AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As Maria Melnichenko chanted demands for peace, her voice echoed across the grounds of the Texas Capitol, but her heart was back home.
“The first month of the war, I was living in the basement. It was horrible,” she remembered. “It was very difficult to live in the basement, to hear missiles. It was really, really scary.”
A TV journalist turned refugee, Maria is one of the millions who Russia forced from her family at just 25 years old. She worried this morning that the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion may put her family at risk of more attacks.
“It was difficult to leave my job, to leave my previous life. I still have my grandparents, my parents, my friends, they’re still in Ukraine. So like, the whole life is still in Ukraine.”
Maria sought safety in Poland, then Spain, and then from her aunt in Austin six months ago. She benefits from the United States’ “Uniting with Ukraine” resident program, which allows Ukrainians with close family members in the US to stay with them for a two-year probationary period. She’ll have to wait for at least two years to reunite with her family back home.
Darya Ledesma woke up in fear Friday morning.
“I have my mom in Ukraine, I have my sister, my niece. I have my aunts and uncles. And today I woke up very scared. I woke up and I saw that there were no bombings today. So it was a big relief in the morning. I didn’t know what I would see on my phone.”
Darya led the rally of dozens of people draped in Ukrainian flags, many of them who used to call Ukraine home before Russian tanks rolled across their sovereign border 365 days ago.
“What is worse than losing freedom?” she chanted to passing cars above a sinister soundtrack of air raid sirens. “Fighter jets for Ukraine,” another chant demanded.
The crowd said they are grateful for the support the United States has provided so far, but they believe the U.S. can and should do more.
“This is an investment,” Darya said. “Help for Ukraine is an investment in our peace, in our world security, and the security of all countries: that they won’t have to go into war.”