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Sofi Tukker raises $20K for Ukraine; Ukrainians of Colorado mobilizes

On Saturday, Ukrainians were still fighting for their right to exist as an independent country from Russia

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Aspen Daily News and was shared via AP StoryShare.

It was about 10 o’clock Wednesday night — Feb. 23 — when Olena Iziumtseva received the text from her father: “The war has begun.”

It was about 7 a.m. on Feb. 24 in Lutsk, Ukraine, where Iziumtseva’s parents reside, when he sent his text. Feb. 24 marks the day Russian forces officially invaded Europe’s largest country. Since then, the capital city, Kyiv, continues to stave off attacks and Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, is under constant siege. Iconic assets, from cultural ones such as the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial to ­infrastructural ones like a TV tower (near Babyn Yar) and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, have been damaged if not outright destroyed. More than 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees have fled their homes — to Poland, to Hungary, to Romania, to Bulgaria — and the United Nations expects that number to hit 1.5 million before the end of the weekend.

Iziumtseva, along with the at least 15 or so Ukrainian friends and acquaintances she counted by name who also call the Roaring Fork Valley home, have had to watch from afar. Fortunately, her parents made it into Poland safely on Feb. 28, four days into the military onslaught.

“They left Ukraine last night — finally, after me begging them,” Iziumtseva said in a March 1 interview. “They said the Polish people treat them so well; they hug them, they give them boxes of food, even though my mom brought a lot of food with them in the car. … They are looking for an apartment for [my parents], everything for free. They are so welcoming, they are such nice people.”

Her brother, too, is safe though still in Ukraine. The 35-year-old was in Kyiv but fled to another town a few hours away on the second day of the invasion.
Anna Khabinets’ parents have no plans to leave, she said.

“My parents are not leaving, even though I am trying to convince them,” she said. “They are also older … and they, you know, they’re joking and saying, ‘Well, if Putin will put his flag in the center of Kyiv, then we will leave.’ That’s one of the features of Ukrainians: In the worst times, they still have that humor.”

Their families’ humor, coupled with a strong sense of patriotism, help Iziumtseva and Khabinets find what optimism they can. Iziumtseva’s parents, for instance, may be safe in Poland, but they didn’t leave quietly.

“They did not want to leave Ukraine,” she said. “My mom learned how to do cocktail molotov, and she is 65 years old. She was sitting in our house, cutting the strips of material from the bedding, and she brought a huge bag of it, and she was helping physically to do the cocktail molotov in my city.”

Her father, too, used his business operations while he could to provide protective material to the Ukrainian army to help cover military equipment.
“We are so united to fight this, to fight this fascism — to fight this cancer,” Iziumtseva continued.

Nataliia Schumacher took a brief few moments away from her shift at The Little Nell to speak about her and her family’s experiences. She has family in Kharkiv and her parents are in the central part of the country, donating what they can when they can. Her 24-year-old nephew is on the front lines, fighting with the Ukrainian military.

As far as she knew on Friday, he was still alive. As far as Khabinets knew Thursday, her parents were still alive. By the time of this publication, that may or may not still be true.

“We just live from the phone call to the phone call,” Schumacher said of her nephew. “Where they are stationed, the cell towers are bombed. Wherever he has a chance, he would call my sister to calm her down. …”

Khabinets said much the same.

“Every day, someone is calling us and say how are your parents? And I am afraid to answer because I’m like, ‘OK, I didn’t talk to them [in] two hours — I don’t know how they are,’” she said, choking up a bit.

It’s exhausting. The emotional toll is unrelenting. Iziumtseva, Khabinets and Schumacher — like all their Ukrainian and Russian friends here — do their best to continue day-to-day life in Aspen and the rest of the valley, but their thoughts rarely wander far from home, roughly 6,000 miles away.

“I’m so speechless and so crushed by the news lately. I have been ignoring so many phone calls I have been receiving because it’s just too hard,” Schumacher said. “I leave work, I just want to get home and turn on the news and check in with everyone before going to sleep.”

For Khabinets, the guilt becomes almost overwhelming when it’s time to sleep.

“We feel guilty that we are not there — yet. I have two kids here, so when they fall asleep in their warm beds,” she said, in tears, “I know they will wake up.”


But Iziumtseva, Khabinets and Schumacher each have two homes: Ukraine and Aspen. And just as Ukrainians still in Europe are doing everything they can to help the military defense efforts there, the Roaring Fork Valley is rallying around how to help from half a world away. Here, there are only friends.

“We have so many Russian friends who are calling us and apologizing like it’s their own [fault], and they’re supporting us — but they lived here for a very long time,” Iziumtseva, who described one of her Russian coworkers as one of her “best friends,” said. “And we clearly understand that blaming their people, no, never.”

Rather, they blame one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Iziumtseva and Khabinets maintain that Putin is lying to the international community about his operations in their home country — but especially to his own citizens.

“My friend here, she has a stepbrother in Russia. And they send him for training operation. They were on the border with Belarus for three weeks in the camps, training. And the last day before the day of training — in the first day of the war — they gave them uniforms and ammunition and they said, ‘OK, go,’” Iziumtseva recalled. “They were going there thinking, ‘Ukraine will meet us with flowers because we are saving them.’ That didn’t happen at all, and they were dead after that, right away. They were killed.”

Iziumtseva keeps a screenshot on her phone that she took of an article that was published on Feb. 28 — the fifth day of the invasion — by RIA Novosti, the Russian state-owned domestic news agency headquartered in Moscow. It only remained live for a few hours before being taken down, but it was long enough for web archives to record its existence, as well. Its headline read, “The offensive of Russia and the new world,” according to Google Translate. The article goes on to depict a successful military operation by Russia into Ukraine that united the two countries.

“Ukraine has returned to Russia. This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be reorganized, reestablished and returned to its natural state of part of the Russian world,” it reads. “Within what boundaries, in what form will the alliance with Russia be consolidated (through the CSTO and the Eurasian Union or the Union State of Russia and Belarus)?”

On Saturday, Ukrainians were still fighting for their right to exist as an independent country from Russia, and casualties were mounting — a far cry from being “returned to Russia.” Despite a ceasefire to allow “humanitarian corridors” for civilians to leave the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha, Ukrainian officials allege that Russians continue to ignore that ceasefire, showering the area with bombs and heavy artillery.

Iziumtseva and Khabinets say that Ukrainians are having to fight more than the literal warfare happening on the frontlines — they’re also battling the Russian misinformation machine. That makes it near impossible for those living in Putin’s Russia (and indeed Crimea, an eastern territory of Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014) to discern what’s actually happening on the ground and difficult for people in the West to truly be able to trust how best to help.

But they still want to help.

That was made evident locally at Belly Up, when on Feb. 26 — three days into the war — musical duo Sofi Tukker quietly and in almost spur-of-the-moment fashion raised nearly $20,000 for the Red Cross Ukraine. Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern, the two creatives that together have earned ­Grammy ­nominations (in 2017 for their hit “Drinkee” and in 2018 for their album, “Treehouse”), created a specific PayPal account for a special side-stage experience at their already-scheduled Belly Up performance. With quick help from their agents and Belly Up proprietors Michael, David and Danny Goldberg, it went off without a hitch.

There was little fanfare about it but plenty of real-time enthusiasm that turned into real-life dollars.

“What really happened was I woke up on [that] Saturday morning and talked to my dad, and he updated me on everything, and then I went through the news and I read about stuff and — I think like everyone watching — just felt terrible,” Halpern said Saturday. “And I realized we were in a place of intense privilege and a lot of lucky people in the middle of a war. We were going to do something fun and ecstatic, and it felt wrong to not try to help.”

So Halpern and Hawley-Weld went to work researching different donation channels to try to sort through the myriad options and find an authentic one in which funds would go directly to the Ukrainian people. They landed on the Red Cross Ukraine.

“We did a bunch of research, and it became clear to us that there were a lot of great ways to donate, but the Red Cross, it actually has people on the ground working for Ukraine … who are Ukrainian,” Hawley-Weld said. “That was important to us.”

“There are always really challenging things happening in the world … I don’t think it’s important to put a hierarchy on human suffering. I think for this one in particular, it feels extremely urgent,” she continued. “Everyone collectively is feeling a little bit of helplessness and if just asked — if just given an easy avenue to help — they’d do it.”

On Feb. 26, when presented with an easy way to help, the Sofi Tukker audience raised almost $20,000 in a single night. The pair hopes it’s just the beginning.
“The whole idea not only was to raise the money but it was to sort of try to kickstart [a trend]. If we post about this, we’re not doing it for pats on the back; we’re doing it so maybe other artists can see that and then on their show, do the same thing,” Halpern said. “And there’s a lot of people that want to help.”

Now, Iziumtseva, Khabinets and Schumacher are all trying to navigate their own research to find ways to help. It’s not an easy task, especially when factoring the emotional labor required to simply function, but it’s also one of the only ways to feel some sort of hope.

“I’ll be honest with you, it took a long time to collect myself and to see, ‘OK, I’m here, how can I be helpful?’ Because that’s my first thought: I’m so far away, how can I be helpful?” Schumacher said. “Besides talking to my parents, to my sister, to my friends every day and checking in with them.”

But she’s been researching different entities — and individuals. Social media such as Instagram has been a hugely helpful connector. There’s a Ukrainian woman living in Italy who has used individual donations to fund grocery and pharmacy trips to get supplies where they’re needed. Another woman works to supply night goggles.

“I’m still researching that,” Schumacher said. “I’ve just been reaching out on my Instagram — and people have been reaching out to me — to see how can I be helpful?”

Iziumtseva and Khabinets, too, have been reaching out to their networks to coordinate fundraising efforts that could get money directly on the ground in Ukraine. By Saturday, they’d connected with one of Iziumtseva’s Facebook friends, Nik Voronkov, to join the work he’s doing with Ukrainians of Colorado, a nonprofit based in Lakewood.

“We’ve been in touch with our family members and friends and colleagues there — and getting information up to date, and basically doing what we can from Colorado with collective efforts to assist them in any ways we can,” Voronkov said in a video he posted to his Facebook. “Working with Ukrianians of Colorado organization to collect money, other supplies — combat supplies — for standard people who are just not willing to give in to Russian propaganda and the war machine and are fighting because they chose to … stand up to Putin and what he’s doing.”

The nonprofit Ukrainians of Colorado has had a Facebook page since 2014, but it launched an official website to facilitate donations in light of the war this week, As of Saturday, just days after the website went live, the organization had raised almost $7,000 of a $100,000 goal.
“We all united to help with donations asap,” Iziumtseva said Saturday via text message. “So this will be the best option.”

Feeling helpful, well, helps. When asked if they thought they would ever go home again, each woman’s response was similar — and preceded with a moment of quiet.

“I hope I will have a home to come back to,” Schumacher, who was last in Ukraine in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted international travel, said.
“I really believe so,” Iziumtseva said.

Khabinets was quieter for a touch longer.

“I don’t know,” she allowed. “Honestly, it all depends.”

All three women have been part of the Aspen community for more than a decade. Schumacher came to Aspen in 2009. Iziumtseva, who manages Pyramid Bistro and works with Jazz Aspen Snowmass each year, arrived in 2007, just a year before her friend Khabinets did. Khabinets now manages the Club Monaco retail store downtown and she and her husband — also from her ­hometown, Terebovlya, near Lviv — are raising their two children here.

“We just have to be loud, so everyone can hear us that this is a call up to the whole world. It’s a call up to a level of freedom, community, speech, safe childhood — it’s a call up to democracy of the whole world,” Khabinets said. “If the world will unite in the ways they’re supposed to, this can be stopped. That major shift can happen. It’s possible. And that’s what keeps us going.”

The whole world is listening. And watching.