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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Escape From Ukraine: How A Wicker Park Woman Is Helping Her Family And Others Get Out

Jackie Birov, a first-generation Ukrainian American and Wicker Park resident, has helped people flee Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. She's also raising money for body armor for Ukrainians.

Jackie Birov (left) greets her uncle, Mark Shoykhet (right), and aunt, Ada Shoykhet (center).
Leigh Giangreco/Block Club Chicago
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O’HARE AIRPORT — Jackie Birov spent the past week evacuating her aunt and uncle from Ukraine to Chicago — and she had a gift for them as they arrived Wednesday night at O’Hare Airport.

Something was clinking in Birov’s tote bag as she paced Terminal 5 at O’Hare, her cellphone in one hand a bouquet of lilies and roses in the other.

“I brought Smirnoff. It said ‘Made in America,’” Birov said. “My mom says, ‘They’re barely alive; they don’t want to drink vodka.’”

Birov, a 32-year-old first-generational Ukrainian American, was bubbling over with anxiety as she waited to greet her relatives, Mark and Ada Shoykhet, 83 and 81. The two had made an arduous journey from Kyiv to Chicago, part of the 2 million Ukrainians who have fled their homeland in the wake of the Russian invasion.

Birov, of Wicker Park, helped them — and others. Her efforts involved sleepless nights, nearly a dozen group chats over Signal and countless stressful phone calls to her family and volunteer organizations as they tried to coordinate buses, trains and housing for the Shoykhets. She has now successfully evacuated her aunt and uncle, and at least four others from Ukraine over the past week.

Credit: Leigh Giangreco/Block Club Chicago
Mark Shoykhet holds a bouquet his niece, Jackie Birov, gave him. Birov helped Shoykhet escape from Ukraine.

Birov has also raised thousands for body armor for Ukrainians.

Despite that work, Birov felt dispirited as she thought about the toll the war has taken in such a short time.

“The overwhelming feeling is helplessness because it looks to people like I’m doing all this stuff, but what can we really do?” she said. “Talking to these strangers on the phone when I was making these calls trying to get info for my family … I felt like it was like talking to somebody on the Titanic as it’s about to sink.

“They see that no one from the international community is actually coming to save them, and that’s really hard to watch.”

Birov’s family planned to stay in Ukraine. They thought they would be safer in their dacha, a country house, in Vasylkiv, a city just southwest of Kyiv. But the small town, which is also home to a strategic military airfield, came under assault from Russian forces.

Birov received a phone call late Friday night: Her family’s tone had taken on a sense of urgency, she said. They asked Birov when she could get someone to pick them up.

“They didn’t believe that this would really happen, and then they understood that they had to leave,” Birov said. “They were in a bomb shelter all the time, and a bomb fell in a residential building half a kilometer from them.”

Birov reached out to friends on Instagram, asking for credible information on the best way to evacuate. She scoured Facebook and messaged volunteer organizations until a woman connected her with workers in a group chat.

Credit: Leigh Giangreco/Block Club Chicago
Jackie Birov (left) greets her aunt, Ada Shoykhet. Birov helped Shoykhet escape from Ukraine.

For the Shoykhets, who are Jewish and lost family during World War II, even giving their passport information to a non-government organization brought back deep-seated trauma.

“We didn’t even know how to spell their names properly,” said Birov, who had only known her aunt and uncle by their nicknames. “I have these funny screenshots of them trying to hold their passports. Then they’re reading it to me letter by letter, trying to spell it. In a way, it was funny, but it was also really emotional because I could also see they initially didn’t want to leave.”

Birov connected directly with an organization and was able to get her aunt and uncle onto a bus to the Polish border. When Ada Shoykhet called her niece, she described a scene of total devastation, with children crying as they stood waiting for hours in freezing temperatures, Birov said.

After crossing the border into Poland, the couple took a taxi to Warsaw, where Birov’s friend in Mexico City, Magdalena Jensen, had arranged for them to stay at their family home.

Jensen told Block Club her parents live in the U.S. but keep an apartment in Warsaw; her mother is Polish. Jensen said the Shoykhets were among several Ukrainians fleeing violence who have stayed the apartment. Jensen’s aunt in Warsaw was able to meet Birov’s relatives to help them settle in.

“With the state of the world as it is, I feel so compelled to support with the resources I have to offer,” Jensen said. “I am touched to be able to offer some cozy comfort as a soft landing after the harrowing journey out of a war zone. My friends in Poland are doing incredible things to support the Ukrainians fleeing. Everyone there feels the urgency of this situation. …”

With the Shoykhets safely in Poland and ready to fly to the United States, Birov finally slept — though just for five hours — for the first time in days.

But Birov hesitates to take a break: She rested after helping another couple and their dog evacuate Ukraine, only to wake up to find they’d been connected with someone who only spoke English.

“It’s hard to feel like you can rest when there’s around-the-clock stuff to do,” she said.

Birov is trying to help in other ways. She’s been volunteering at Meest, a package delivery company in Chicago that services Ukraine; she sorts and packs donations.

Birov also went with a friend to buy tourniquets and body armor at a local store, but she was disappointed with the limited selection of armor. Instead, she decided to raise money for military supplies and body armor that Meest could deliver to people in need. She posted a fundraising request with her Venmo handle on her Instagram. In just a few hours, people donated $1,000; by this week, they’d given more than $6,400. 

A representative for the company said the Chicago-based operation has not yet secured the license to send body armor and other equipment to Ukraine, but organizers are still trying to raise money for the shipping costs while they work on getting clearance to send the supplies. 

“That’s what people told me is needed,” Birov said. “Money is pouring in there now, but they can’t locate this armor, even in neighboring countries … .”

Birov was among a handful of people waiting in the terminal to greet family members from Ukraine. Children wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags, women carried purses garnished with blue and yellow ribbons and a man waited for his wife with a bouquet of sunflowers.

“What a welcome!” her uncle said to Birov as she embraced him.

Ada Shoykhet choked up when Birov asked her how she felt.

“They feel more regret that they had to leave to begin with, that this lunatic would force them out of their homes, and she feels for her friends and people who are still there,” Birov translated for Ada Shoykhet. “But she says that Ukraine will win.”

Ada Shoykhet is a U.S. citizen while her husband holds a green card. After their trip, they were glad to arrive safely in their second home, they said.

“It’s a great country,” Ada Shoykhet said in English.

Mark Shoykhet skipped a shot of Birov’s vodka. He had already prepared for his arrival in the American fashion, they said.

“He drank whiskey on the plane,” Birov said.

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