Alona Matchenko is a law student, a daughter and a sister. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 20, she’s taken on a new title.
“I felt like my DNA changed that day. I’m not an activist by nature,” Matchenko said of Feb. 20, the day Ukraine was attacked by Russia.
Matchenko led a March 3 rally at the University of Toledo where 380 people demonstrated. That day, her parents and siblings were being evacuated from their home near the Russian border.
Matchenko is building an organization to help Ukrainians, many of whom are now refugees.
Matchenko is a second-year law student.
“My family was able to successfully escape,” she said of her mother, stepfather and two younger siblings. “It was very stressful. They were shocked to have to leave everything they have.
Like many Ukrainians, they do not own a car.
“They were not able to drive themselves to the border, but some kind people, I consider as a God-miracle, took them,” Matchenko said. “They were just so paralyzed with fear. There are a lot of people over there facing those same feelings.”
She still has extended family in Ukraine, including aunts, cousins and her 80-year-old grandmother.
Her organization is called Toledo Helps Ukraine. Its goals are to raise awareness of the human toll that the war with Russia is taking, to raise funds and supplies for Ukrainian citizens and to ease immigration and asylum restrictions for Ukrainian refugees.
“There are many people in Ukraine border countries, like my family, whose lives are in limbo. The government is doing what it can, but those people don’t have jobs, money or anything. They don’t just have finances to just move with their children,” she said.
Matchenko addressed Perrysburg Council on March 1.
“My goal is to raise awareness and help in any way I can,” she said at the public meeting.
Councilman Tim McCarthy, an attorney with the Toledo law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, said Mayor Tom Mackin approached him about helping.
He helped facilitate the process of having Toledo Helps Ukraine to become set up a non-profit, 501C3 status organization. The firm is also advising Matchenko on corporate best practices.
“Money does not go directly to the people. This is very formalized. That is why we are working with the lawyers at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick,” Matchenko said.
“The bureaucratic aspect of this is going to take a lot of time, but we have seen a huge response from Northwest Ohio. People are volunteering and seeking for ways to help. It is very inspiring. It makes me proud of the place I call home now,” she said.
Matchenko came to the United States almost six years ago, on a U.S. government cultural exchange program.
“I was trying to escape from the pro-Russian government in 2015,” Matchenko said. “I was in Kyiv, and my apartment was 20 minutes away from the violent actions taking place there. Besides, my fellow classmates were part of that demonstration and they were shot.”
Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, and the largest city. The population was 3 million prior to the current war with Russia.
The incident she is referring to is called the Heavenly Hundred, when an estimated 128 people were killed demonstrations in 2013 and 2014.
“Ukrainians are not going to surrender and lose their liberties and freedom, from Russian-backed aggressors,” Matchenko said.
Today, she and her husband, who is from Napoleon, operate a small business in Perrysburg Township. They also have a daughter. Matchenko is also in the process of applying for full citizenship.
From the rally on March 3, the group had 50 volunteers sign up to help, but Matchenko says they need more. There are now millions of refugees and the number is growing.
More information can be found Toledo Helps Ukraine Facebook page and emails can be sent to [email protected] . A website is being created.