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Donation drive for Ukraine gives voice to Charleston's Eastern European Community

Maka Aptsiauri at donation drive for Ukraine.jpg
Victoria Hansen
South Carolina Public Radio
Maka Aptsiauri, orginally from the Republic of Georgia, collects donations for people in Ukraine at a parking lot across the street from her business Euro Foods Cafe and Bakery in West Ashley. March 5, 2022

Families with ties to Ukraine, Russia and Poland share their fears while collecting donations for the people of Ukraine.

More than 5,000 miles away from Ukraine, a vacant parking lot in Charleston morphs into a massive donation site and village of distinctly Eastern European voices. Among them; Tatiana Kutanko.

“I came a week ago, like right before the war started,” she says through a translator while boxing up bedding on an unusually warm Saturday. Sweat trickles down her cheek.

Kutanko is from Ukraine. She travelled to Charleston to visit her daughter and almost immediately Russia began invading her country, decimating cities with bombs and tanks in Europe’s largest ground assault since World War II.

She’s worried about her family.

“My husband and sister, it took them three days to get to Poland,” she says. “Their home was destroyed, but they’re in a safe place right now.”

Tatiano Kutanko visiting Charleston from Ukraine and worried about family at home
Victoria Hansen
South Carolina Public Radio
Tatiana Kutanko from Ukraine helps collects donations for people in her war-torn country. She recently travelled to Charleston to visit her daughter when Russia began invading Ukraine. Her husband and sister have fled to Poland after losing their home in the violence. March 5, 2022

Kutanko has nine more families members in Ukraine. She hasn’t been able to get in touch with all of them. A handmade heart in her country’s colors of yellow and blue is pinned above her own.

She tries to think instead about the fellow Ukrainians who will be grateful to get the heavy quilts she’s packing. Right now, it’s all she can do explains the woman translating, Maka Aptsiauri.

“It is a heartbreaking situation, “says Aptsiauri. She owns the Euro Foods Bakery and Café across the street and helped organized the donation drive.

Aptsiauri knows what it’s like to feel restless with worry. Her husband’s 72-year-old uncle and cousins are fighting in Ukraine.

“It’s terrible, like the only topic we are discussing every day all day, watching the news, getting the messages,” she says.

Kinga Bryant also spends much of her day checking messages on her phone. She’s from Poland. Her relatives live along the border and have been taking in Ukrainian refugees.

It’s overwhelming.

“To hear the children crying and the women crying and everybody crying because they have no idea what’s happening.”

Bryant's grandfather survived the holocaust. She’s grateful for his dementia.

“If he had to relive it again, I can’t imagine the pain,” she says.

“It’s a big psychological stress on everyone,” says Natalie who was born in Russia. She’s asked to use just her first name.

“I feel like this whole war, it just brings so much conflict within families and within friends.”

The 32-year-old says the invasion of a neighbor has divided Russians who are also victims, of political ambition and propaganda. She wants to help So, she’s packing donations of food, medical supplies and military equipment.

Oleg Kulyk, meantime, is loading one of two trucks he’s donated and will drive to a shipping center in New Jersey.

The 26-year-old says it’s the least he can do, even on his birthday. He has family fighting for their lives and defending freedom in Ukraine.

“Everybody who is male and even who is female is grabbing guns.”

Kulyk says he's fortunate. He will grab the wheel of a truck this week to help deliver supplies to Ukraine.