Claremont woman’s mind on family in Ukraine war zone

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-25-2023 1:23 PM

CLAREMONT — In her Claremont home, Sophia Sushailo carefully unfolds an embroidered linen runner, rushnyk in Ukrainian, that was stitched by her great-grandmother nearly 80 years ago.

The embroidery is of traditional dark colors but upon closer inspection, one can see tiny stitching in blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“It was her way of remembering her husband and an independent Ukraine,” Sushailo (pronounced sue-shy-lo) said.

The rushnyk was made during the Soviet occupation of Ukraine after World War II. Sushailo’s great-grandfather had been taken prisoner for aiding the Ukrainian resistance. He would later die in a prison revolt in a Siberian gulag. While he awaited trial, his wife, pregnant with their third child, traveled long distances several times to visit him and bring him food and clean clothes, Sushailo said.

“You have seen blue and yellow symbols discretely embroidered by my great-grandmother, Maria,” said Sushailo. “I treasure this cloth as a family relic. It carries Maria’s determined spirit and belief in a free and independent Ukraine. To me her story is a testimony to a resilient people.”

As Ukrainians mark the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, their resistance and ability to beat back the Russian army with the help of Western arms has surprised many, but not Sushailo.

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“This is our history,” Sushailo, who came to the United States in the late 1990s as a high school exchange student following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence. “When you look back at the history, this is what the Ukrainian people have been doing for quite some time. In the 1940s we had to battle Nazi Germany and the Soviets. This resistance is nothing new. The resistance spirit has always been there.”

Sushailo’s father, a doctor, lives in western Ukraine and although he is away from the worst of the fighting, he still experiences it on a daily basis. Sushailo’s mother and sister with her two toddlers relocated to the United Kingdom.

“It has been a grinding war for him,” said Sushailo, who speaks regularly with her father. “But the fact we are here and can support them, gives them hope.

“I don’t see my dad leaving the country. He will be the one who will live free or die. He is my hero. He passes on his incredible resilient spirit to me. My father is incredibly positive and would never give up.”

While many families have escaped their war-torn country for safety, Sushailo said the diversity of the army — one in six soldiers are women — is another example of how Ukrainians are united in their fight against the Russian invaders.

“Most have no prior military experience or even held a gun,” Sushailo said. “There are engineers, journalists and teachers. Three out of four are college-educated. They never imagined this is what they would be doing.

“They cannot give up. If we lose, it means we gave in to a bully. And when I say we, I mean people who share the same values democracies around the world share. If you think about the magnitude and scale of that, it is huge. It will send a message to others who all of a sudden will say, ‘I can do this, too.’ And that is not a good lesson for the world.”

Support for the Ukrainian fight bolsters the country’s morale, which Sushailo said is so important to achieving victory.

“Knowing people care, that has incredible power,” she said. “It multiplies tremendously the energy the people have when they know in the cold trenches and cold weather, there is somebody who cares.”

Besides Sushailo’s fundraising efforts to ensure, personally, a continuous flow of much-needed jackets and shoes, she highlighted two local efforts for Ukrainians that she said symbolizes the critical support from the United States.

From the wool socks stuffed with handwritten notes collected and sent by the First Baptist Church in Etna, to the more than $2.5 million raised by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man Restaurants in New Hampshire, for Ukrainian relief, every action big or small sends a powerful message to Ukrainians.

“Little notes to show support makes a connection to the people receiving them,” Sushailo said. “It warms my heart to know people care so much.”

When asked about what lies ahead for her country, Sushailo pauses, then reflects on her country’s past. Defeat at the hands of the Russians will mean a repeat of what Ukrainians endured under Soviet rule, she said.

She thinks of her grandmother, who was born in 1933 and died soon after the war started last February.

“She was so excited when Ukraine became an independent country. And now this war was déjà vu. It was exactly the war she had seen as a child.”

Sushailo maintains her optimism for her homeland as the war enters its second year with no end in sight.

“I have to believe in victory,” she said. “I believe in miracles. The light must prevail against the darkness.

There is no other way. We have seen this before. You can go to jail for just saying the wrong things. A huge country of 40 million people would be converted into a big prison. We need to continue firmly standing with Ukraine.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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