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‘My heart is broken’

Forest Hills grad has family, friends in Ukraine, Russia

Grand Rapids—To say that the Russian military invasion of Ukraine has weighed on Elena Belaya’s mind is an understatement. She has family members and friends in both countries.

“I don’t sleep anymore,” she said. “Every night I tuck my kids into bed I think about my friends’ kids, and where they are tucking them into bed.”

Belaya and her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1996, when she was in second grade. Her mother’s parents followed a couple years later.

A 2007 Forest Hills Eastern High graduate, she and her husband, Brad Wiley, have two children; one is a student at Grand Rapids Public Schools and the other is at Forest Hills.

Her sister fled Kyiv and is now just outside Zhytomyr, which has seen bombing of civilian areas. One aunt and her two children are in Kherson, now under Russian occupation. A third is just outside Kyiv. Another aunt lives in Russia. Belaya’s childhood best friend evacuated with her children to Germany. Other friends have made the trek to Poland. 

She’s in constant contact with most. They send updates and videos: of a passing Russian military convoy, or their helicopters circling homes.

“I lost contact once for about 48 hours, which drove me absolutely insane with worry,” she said. When she finally heard from a friend who had made it to Poland, she learned “it took them two days to make a trip that normally would have taken eight hours.”

Elena Belaya’s March 1 letter to national, state and local lawmakers

To begin, the fact that I have to write this letter is enough justification for the plea it holds. As a Ukrainian immigrant, I write on behalf of my family and friends that are still there. As an American citizen, I write on behalf of the freedom, power, and privilege that this country has to offer. As a human, I write on behalf of all people, in every land and every skin color, for our government to take action against Vladimir Putin and his aggression against democracy. I beg our leaders, whom we democratically elected, to show us, their constituents, that their promises of liberty is a right of all humans, a right that exists without conditions of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. The difference between today and 1939, is that we can all watch the injustice and murder happen live on our screens. It is not knowledge that we lack. If we stand and watch we are no more than an accomplice to the crime. I beg you now, please come together, plead with your colleagues, make the right decision to provide impactful aid to Ukraine in the form of defense. As you, the administrative employee in the government office who is reading this letter, I speak to you; what can you do with these words? Who can you turn to, to start the butterfly effect? You have power, you have will, how will you use it? We live in the systems that we create, and the artist too has will over his strokes. Let us, together, paint our tapestry with freedom to live as one people in love. 

(Belaya said she received a form letter response from the White House, and showed one from Congressman Peter Meijer’s office that was a form letter about manufacturing, not Ukraine.)

Hearing the story of their non-stop journey through sometimes four lanes of one-way traffic, bombed-out roads and bridges, Russian convoys and multiple checkpoints, she said, “it is miraculous that they made it.”

Helping However She Can

The South Ukraine town Belaya is from, Nova Kakhovka, is home to a key water source that was immediately seized by the Russian military.

‘I believe in good. Even with what I am seeing (and) knowing that humans are behind it… I still really believe we’re better than this.’

– Elena Belaya

She is using her social media contacts to directly connect those inside Eastern European countries with specific needs with those who can help. She and her husband just launched a website to connect donors with agencies working inside Ukraine to aid evacuations and bring medicine, non-perishable food and other necessities into towns like hers.

“It might be that aid is getting to some of the cities, but these villages are cut off, and I don’t know anyone else right now who is from the south – so I have this drive and passion to try and do something for them,” she said. “The obstacle we’re running into is that the roads are super unpredictable and changing every day, every minute, every hour. You never know where a bomb is going to land or where a blockade is going to be.”

Elena Belaya sewed the Ukrainian flag outside her house on a friend’s child’s sewing machine, the first time she had ever sewn. Signs read Ще не вмерла України і слава, і воля, or ‘Ukraine has not yet perished, nor freedom, nor will’

Making It Her Life’s Work

Belaya, a 2011 University of Michigan graduate, currently is working on a master’s degree in counseling from Western Michigan University. Her plan, ironically, has been to work with refugees.

“I believe my connection to the experience of immigration is very strong, and I don’t care where anyone is from; it holds a lot of the same emotions, the same experiences.”

And for Belaya, right now, focusing on the work of helping is helping her, while her own emotions are fragile.

“My heart is broken,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “This is so painful … the worst thing that I have seen. 

“Luckily, the people that I know and love are physically OK, for the time being, but that is so not the story for so many others and even people I know in Grand Rapids who have loved ones in the east, where it is just rubble now. And I can’t imagine that. And literally nobody there is really OK right now.”

Where is she finding hope?

“I have to believe in good,” Belaya said. “Even with what I am seeing: maternity hospitals bombed, children dying, knowing that humans are behind it and how many believe the propaganda, I still really believe we’re better than this.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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