Nebraskans reflect on support for Ukraine one year after Russian invasion

Efforts since Feb. 24, 2022, have included lending support in Warsaw, Ukraine and across the state

By: - February 24, 2023 5:45 am
People gather outside the Nebraska State Capitol's south entrance holding two Ukrainian flags in support of the country

Ukrainians from across Nebraska join with State Sen. Tom Brewer (holding the flag on the right) outside the Nebraska State Capitol in support of LB 199 on Feb. 14, 2023. To Brewer’s left is Noah Philson of Elmwood, who helped Brewer in his travels to Ukraine in 2022. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

LINCOLN — Nurse Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos-Nolan watches a live feed on a Telegram channel of a Ukrainian soldier trudging along in the snow and later sleeping in a place that isn’t heated.

It’s a sight different from the refugees she saw in person at a camp in Warsaw during the past year, where she provided aid and support to Ukrainians who had fled their country.

“I see their faces as I go to sleep at night and pray they are safe, along with their mothers and fathers, uncles and grandfathers who were left behind in Ukraine,” DeRoos-Nolan said. 

A nurse, a decorated military veteran and state senator and everyday Nebraskans from Elmwood to Chadron are among those who offered a hand to Ukraine and its people in the year after Russia — a country about 28 times Ukraine’s size — invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.

Adjusting to a new ‘normal’

The Kharkiv National University is damaged during an attack on the city while Noah Philson and State Sen. Tom Brewer are touring the area. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

Noah Philson of Elmwood, who was in Ukraine on the day Russia invaded, said Americans’ response to Ukraine has been similar to that of community members coming together with help and support after someone has had a house fire.

“It may not seem like it’s doing a lot, and you may think that it’s not important, but it makes a big difference,” Philson said.

Philson said he had gone to Ukraine multiple times before 2022. He has, for example, spent the beginning of the year there for the past six years.

Previously, Philson had helped with English Bible camps and stayed longer last year to try to get a ministry started. He had time to leave the country before Russia’s invasion, but instead he stayed and offered aid to people in need across Poland, Germany, Romania and Ukraine.

“I did a lot of, like, driving to the border to pick up Ukrainians and things like that,” Philson said.

The Elmwood native also did a humanitarian run last June, circling between Uzhgorod in the southwest to Irpin in the northwest, near Kyiv, and back to Uzhgorod.

Rocket attacks at the beginning of the war were a constant threat and worry, Philson explained, but soon, when the air defense alarms went off, it became “normal.”

“The way I think of things is kind of messed up now because just rocket attacks and air alarms and things like that, it just happens,” he added. “It doesn’t bother me.”

State Sen. Tom Brewer, at left, observes a mass gravesite in Izyum, Ukraine. (Courtesy of Noah Philson)

Later on, Philson showed State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon around the country’s destruction. The pair had at least three brushes with death during their travels.

Brewer has previously described how a missile landed only a few yards from his group while leaving Zaporizhzhia, but it, fortunately, turned out to be a dud.

Given how Ukrainians are suffering, Philson said, U.S. support is necessary.

“There are Ukrainians all around the world, even here locally, that are struggling with laws and getting support,” Philson said.

‘An advocate when we are vulnerable’

Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos-Nolan gets her hair styled by Viktoria, a Ukrainian refugee, at a refugee camp in Warsaw, Poland. (Courtesy of Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos-Nolan)

Nurse DeRoos-Nolan volunteered with Operation Safe Harbor Ukraine, a nonprofit created by former Husker and Executive Travel CEO Steve Glenn. She said her experience in Poland “profoundly changed” her life.

In addition to providing a greater appreciation for common human needs — love, food, security, connection — DeRoos-Nolan said she is in the process of sponsoring a 26-year-old refugee who is now seeking asylum in Dublin.

“I always look at life when the doors open for us to walk through that we check out as much as we can, to be open to what’s available for us to help our fellow man,” she said. “And I think that happens every day in our own lives.”

DeRoos-Nolan shared multiple stories of her time in Warsaw. A couple of days into her stay in Poland, she said, a mother and her young son knocked at her hotel door at 3 in the morning.

The boy had a fever and an earache, and DeRoos-Nolan said she suspected he had an ear infection and bronchitis. 

But when she and the family got to the nearby clinic, there was a hiccup in care because the family’s paperwork didn’t indicate they had crossed the border from Ukraine.

Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos-Nolan hugs 13-year-old Ukrainian refugee Maya in the community room of a refugee camp in Warsaw. (Courtesy of Kathleen “Nene” DeRoos-Nolan)

They were right there and had clearly crossed the border, DeRoos-Nolan said, and she pushed the medical team until the mother and son could be treated.

“I think we all need an advocate when we are vulnerable,” DeRoos-Nolan said.

Her main wish is that more Ukrainian people could find refuge.

“That cheesy phrase we have, ‘Nebraska, the good life,’ is true, and we need to share that as much as we can with as many Ukrainian people as we can to get them over here,” DeRoos-Nolan said.

‘America is with you’

Brewer, a veteran, traveled twice to Ukraine last year, the first time over the summer and the second between October and November.

The retired Army colonel and two-time Purple Heart recipient from six deployments traveled to every major city in Ukraine and journeyed to the front lines of the war. 

In visits there and across the country, he supported Ukrainian soldiers, checked in on humanitarian aid and provided portable cookstoves and electronic Bibles.

The Republican state lawmaker, who often is at odds with President Joe Biden, praised the commander-in-chief for going to Ukraine this week.

“From the feedback I’m getting from the commanders in the front lines, that was the biggest morale booster they could have ever had, because it was the physical presence of the president that said, ‘America is with you and I believe in what you’re doing enough to come here in person,’” Brewer said.

Brewer said he hopes Biden can persuade NATO to offer more support as the war “could easily bleed into their backyard,” especially with what could be a major Russian offensive in line with the anniversary of the war.

“I think they should be counting their blessings that it is Ukrainian soldiers dying to draw a line for democracy,” he said.

State Sen. Tom Brewer observes the destruction of the Siverskyi Donets River bridge in Izyum, Ukraine. (Courtesy of State Sen. Tom Brewer)

Brewer and Philson both noted Ukraine, an agricultural “breadbasket,” is similar to Nebraska. The state could provide grain bins, seeds, tractors, combines, wagons and much more, Brewer said, when — not if, he stressed — the country is victorious.

“If we can have a liaison into the Ukrainian government somehow so that when the time comes that the war is over, and these assets are going to be needed, that we can respond to that,” Brewer said.

He plans to return to Ukraine after Nebraska’s legislative session ends in June, he said, whether or not the war is still going on. 

“There’s a mission over there that is, you know, a unique area I can help that maybe just the regular Joe couldn’t,” he said.

Starting a new life in Chadron

Ann Buchman and Roger Wess, both of Chadron (which is in Brewer’s legislative district), have conducted their outreach at home, providing direct support to Ukrainian refugees in their community.

Wess said the community has “really stepped up” in terms of financial, housing and other needs. He is hosting one Ukrainian family and the community is expecting to help a second family that will travel from eastern Ukraine.

Buchman, who is a professor of biology at Chadron State College, has taken over some of the refugee coordination in Chadron, but she notes it’s a communal effort.

About 60 people in the community have expressed interest in helping, she said.

It has been a “rewarding experience” opening Chadron’s doors for support, Buchman said, adding that it hasn’t come without frustrations.

Chadron’s remote location in northwest Nebraska provides some difficulty in contacting customs and immigration officials, and for the Ukrainian family, it’s a difficult process to learn English, find jobs or get their documents processed.

“All that’s a little harder out here, which I think makes it difficult for us as a rural community to think about immigration as a way to try to grow our community and become more vibrant because the social services out here are not nearly as developed as they are in other places,” Buchman said.

But through it all, Buchman emphasized, those who are leaving Ukraine are “very brave,” as many are coming to other countries with no possessions.

“To be able to start over again is an incredibly complex and difficult thing to do,” she said. “So I think we appreciate having the opportunity to welcome them into our community.”

‘Beacon in Europe’

While Ukraine has faced government corruption in the past, often because of Russian influence, Philson said, he believes that its people have become more patriotic and that they have moved away from dependence on Russia.

“I have always said that Ukraine is a great country, and it’s going to become even better,” Philson said. “I can see Ukraine becoming something like America is in Europe — just a beacon in Europe.”


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.