Saturday, December 2

‘I can help them’: one man’s journey from Portland to Ukraine’s frontlines | Portland

Sergey Korenev was running out of time.

I have watched his daughter Anna, 11, practice skateboarding in a park on a rainy Thursday night outside Portland, Oregon. His midnight flight from him will board in a few hours that will begin a long journey to the war in Ukraine. Sergey still has to pack, but he doesn’t hurry her.

Sergey, 44, has been bringing Anna here to the park for a month and each time she gets better. I have watched her roll down a small hill towards him. “Come on, come on, come on…” Sergey said in Russian, smiling at the progress she’s making.

Sergey’s eldest daughter Maria, 17, was standing next to him with her hoodie pulled up. She does n’t look at her phone from her, even when Anna walks back up the hill and it turns quiet between her and her father from her. Sergey’s mother is alone in her home de ella outside Kyiv, hiding from shelling. Sergey wants to go home to rescue her, take her to Poland and then stay and fight.

Since the start of the Russian build up Sergey has been fixed on news, worried. On the night of the invasion Valentina Korenev, his ex-wife of him, texted him. He had already made his decision: he was going back to Ukraine.

“I’ve been monitoring the situation since last fall, like everybody,” Sergey said through a translator, his brother Alex Korenev. “But when it became a total invasion, I felt like I needed to do something. I could not watch it from Afar.”

Sergey Korenev spends an hour skateboarding with his daughters before leaving for Ukraine. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Sergey Korenev uses a pocket knife to fix his daughter's skateboard.
Sergey Korenev uses a pocket knife to fix his daughter’s skateboard. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Sergey is one of about 66,000 Ukrainians returning home to help fight the Russian invasion following President Volodymyr’s Zelenskiy’s call for s Ukrainians abroad return to the homeland to fight the Russias. Korenev, whose family is Jewish, is one Ukrainian in the US answering the call.

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Later that Thursday night in his apartment in Vancouver, Washington, Sergey laid his gear on a sofa. Laptop, headphones, gloves, new boots he still has to break in, a bag of insulin for his type 2 diabetes. He’s trying to get familiar with where all the pockets are in his new military-style backpack from him.

He doesn’t carry much, but he takes care of what he does have. His Ukrainian passport isn’t bent or worn. Only the stamps inside it give away how much it’s seen. He folds a scarf of Dynamo Kyiv soccer club into his bag from him. He opens a pouch with keys to his mothers home in Kyiv, checking to see if they are still there. He zips up the pouch and places it in his bag on it.

“A lot of my friends are volunteers, in the territorial defense force. I can help them, because I know them, I told them I can bring what you need when you need it. So I’ve gotten a list of supplies of what they need,” he said.

Sergey sticks a small Ukrainian flag on the outside of the backpack. On a shelf obscured by a small television is a framed award, that he’s not packing, from the Ukrainian special forces recognizing him for his work with veterans.

Sergey Korenev talks on the phone with a Russian neighbor while his daughter Anna helps him prepare to leave for Ukraine.
Sergey Korenev talks on the phone with a Russian neighbor while his daughter Anna helps him prepare to leave for Ukraine. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

“He is a huge patriot of Ukraine,” said his brother Alex, who has lived in Vancouver, Washington, for 11 years. “He’s going there because he feels that he’s country is under assault and he wants to help his brothers in arms.” Alex said his brother from him felt the need to help in some way after he saw his friends from him killed in the Maiden revolution in 2013.

When fighting broke out in the eastern region of Donetsk in 2014, Sergey and Valentina, an interior designer, started a foundation to help those fighting. They lobbied companies to donate construction materials that they could use to fix apartments.

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If a father or a son was killed in action, leaving behind a family with a roof to replace and plumbing to fix, they would do it for free. If a veteran returned from the war without meaning and purpose, with just a hammer or a paint brush, Sergey and Valentina would find them one.

They even helped the nascent Ukrainian military, as at the time a special forces unit was relocated to a barracks with bare walls. “They made it livable with windows, doors, put floor in, paint it, and put some chairs and furniture,” said Alex.

But, by immigrating to the US, he and Valentina had been trying to give their daughters a shot at a better life, at more opportunity. “They wanted to try a better life, they have two young daughters and they thought it’s gonna be good for them to grow here and get good education,” said Alex. “They just won the lottery green card, if you win the lottery you use it.”

Sergey Korenev packs a pair of new combat boots before leaving for Ukraine.
Sergey Korenev packs a pair of new combat boots before leaving for Ukraine. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Sergey Korenev talks with his brother Alex Korenev.
Sergey Korenev talks with his brother Alex Korenev. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Sergey has been embracing life in America’s Pacific north-west. “He’s been exploring the craft beer landscape, he’s been buying something new every time, a couple of cans and making photos and archiving it all,” said Alex.

Sergey speaks Russian at home and is still learning English. He’s taken gig economy jobs that let him work while still learning the language, driving for Uber and Doordash. “Since he’s been doing DoorDash he’s been exposed to a lot of different cuisine. For example, he’s been taking Mediterranean stuff home, Chick-fil-A and a lot of pizza,” Alex said.

Korenev is leaving home tonight on a mission with three objectives. First he’s taking $9,000 in donations from the Ukrainian community in Oregon. He’s flying to New York on to pick up some more donations from friends in the Ukrainian community there. Then he’s flying to Warsaw, Poland, to cross the border over land. His second objective is to get to Kyiv as fast as possible to find his mother and get her to safety. He hopes to get her out of the country.

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His final objective is to help win a war. “I’m going there to help my friends, they are my brothers in arms,” Sergey said.

One of his final acts with his family was to drop off his Mercedes SUV at his ex-wife’s home and to say goodbye.

Valentina had a gift waiting for him: a new pair of boots. He was surprised. He tried them on and then went to his bag de ella and gave Maria the receipt for his other pair de ella, with instructions to return them and keep the money.

Sergey Korenev says goodbye to his daughter Anna before traveling to Ukraine.
Sergey Korenev says goodbye to his daughter Anna before traveling to Ukraine. Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

His ex-wife is scared for him but supports his decision. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” Valentina said. “I and our children are very worried, of course, but I agreed to help in any way I can. If I need to come, I will come to Ukraine. But for now, I can do more good from here.”

Near midnight, at Portland international airport, Sergey walks with his daughters and brother towards security. He takes out the dollars in his wallet and hands them to Anna to keep. He sets his bag down and picks Anna up, holding her in the air. A couple try to get past Sergey’s group and stop. One of them points to the Ukrainian flag sticking out of his bag from him, aware of what’s happening, and they both back away for a moment to watch Sergey say goodbye to his family from him.

Maria holds her younger sister, after their father has left, letting her cry in her arms.

When asked about how she feels about her dad leaving to join the war effort, Maria has a simple answer: “Scared? No, I’m proud.”

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