin’s rule, she says, brings back memories of that era.
“It’s hurts that we are going through the same thing so many years later,” she says.
Tourtchina fled to the United States with her son and daughter in 1991, the same year President Mikhail Gorbachev disbanded the Soviet Union. They joined her husband, who was living on a visa in Buffalo, New York. Podebryi was 9.
“We left a lot of family behind and came for the same reason a lot of people come here – better opportunities and a better life,” Podebryi says. “I remember not being able to communicate with anybody and not knowing the language, but quickly learning what the United States was about.”
To a newly arrived boy in Buffalo, it was partly about football. The Buffalo Bills were an NFL power and appeared in a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.
In the Soviet Union, there were barely any sports and no communal sports pride. Young Alex was stunned by the Bills fever in Buffalo.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is everyone so excited? What’s going on here?’” says Podebryi, who remains a diehard Bills fan. “That was new to me. All those little things about how society works, functions. In Buffalo we lived is a close-knit community, it was really nice.”
Podebry graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine before moving to Georgia in 2014 to start a family.
They are desperate for news about loved ones
The night of February 23 will forever be etched in Podebryi’s memory.
He was having dinner with friends at a restaurant when he glanced at a news alert on his phone. Russia had invaded Ukraine. His face fell.
“Because there had been so many threats, I didn’t think it would happen. Even though I trusted US intelligence those last few days, the Russians have always been threatening. It’s been an ongoing thing for years,” he says.
He immediately called his father, who reached out to his slew of of cousins, aunts and uncles in Lviv. Podebryi rushed home to watch the news.
He says about a dozen of his relatives in Ukraine, including the 18-year-old son of one of his cousins, tried to flee to Poland on Friday.
As they drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the Polish border, the Ukrainian government issued a decree that all men between the ages of 18 and 60 must remain and fight for their country. After hours of waiting at the border, the 18-year-old was rejected entry into Poland, Podebryi says.
The other family members decided not to leave without him. They turned around and drove back to Lviv.
On Saturday, Podebryi says his relatives made another attempt to cross into Poland, where they hope to stay with a friend. His cousin’s son remained behind to defend his country.
“The thing that upsets me the most is just seeing these young kids … what are their chances of surviving? A lot of the young men will have to fight without military experience. The hardest part is knowing that these people who love Ukraine the most are ones who will die first,” he says.
“It’s hard to watch the city and everything that we built the last 30 years get bombed and destroyed in front of our eyes,” he adds. “I don’t care about the buildings. The worst part is we’ll lose these people who love Ukraine so much.”
He’s trying to help from afar
Podebryi says he knows he’s lucky he got a chance at a new life three decades ago. He’s safe in America, not hiding from bombs in a subway tunnel.
He plans to do what he can to make a difference from afar.
Instead of visiting a playground with his kids this weekend, he’ll be in downtown Atlanta with other Ukrainian Americans protesting the invasion. He’s also rallied some friends to raise money to buy night-vision goggles for civilians in Ukraine who are fighting to defend their country.
The Georgia branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America – an organization for Ukrainians in the US – hopes to help distribute them to groups on the ground.
When fighting against a formidable enemy, Podebryi says, every little bit helps.
And as each day brings more sobering news from Ukraine, his close-knit family is leaning on each other, as they’ve done for decades.