It wasn’t going to happen to me.
That’s what Ukrainian native Yulia Holodova thought when Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago this month.
But then, the missiles were on the doorstep of her Kyiv apartment.
“It’s 2 a.m., you hear the missile alarms, which were not uncommon, but then we heard a different buzzing noise (a drone),” Holodova said. “I head into the hallway with my parents, because the safest place you can be is in between two walls.
“And the explosions started, and they were very close to my home. We survived the night, my family and my house were fine. We were super blessed to be able to walk away.”
That’s the morning that woke Holodova up, she said.
She helped found a nonprofit called Citizen Ambassadors, an organization whose goal is to build personal relationships across the globe in an effort to lift the voices of Ukraine.
The organization spoke to LSUS students and community members Friday about the importance of American solidarity with Ukraine.
Film director and former U.S. Army Captain Justin Roberts got a taste of what it’s like to be overlooked.
The Lake Charles resident noticed media attention (and that of charities) drifting quickly away from the city after Hurricane Laura, a Category Four storm, caused catastrophic damage in 2020.
Roberts, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has traveled to disaster areas and war zones, including Ukraine just months after the full-scale invasion.
“We go to places where bad things happen and meet people doing good things and tell their story,” Roberts said. “Ukrainians are just like us in that they are willing to fight and die for their freedom.
“We’re defined by what we stand against. If we don’t continue to stand with Ukrainians, who are we collectively as a people?”
Roberts spent time on the front lines of the Ukrainian war in cities like Kharkiv, the Donbas region, Dnipro and Kyiv.
He met real Ukrainians like Holodova, and realized the West’s perceived apathy toward Ukraine would change if they had personal relationships with people who are experiencing this type of trauma.
“Personal relationships can break the empathy barrier,” said Roberts, who spent eight months in Ukraine. “If something is happening to a person that I know, then the distance from the United States and our frame of minds becomes much shorter.
“We’re trying to build those connections at Citizen Ambassadors.”
Holodova, who is in her 20s, described Ukraine’s relationship with Russia as “abusive” with a “big brother, little brother” dynamic in that Russia insisted that Ukraine depended on the motherland of the former Soviet Union.
But even still, it came as a shock when the bombs started dropping.
“We thought Russians were our friends and our brothers,” Holodova said. “But when we look back at it, we realized we were naïve.
“We’ve been fed Russian propaganda and even propaganda from our own government at the time of the 2014 invasion of the Donbas. We were told it was an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and we believed it.”
Fighting Russian propaganda from the U.S. perspective is also an aim of Citizen Ambassadors.
Roberts said Russia spent nearly $2 billion on propaganda, with much of that aimed at influencing the world’s sentiment and empathy for Ukraine.
“But if you have personal relationships with people in Ukraine, you can ask what’s really going on there,” Roberts said. “What if there wasn’t a disconnect between normal Americans and Ukrainians, and they could see each other and talk face-to-face?
“With the rise of artificial intelligence and propaganda, face-to-face relationships can combat those things and provide a more accurate picture.”
Citizen Ambassadors also want to rally American legislative support for Ukraine’s efforts, and members are encouraged to contact their congress representatives.
Shreveport’s congressman Mike Johnson just happens to be the new speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives.
A bill including $60 billion for Ukrainian aid appears to have the necessary votes in the Senate, and it will come down to whether it passes the U.S. House.
“If Russia does take Ukraine, it’s not stopping there,” Roberts said. “Then it’s Poland and Lithuania.”
Learn more about Citizen Ambassadors by visiting their website at citizenambassadorcorps.org.