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For Nursing Student from Ukraine, the War Hits Close to Home

April 14, 2022
Oleysa sits at a table and gestures as part of her interview
Olesya Simonova, MSN ’22, talks about what it took to get her daughter out of Crimea when Russia invaded her native Ukraine.

Update: This story was covered on CNN's "New Day" on April 14.

The final year of the Master of Science in Nursing program at MGH Institute of Health Professions is always filled with anxiety over finishing clinicals, taking exams, and finding a job after graduation. But for Olesya Simonova, the stressors this semester were taken to another level when Russia invaded her native Ukraine with her 12-year-old daughter, Eva, trapped in the war-torn country. 

“I knew I needed to get her out of there no matter what,” Simonova said. “I knew it was not safe.”

Olesya’s daughter was living in Crimea with her grandparents; Simonova’s father is Russian, and her mother is Ukrainian.  Illegally annexed in 2014, Crimea is now Russian territory and it’s where much of the Russian military equipment is stored and from where military offensives are being launched, making the region a natural target for the Ukrainian army. 

“Russian troops are moving into Ukraine from Crimea. This is the main area where the attacks are coming from. I didn’t know what was going to happen and how it was going to evolve,” said Simonova, who was wracked with guilt after having sent her daughter back to Crimea in early February after the holiday break. Despite rumblings of an imminent Russian invasion, she said few in her native land were taking it seriously. 

“I was in denial that something was going to happen,” said the single mother of two. “I had this feeling that something is wrong but then I spoke to my family and got this false reassurance that everything was fine. We’re worried here but they weren’t worried there - and they’re living there.”

Eva had been going to school in Crimea since 2019, when Simonova began the MSN program; the single mother of two knew that with work and a full class load, there wouldn’t be any time to take Eva to extra-curricular activities after school. The offer from her parents to care for her daughter and let her learn Russian at the same time made sense. Simonova’s son, who has special needs, would stay in the United States and travel with his mother overseas to see his sister during vacations. 

Then came Thursday, February 24, the day Simonova calls the worst of her life. 

“My friends were texting me, saying Russia was invading,” remembered the 38-year-old. “I’m calling my parents – it’s 5:00 a.m. there. Russia launched airstrikes all over Ukraine. I couldn’t sleep that night because I thought Crimea was not safe. I felt such a huge shock, an emotional shock. For the next couple of days, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t think of anything. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I was trying to call my sister, my parents, or my daughter, I was afraid that if I hung up, I might not talk to them again.”
 

Olesya stands in front of a teal wall and half smiles for the camera

Olesya Simonova is grateful her daughter was able to escape Crimea after Russia
invaded Ukraine, but as the crisis worsens by the day, she worries
about her family and friends who are still there.​​​​​​​

Russian President Vladimir Putin predicted the invasion would be over in three days, and during that time, Simonova was an emotional wreck, crying and isolating herself. That’s when the IHP community – her preceptors, dean, faculty, and staff – stepped in to give her strength. “There were lots of emails and outreach offering support. This meant so much to me,” said Simonova. “As soon as I got the support from the IHP community, I felt so much better, I could think clearly. I was thinking that because I had the support here, so I can do this.”

Among the most supportive was Associate Professor Rita Olans, Simonova’s advisor and scholarly project mentor. “Olesya is quite a remarkable student,” said Dr. Olans. “She has maintained a very high grade-point average while in a very competitive Family track. I have had opportunity to watch her grow into a remarkable 'soon-to-graduate' NP student."  

A Decision to Make a Move

A week after the invasion, Simonova decided it was time to get her daughter out, going against the wishes of her parents, who were only receiving state-approved information. “They believe the Russian propaganda,” said Simonova. “It was the first time I couldn’t talk with my parents as their understanding of what was happening in Ukraine was vastly different from mine.”

The question became how to get Eva out, and who would go? Simonova and her ex-husband, Yevgeniy Agureyev, who is from St. Petersburg, decided it was best for him to get their daughter because as a Russian, entering his native country would attract less attention.  “If I were to go into Russia with a Ukrainian passport, who knows how the Russians would react?” said Simonova. “A lot of Ukrainian and Russian flights were canceled, planes in the sky were being turned away, every day was changing.”

Some of Simonova’s IHP classmates, who are working with refugees from Afghanistan and Iran, recommended choosing small airports and small cities from where Yevgeniy could cross the border rather than flying into Moscow, where security was tight. Eva’s father began the daring journey, taking a combination of planes, trains, buses, hitchhiking, and taxis and crossed into Crimea from the country of Georgia. He picked up his daughter from Simonova’s parents, then crossed the border via taxi. After waiting out a snowstorm at an airport for two days, it was a flight to Armenia, then Qatar, and finally to Boston’s Logan Airport. The journey to get Eva home took ten days. 

“I thought as soon as I saw my daughter, I’d feel relief,” said Simonova. “I saw her, gave her a big hug, and was very happy to see her but there was no relief. There is no happiness in my heart because it’s my country. I still can’t get into my head that it’s a real war. Entire cities have been wiped out.”

Simonova’s daughter, who is now at the same school as her brother in a Boston suburb where the family lives, doesn’t appear to be suffering from any psychological trauma, despite seeing significant military movement near her grandparents’ home along the Black Sea. Meanwhile, Simonova has one eye on graduating in May with the hopes of landing a job as a nurse practitioner in primary care, and another on her home country. 

“I just want everyone to be safe, I want there to be peace. That’s all I’m thinking right now.”

More than a month into the fighting, Simonova worries about her parents, brother, sister, and cousins, some of whom remain in Kyiv. She regularly keeps in touch with Ukrainian classmates via social media; some of her girlfriends have become refugees in other countries while their husbands chose to stay behind and fight. “They say ‘This is our land. We’re protecting our land. We’re going to fight until the end.’ They’re going to fight until the very last drop of blood.”

While her friends fight the war overseas, Simonova is helping here at home by packing boxes of medical supplies and military clothing that are being sent to Ukraine. “It makes me feel good that so many people are trying to help,” she says. “We’re appreciative of all that the United States and Europe are doing in sending as much as aid as they are.” 

But is it enough? Can the world be doing more? For Simonova – who has American and Ukrainian citizenship - it’s complicated. 

“We’re all worried about World War III,” she said. “I think I know why Europe is afraid and even though it’s far away, the United States are afraid too because nobody knows what Putin is going to do next? If he is talking about nuclear weapons, then what’s going to hold him back?" 

“I think everyone is doing more than enough,” she continued. “I know Ukraine wants to establish a no-fly zone but I see why it’s quite risky for other countries. At the same time, they shouldn’t let these things happen. If Russia wins this, I can’t imagine what will happen. We shouldn’t be letting this happen. How can Putin get away with this?”