Valeria Schweiger has lived in the United States for 25 years, but she still dreams about her hometown of Mykolaiv, Ukraine.
“I walk the streets. I go to stores. I still sometimes go to school,” she says. “And even though my dreams are in English — weird, right? — I still hear the Russian language, because that’s what I was speaking for most of my years growing up there.”
Schweiger was born in what was then the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain fell when she was 13, and her home country of Ukraine declared its independence two years later while she was in high school. Schweiger came to the United States with her then-husband in the late nineties, getting by with a pocket English dictionary in the Boston metro for a few years before moving to Westminster, Colorado in 2004 — the same year she became a citizen.
“I hated it at first, because I really got spoiled by living next to the ocean,” she says of adapting to her new home on the Front Range. “I lived in my country close to the Black Sea. I like the feeling of being able to go to the beach if you want. It was kind of weird in Colorado, surrounded by mountains and manmade lakes.”
Schweiger moved to Boulder in 2011, where she helped build a home for herself and her family with Habitat for Humanity Colorado. Today she lives in Longmont and works as a patient care associate at Boulder Community Health. After more than a decade, she has adjusted to the life she’s made for herself in the landlocked Centennial State.
But life here hasn’t been without its tragedies. Schweiger is estranged from her 24-year-old son who suffers from substance abuse — and, like other Boulder County residents, she’s working through the compounding trauma of last year’s King Soopers shooting, which killed 10 people including one of her co-workers, and the Marshall Fire disaster that destroyed more than 1,000 homes on Dec. 30.
Then, a little over two weeks ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Like much of the rest of the world, Schweiger watched in horror as the death toll mounted amid the violence. What once seemed impossible suddenly became a grim reality, as her hometown of Mykolaiv — located near the strategic southern sea port of Odessa — became the target of heavy shelling from Russian forces.
Now Schweiger is processing the death and destruction unfolding in her homeland from more than 5,000 miles away, and wondering what will be left when the smoke finally clears.
“I have a three-year-old, and my hope was always to take him to see where I grew up — now I can’t do that, because it’s all ruins,” she said. “Those places are gone, destroyed, bombed. Ukraine will never be the same. … I can’t show him which school I went to, which hospital I was born at, or the playgrounds where I went to play. They’re all distant memories now.”
‘I don’t know if my heart will stop in my sleep.’
Schweiger no longer has immediate family in Ukraine. Her father passed away in 2007, and her mother and brother eventually joined her in the U.S. But her sister-in-law, who moved to the states last Halloween after marrying Schweiger’s younger sibling, has family who fled the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv amid the violence.
“My sister-in-law missed the war by a couple months. If she had stayed there after she got her visa — they give you six months to move — she would be there right now with her family,” Schweiger says. “And my brother, who went to pick her up, would have been recruited to the army. I probably wouldn’t ever see him again.”
These nagging questions of What if? have been weighing heavy on Schweiger’s heart the last two weeks. It’s a thought pattern many Boulder County residents will recognize.
“It could have been me who went to King Soopers that day, you know? It could have been my house that burned,” she says. “With Ukraine, it could have been my hospital that was bombed. It could have been my baby. It could have been me.”
But for Schweiger, the heart-rending violence being wrought upon her home isn’t theoretical. Those taking up arms, and those dying, are real people she once knew in another life.
“It’s my old classmates who are most likely fighting in the war. You can’t just let it go, because it’s real lives being taken away,” she says. “I relate to people who are losing their kids, their babies, their husbands — it’s just so horrifying. I go to bed and sometimes I have so much anxiety I don’t know if my heart will stop in my sleep.”
For now, Schweiger says all she can do is try to manage the grief, stress and fear as she hopes against hope for an end to the bloodshed.
“Hopefully it’s going to stop soon, but I don’t know. It’s been two weeks, and things are just getting worse,” she says. “I’m planning to go to see a doctor. I was on anxiety meds, and I stopped taking them because I thought yoga or meditation, or whatever, might be helpful. But there’s no yoga or meditation that’s going to erase this.”
Still, as war spreads across the country she loves, Schweiger says she’s caring for herself however she can.
“I take a lot of valerian root at night to sleep. I do a yoga class once a week, and I go to Gold’s Gym a couple times a week,” she says. “I go on hikes in Boulder when the weather’s nice. I eat a lot of ice cream if I want to. Whatever keeps me sane.”
Want to donate to help the people of Ukraine? Check out this list of support organizations from the Washington Post.