Oleg Grabovyy, 28, left his home in Syracuse in April of 2022 to volunteer on the front lines in Ukraine. | Photo courtesy of Oleg Grabovyy.

Reflecting on One Year of War

Oleg's story is part of the "Reflecting on One Year of War" series, created by Central Current to offer a space to document and elevate the many Ukrainian voices of our local community. If you or someone you know would like to be part of the series, email Sarah Dolgin at newsroom@centralcurrent.org.

The first time Oleg Grabovyy, 28, heard an air raid siren in Kyiv, Ukraine, was the first time he recognized how normalized life during the war has become for Ukrainian civilians.

In panic, he approached a woman walking nearby and asked where the nearest shelter was: where was she going to take cover?

She nonchalantly told him she was going to go to work, he recounted with a chuckle nearly one year later back in the states. 

Feb. 24 marked a year since Russia declared war on Ukraine. For ten months, Grabovyy left his home in Syracuse to help defend his native country. He spent time interpreting, training brigades of soldiers and delivering humanitarian aid. Back at home, he’s working and planning his return – this time, he hopes, as a soldier in the Ukrainian military.

Grabovyy plans to stay in the U.S. for no longer than a month and a half. His goal is to share his experience with different communities within Central New York and work to support his return to Ukraine. 

He hopes to raise money to buy training aid, vehicles and other resources. 

While Grabovyy was in Ukraine, his immediate family worked alongside the community at St. John the Baptist in Tipperary Hill to send him supplies such as medicine and diapers. His stay was sponsored through personal donations to his social media page and donations to his family’s organization Forever with Ukraine

Grabovyy’s younger brother Uriy, a junior at the University of Buffalo, returned home from school whenever he could to help his family gather, package and send supplies by air to western Ukraine, where their extended family lives. Uriy said he is proud of the impact his brother has made, but was initially very concerned with his decision to go.

“We tried to convince him otherwise. Countless times, I can’t even remember how many times I called him telling him that he didn’t need to go and he can help from America,” Uriy said. 

Uriy would factor the seven-hour time difference into his daily schedule, calling Oleg in the middle of his class day, when it would be nighttime in Ukraine. He was able to reach him often, but there were a few weeks where he did not get a response. Uriy would scour Instagram and Facebook to see if his brother had recently been active on social media, assuming the worst if he did not see the little green “active” dot under Oleg’s profile. 

“I was constantly checking, and it was always a question of whether my brother was alive or not,” Uriy said. 

Oleg Grabovyy and fellow soldiers geared up for medical emergencies on the front lines, learning how to help those injured in the field. | Photo courtesy of Oleg Grabovyy.

Returning home 

Grabovyy was born in Ukraine and moved to Central New York when he was 6 years old. When Russia invaded Ukraine seeking control of Kyiv, he thought of his family members, including his grandparents and cousins who remained there. His demeanor changed, Uriy said, and Oleg began to spend his time physically training and studying up on Russian military strategies. 

In April 2022, Oleg Grabovyy caught a flight to Ukraine, not knowing he would overstay his three-month Visa by seven months.

When he arrived in Ukraine roughly two months after the Battle of Kyiv, he was mesmerized by how quickly Ukrainians had adapted to ever-present air raid sirens. While nightlife no longer exists and recreation remains minimal, Grabovyy said by April and May people were resuming their jobs and venturing out for post-work food and drinks when possible amidst the curfews and impending risk of Russian air strikes. 

As Grabovyy traveled across Ukraine, he documented the remains of buildings subject to Russian air strikes. | Photo courtesy of Oleg Grabovyy.

One day, more recently, when Grabovyy was staying in a small eastern town near the front line, a long-range rocket hit the town’s market, killing many and leaving survivors injured. The following week, he saw the market reopen to accommodate the town’s produce needs. 

“People are staying busy because that’s how they’ve survived, and that’s how they have to continue to survive,” he said. 

Many of the civilians who remain in frontline towns do not have the means to leave the homes they’ve lived in for their whole lives, he said, and have to work despite the conditions to maintain their income. 

Change of plans 

Originally, Grabovyy went back to Ukraine to fight in the Ukrainian military, but was not accepted. He quickly pivoted and established a volunteer organization with his family, delivering military uniforms and aid for people in the field. In ten months, the organization delivered millions of dollars worth of aid for both refugees and the military, Grabovyy said. 

Grabovyy also spent the beginning of his time volunteering in Ukraine as an interpreter for the Trident Defense Initiative, a private company that specializes in training soldiers in tactics and tactical medicine. As a military interpreter, Grabovyy facilitated translation and contextualized communication between Ukrainian and English. 

At the start of the war, he spent nearly four months with soldiers in Sarny and Rybnyk, two cities in western Ukraine. During this time he worked as an interpreter for military instructors, some affiliated with NATO, special forces and other convoy commanders.

After interpreting and translating between his military peers and their trainees, Grabovyy was able to develop military skills and medical knowledge that would enable him to take on a role training soldiers from different battalions for his last six months in Ukraine.

He learned to stay low to the ground during airstrikes, to travel with tourniquets and a first aid kit, and to wear protective plates and a square helmet.

After his time spent in the west, Grabovyy worked to prepare Ukrainian soldiers in northern Ukraine for a potential Russian invasion through Belarus. Without access to blanks used to familiarize soldiers with guns, Grabovyy said he and the soldiers were forced to simulate ambushes by making shooting sounds.

From there, he went to eastern Ukraine and delivered aid to various regions across the country — from a recently liberated area of the Kharkiv region in the northeast, close to the Russian border, to the Kherson region in southern Ukraine that had been under Russian occupation for nine months prior to its liberation. 

Strangers to family 

Despite the reality that their belongings and utilities had been ravished, Grabovyy was met with unwavering kindness from the strangers he met along the way. 

Grabovyy trained for a few weeks in the Kyiv region when he was still interpreting at the beginning of his stay. He and his fellow volunteers rented a house next door to a sweet elderly woman who lived alone. 

When she found out that foreign volunteers had moved in, she brought a feast of homemade food and baked goods for each night that they were there. By the time they had to say goodbye, the men referred to her as “Grandma.” Grabovyy said he will remember her for the rest of his life. 

On his way to make a delivery in the Kherson region in December 2022, the rusted underside of the car Grabovyy was driving caused the trailer behind to fall off. The car broke down and was pulled into a pontoon bridge.

For a few days, an older couple and their son took in Grabovyy. Russian occupation in Kherson lasted until November, and the family detailed the way Russian soldiers had stolen cars and valuables from Ukrainian homes, making it impossible for residents to leave. 

Without heat, elderly Ukrainians, including the couple he stayed with, had to wear two or three winter coats inside their homes to keep warm. 

Russian occupation also led to poor quality food items that were tasteless in comparison to the Ukrainian food Grabovyy was used to: The Kherson family shared Russian cookies they had purchased during occupation, and Grabovyy compared them to cardboard. 

Once his car was sturdy enough to begin the journey back from his delivery in Kherson, Grabovyy was on the road again. 

A volunteer and local welder Grabovyy knew found out he was having difficulties with the old car and offered Grabovyy a place to stay with his family while they worked to repair it. 

On his way to the welder’s home, Grabovyy was caught in traffic due to a military vehicle hitting a landmine. Late into the night, when he finally arrived at the house, he was met with a full meal, liquor, homemade moonshine and a hot shower. 

In the middle of the shower, the house lost power.

That’s a frequent occurrence in Ukraine nowadays due to the war’s impact on the country’s electrical grid. Instead of telling him to come out of the shower, the welder ran outside to turn on the family’s generator so that Grabovyy could enjoy a hot shower after four days without access to one.

When he awoke late the next day, his car was fixed (free of charge) and he was on his way. 

Civilians to soldiers 

Throughout months of training soldiers, Grabovyy watched civilian Ukrainian fathers, factory and construction workers transform into squad commanders. While some took naturally to the military lifestyle, others had a harder time finding their place. 

Soldiers did not have access to blanks when learning to use weapons, and were forced to simulate ambushes by making shooting sounds. | Photo courtesy of Oleg Grabovyy.

Toward the end of his stay, Grabovyy was asked to train a frontline unit in the east. Located in the city of Kurakhove, Grabovyy and his unit were near Vuhledar and Mar’inka, locations both under heavy duress. 

When working with the 72nd brigade in these areas, the soldiers were subject to frequent artillery shells, cluster munitions and multiple launch rocket systems. 

“The first couple of times you want to wet your pants, but after a while you realize that it’s just part of life.”

As Grabovyy and the men in his unit trained under frontline conditions, they grew close with one another. 

Grabovyy took a liking to a man he and the others referred to as “Joker,” who had worked in construction his entire life. When the war broke out, he volunteered in territorial defense, and eventually, for the Ukrainian military. 

Joker was insistent on defending his country despite his lack of experience, but struggled to keep up with the training, Grabovyy said. He would volunteer to do every training task first, and turned the grim reality of frontline warfare into lighthearted humor and positivity that boosted morale. He soon volunteered to become the platoon’s machine gunner and found the right role for himself. 

“Anybody that volunteers to carry around a machine gun is typically pretty openhearted,” Grabovyy said. “That thing is heavy.”

A change in his tone, Grabovyy recounted the many men he trained with who have since passed away.

He wants to speak to their memories, but not yet. 

He isn’t comfortable sharing names or details about their lives without knowing how their families would feel. In Ukraine, Grabovyy was able to communicate with the friends he made via Signal group chat. But now, without access to the account linked to his Ukrainian phone number, he is no longer able to text his friends. 

 “I can’t get back into my account and get back into all those group chats and see how everybody’s doing,” he said. “It’s been killing me.”

He switched to WhatsApp and searched Instagram to try and find their accounts, anxiously awaiting responses to messages asking if his friends in Ukraine are OK.

He wonders if they will be alive when he returns in the spring. 

Oleg Grabovyy’s story is part of the “Reflecting on One Year of War” series, created by Central Current to offer a space to document and elevate the many Ukrainian voices of our local community. If you or someone you know would like to be part of the series, email Sarah Dolgin at newsroom@centralcurrent.org.

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Sarah Dolgin is a graduating senior at Syracuse University studying digital journalism and data analytics. Sarah enjoys covering arts and culture, equity and more. Have a tip? Contact Sarah at newsroom@centralcurrent.org.