By Christina Feerick
Special to the Wytheville Enterprise
Ukraine may be thousands of miles away from Wytheville - but it’s as close as a FaceTime call to family struggling to survive a war. Yana Blevins is an assistant teacher at Minnick Wytheville Adapted School who grew up in Russia, traveled to the U.S. as a college student, married a man from Chilhowie, and has settled with her husband and son in Marion.
"It’s my new home now," she said.
But Blevins’ extended family remains in Russia and Ukraine – and as the bombings continue, so do her desperate prayers.
“I still can’t believe it’s happening — it’s surreal,” she said. The majority of Russians don’t support the war because they have family ties to Ukraine. Russians and Ukrainians have always been friends. We’re like a big family."
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After three years with enCircle, she’s now dedicated to bridging the gap — letting people know the war in Ukraine isn’t "over there" — it’s right here, in our own backyard.
Blevins contacts family members through Facebook.
"I check on my family every day to make sure they’re OK. I hate that I can’t do anything about it. I’ve offered to transfer some money, but they say they have enough food (and) their houses are fine,” she said. “But of course, other people are not so fortunate. We’ve been praying a lot. It’s hard, it’s very hard."
While her prayers continue halfway around the world, she is mindful of her own blessings here at home.
"Praise God for another day, for peace, and for everything you have,” Blevins said.
More than 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine, but Blevins’ family has decided to stay put. Her cousin lives in Kharkiv, a city of nearly 1.5 million people in northeast Ukraine, and confides that even though he can hear gunfire and shelling constantly, he’s unwilling to abandon his apartment.
“He’s doing a great job,” she said. “He is helping people, and trying to accommodate them with housing and trying to find a place for them to go where they will still be safe. There has been a lot of destruction in his city; a lot of military bases were destroyed. Some parts of the city are leveled, but he is still able to go out and walk and try to help the community.
"They didn’t believe the intentions of Russia to invade,” she added. “They thought everything was going to be fine and there would be a political solution to the problem. They expect part of the city to be leveled but refuse to leave. They will still hold their ground, no matter what,” Blevins said.
Blevins met her husband, John, while participating in a student exchange program and working at the old Tuscan Italian Grill in Abingdon.
“My husband and I got married in Russia, and as soon as the paperwork was finalized, I moved here permanently eight years ago,” she said. The couple has a 4-year-old son, Collin.
Regarding Blevins’ story, Minnick Principal Derrick Spence said unity is a message he often emphasizes with Minnick educational staff — and Yana’s family’s story is a perfect example.
"Whether it’s someone who looks different than us or thinks different than us, whatever it may be, we’re all connected. At the end of the day, what happens in one part of the world will affect all parts of the world,” Spence said.
Yana couldn’t agree more and is grateful for the support of her enCircle coworkers and Minnick students, who recently made cards in the colors of the Ukrainian flag – blue and gold – for Blevins.
"I am very blessed,” she said. “Keep thinking about us and praying for us. That’s all you can do. I believe in the power of prayer, that God can handle anything that it will turn for the better."
"As we follow the horrible events unfolding, let's remember that Ukraine is as close to us as Yana, right here in Minnick School Building #10,” Spence said.
Christina Feerick is director of communications and marketing for enCircle, formerly Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. Wytheville Enterprise reporter Millie Rothrock contributed to this article.