When Taras Smerechanksyy received a phone call in the early morning on February 24, his worst fears were realized.
After weeks of listening to the news about a potential Russian invasion, it was official - Russia was attacking Ukraine.
Taras and his twin brother were born in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, growing up in a small, yet scenic village called Pechorna. "Ukraine is an amazingly beautiful, safe country with friendly people and a hospitable culture. I cannot imagine a better or safer childhood than the one I had," the TD Bank Group Risk Specialist said.
In 2000, Taras and his family immigrated to the United States to pursue a better education and settled in Philadelphia, PA. After moving, Taras and his twin traveled back to their hometown and spent every summer in Ukraine.
"We still have our house in Pechorna. Our family and friends are all still there – which only makes this even more painful for us," Taras said.
After the attacks started, Taras immediately sprang into action to help his family to safety. Tanya Smerechanskyy, Taras' cousin's wife, was desperately trying to escape the city with her two young sons, Luka (age 11) and Zachary (age 7).
Watch the video below to learn more about Taras, Tanya, and her family.
"I was finally able to reach members of my family in Ukraine and immediately asked them to send Tanya and my nephews to the Polish border, about a four-hour drive," Taras said. "Poland is a member of NATO and we knew this was their best chance of reaching safety. My cousins and uncles all stayed behind – they made up their minds long before the attacks began that they would stay to protect their homes."
The journey for Tanya was not an easy one. A four-hour drive turned into a 3-day journey through bombed out highways, numerous military checkpoints and eventually waiting in a line at the Polish- Ukrainian border, where thousands of other Ukrainians were also waiting to be admitted into Poland. Thankfully, on March 1, Taras' family was safely in the United States.
"They were badly shaken up by the journey and it was an emotional experience to welcome them at the airport terminal. This was a bittersweet moment; I was extremely happy to know that my nephews were safely here with us, but at the same time it was heartbreaking to know the rest of my family and millions of other people were staying behind in harm's way," Taras said.
Since arriving to the United States, Taras has ensured the boys felt at home, even given the traumatic experience they went through.
"I wanted to get their minds off what was happening and to quickly help them forget the horror they experienced. After all, I remember exactly what it felt like arriving in a new country when my family immigrated to the United States in 2000," he said.
Luka and Zachary are now enrolled in school. Although they were nervous about going to a new school in a new country, especially as they don't speak much English, they are safe and happy to be with their family.
Making a difference at home
Taras has made it his mission to help his home country in any way possible. It has been a taxing journey watching the destruction from afar.
"It is hard for me to convey the emotions that I experience when I see pictures and footage from Ukraine, scenes of families trying to save their children, scenes depicting the tremendous loss of life – especially because I am a father to two little girls," Taras said.
Taras volunteers by collecting funds and supplies which are sent to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, PA has served as a central hub for gathering and processing humanitarian aid. When he isn't collecting supplies, Taras is at the Ukrainian center helping to sort and then drive items to a shipping company in New Jersey. From there, supplies are flown to the Polish border and distributed to refugees there or driven into Ukraine.
Taras' wife has also posted on social media asking for donations with an overwhelming response.
"We were able to raise thousands of dollars within a matter of hours, which I immediately used to purchase more supplies," Taras said. "We have been overwhelmed by the show of love and support from people we know and complete strangers alike."
Taras says the best way to support those affected by the attacks on Ukraine is to stay informed.
"I am extremely proud of Ukrainians and the fight that they have put up to defend their homeland and their country, with limited means," Taras said. "I also am extremely proud of and grateful to the United States and its compassionate citizens for standing up and supporting Ukraine."
Young Teen Uses Music to Offer Support
Kealia Grace Smith, 13, has been playing the cello for five years. When she learned about what was happening in Ukraine, she was inspired to offer her support through her passion: music.
"I've been very upset about everything in Ukraine … I wanted to bring a little comfort and hope to everyone who's impacted by the conflict in Ukraine," Kealia said.
Watch Kealia's performance below.
Kealia arranged the Ukrainian National Anthem in four parts and with help from her parents, recorded her performance on the beach near her hometown of Manahawkin, NJ.
Joshua Smith, TD Process Engineering Manager and Kealia's father, was beyond proud of his daughter for her initiative to get involved.
"I’m so proud of her for deciding to do this, and for finding a way to make a difference. Her goal has been to raise awareness, encourage people to donate, and provide a little hope for those impacted," Josh said.
The reaction to the video she posted has been extremely positive.
"I’ve had so many comments and even direct messages from people thanking me for making the video and how it brought them hope during these terrible circumstances. It’s so amazing to see how many people I've touched from all over the world," Kealia said.
She also has been interviewed by local newspapers, radio stations, and FOX29 Good Day Philadelphia. The video has also been shared by CBS3 and NBC10.
In addition, on March 18, Kealia played at a benefit concert for Ukraine live with three other cellists. The concert ended up raising over $5,000 for Ukrainian refugees. She's also fundraised for Ukraine through sales of her arrangement, which has been performed internationally.
"People can provide support and get involved by donating money or supplies to organizations that are helping Ukrainian refugees. However, even if you can’t donate, you can still show your support by displaying blue and yellow and/or sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower," Kealia said.