A Model Citizen: Ukrainian Fashion Star Evacuates War Zone

Oksana Kononets, a well-known model and entrepreneur from Ukraine (front left), and her mother, Maryna Kononets (front right), visit Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters with best friend, Jonathan Chuang (back left) on March 19 and meet with Tzu Chi USA’s CEO, Debra Boudreaux (second-right, back row). CREDIT: Shu Li Lo

By Maggie Morgan

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The world has been in an unrelenting state of turmoil for the past two years. We’ve endured a global pandemic, facing microcosms of lonely struggles inside of the massive destruction the virus caused. We’re collectively combating climate change, political unrest, food insecurity, gun violence, and unprecedented healthcare debates. In the midst of this ceaseless chaos, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022; the war has led millions to flee, and has come with far-reaching consequences.

Russia’s powerful role in global market commodities have heavily impacted poor and prosperous nations alike. However, none of these obstacles compare to the tragedies the Ukrainian people have been afflicted with. We cannot hear the stories of each of these displaced individuals, but we can hear their unified cries for help.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s volunteers have been fortunate enough to have heard about the Ukrainian plight through firsthand accounts of those who have fled their homeland. One such voice, that of Oksana Kononets, holds a story that reflects the treacherous journey of countless Ukrainian people. This account, however, has another layer of strength through struggle wrapped inside of it; a tale of triumph and hope that offers itself to the resilience of the human spirit.

A Monumental Meeting

On March 19, 2022, volunteers and staff at Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters
in California met displaced Ukrainians Oksana Kononets and her mother, Maryna, for the first time. The two were accompanied by Jonathan Chuang, Oksana’s best friend, when they visited the San Dimas campus to speak with CEO Debra Boudreaux. The meeting was about a journey of overcoming countless obstacles and holding on to faith in the future. The discussion had no particular agenda, but the open conversation held invaluable lessons.

Jonathan Chuang and his grandmother, Jenny Su, accompany Oksana Kononets and her mother, Maryna, on a visit to Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters and introduce Tzu Chi’s origins. Photo/Meizhen Qian
Dr. William Keh, Board Director of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation (fourth from left) and a few veteran volunteers came to care for Oksana Kononets and her mother Maryna. Photo/Meizhen Qian

The meeting moved Debra Boudreaux, and she instantly contacted Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s CEO, Stephen Denq, to make an appointment for an outpatient checkup. Tzu Chi also provided a $600 emergency relief cash card, hoping to help Oksana and her mother obtain the necessities. The Kononets are starting over again, with no certain future in sight, and aid of any sort will allow them to begin to establish a foundation for a new life.

In its 56 years in existence, global Tzu Chi chapters have met countless individuals, listening to their profound experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained from them. However, Oksana’s story is unlike any we had heard before: After a 2012 accident, the 29-year-old has become the first Ukrainian wheelchair-bound model, and now she has evacuated her country and plans to work on behalf of other displaced citizens. She speaks with strength and dignity, and most importantly, hope. Oksana is not your typical young woman, in fact, she is extraordinary.

Living life on her own terms

Oksana will use a wheelchair for the rest of her life as a result of a perilous fall ten years ago. Then only 19, Oksana fell from the fifth story of a building, paralyzing her from the neck down. Life would become entirely different for the Kyiv native, but she refused to allow it to become meaningless. Oksana suffered from amnesia following the accident, and said, “my life was divided into ‘Before and After’.” The shock of it all hit Oksana hard and fast, and she even asked her mother if euthanasia was an option. Imagine waking up in a body that no longer felt like your own; the fear and frustration could have swallowed Oksana whole, but instead, she used it as fuel. 

Traumatic, life-changing events like the one Oksana endured can pause life entirely; simply getting through the day would be enough of a challenge. However, the 29-year-old refuses to let this event define her. Oksana proudly declares in her website’s biography: 

I realized that, despite my disability, I am a complete and self-sufficient person, which gave me the strength to move on. My disability is not an obstacle to fulfilling my dreams.

Oksana Kononets

After undergoing months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, Oksana went back to college, received her bachelor’s degree in education and then a master’s degree in social work. Previously a makeup artist, she had been told by photographers that the camera loved her. Following her injury, the young woman didn’t think she’d have the same impact in a wheelchair, but she couldn’t have been more wrong. Shattering through her anxieties in 2015, Oksana started an epic saga that would change the lives of other people with disabilities: She entered the fashion industry and flipped perspectives of what it is to be a model upside down.

The young woman has continuously made a name for herself, swooping up awards and titles as she goes along. Just one year after her start in 2015, Oksana won Miss Wheelchair Ukraine. The year after, she became the first spokesperson with a disability for a famous Ukrainian lingerie brand. A few months later, she was dubbed one of the 100 Most Successful Women of the Year by Ukrainian People Magazine. While continuing to model in Paris, in 2019 she was crowned Woman of the Third Millennium.

 In 2015, Oksana Kononets began her career in the fashion industry, becoming the first world-renowned Ukrainian wheelchair model. CREDIT: oksanakononets.com

Her resume speaks for itself, so it is no surprise that Oksana was contacted by the Runway of Dreams Foundation (RODF) to appear in their March fashion show in Los Angeles. The Foundation works to empower people with disabilities to express themselves through the art of fashion. RODF is transforming the industry and envisions a future where adaptive apparel is a seamless part of the clothing world. It makes sense that the Foundation wanted to work with an inclusion powerhouse like Oksana; the partnership is a natural fit.

Following her achievements, Oksana Kononets (bottom right) becomes the author and organizer of a social media venture entitled Unbroken Beauty, a photo project focused on positively portraying women in wheelchairs. Photo/oksanakononets.com/unbroken-beauty

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The event was slated for March 5, 2022, just nine days after Russia had invaded Ukraine. The entire population was still living in the shock of their current reality, with no clear direction of what to do next. Oksana’s family knew how important this event was to her, that it was much bigger than the model herself, and with that, they supported her in evacuating to the United States. With the same tenacity that brought her into the fashion industry, Oksana and her mother prepared to make the trek to America. 

The Winding Path to Los Angeles

The first stretch of their journey would be to safely flee Ukraine and cross the border into Poland. Oksana’s district, Sviatoshynskyi, had been struck by missiles, and it was time to seek refuge as soon as possible. The trip is a risky feat for displaced individuals as they must brave the war zone to leave their country. For Oksana, the journey would be even more of a challenge as her wheelchair prevented her from getting there as quickly as possible.

On March 1, 2022, Oksana and her mother evacuated Ukraine to seek refuge, a decision she never thought she’d have to make. She poignantly details how foreign this concept felt:

War .. this is a terrible word. Once at school, studying the history of World War II, I saw in the photo all the horror created by the Nazis in the occupied territories, but I could not imagine that 80 years will pass and [soldiers] will start a new war against a free and independent country…The killing of civilians, inhumane torture, the ruthless destruction of everything around them, the rape of children and women, and many other terrible things that do not fit in my head.

Oksana Kononets

Oksana spoke about the day she and her mother left Ukraine, saying, “In the morning we woke up and [my] mother says, ‘come on, …I [packed our] luggage and we’ll go [to] the west of Ukraine’ but we didn’t know [to] which city we will go [or] when we will arrive.” It was just six days after the war began, and as Oksana and her mother headed for the train, the home she had once known had been completely destroyed. “On the way to the station, I didn’t recognize my hometown, where there were no people on the streets, only checkpoints with men in military uniform checking documents, broken trees, and gray skies overhead,” Oksana recalled.

Her best friend, Jonathan Chuang, heard about a bomb strike on television. “I saw the news that [Oksana’s] district, District Sviatoshynskyi, it’s her address–it was hit by missiles,” he said, remembering the moment clearly. Even without the fashion show quickly approaching, Oksana would have had to flee the country as quickly as possible. Her sister, Olena, told Tzu Chi in an interview that it was imperative for Oksana to evacuate.

[She] left during the first days of war because it was the most horrible... as she is a person with disabilities, she is in a wheelchair, she can’t run to the bomb shelter and can’t hide to be safe. We took a chance to send her away by the first train... we came to the railway station and we only could squeeze her into the third or fourth train, her wheelchair was set in a train tambour, there were so many people all around, so many women and children.

Olena Kononets
Jonathan Chuang (left) and Oksana Kononets (right) have been friends since they met in Paris five years ago. Photo/Meizhen Qian
Volunteer Sharon Chu (middle) introduces Oksana Kononets (right) to Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux (left). Photo/Meizhen Qian

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The trip went from Kyiv to Lviv, then Lviv to Warsaw, next Warsaw to Amsterdam, and finally Amsterdam to Los Angeles. In total, the pair would travel for a total of five days, some days not knowing where they’d sleep or how they’d reach their next destination. When they first reached the train station in Kyiv, Oksana and her mother didn’t know where they’d end up; all they could be sure of is that it would be safer than staying home.

Because of the stampedes of people rushing to board any train they could, the Kononets waited on the platform until they had a chance to find space. The pair were able to board the third train, and stood by the front door as people clung to one another. In the midst of the chaos, Oksana’s wheelchair was slightly damaged, but she was just grateful to be out of harm’s way.

Instead of the usual six hours it takes to get from Kyiv to Lviv, the train ride lasted 11 hours. Oksana and her mother could barely move, not even having an opportunity to stretch or use the bathroom. The two did not even know where they were headed until after the journey began; once they knew Lviv was their destination, they called volunteers to help them find a place to stay. That night, Oksana and her mother slept on a library floor, uncertain of what the next day had in store.

The following morning, Oksana immediately asked volunteers how to get into Poland, as she knew the border was packed with displaced individuals seeking asylum. It was then Oksana said a miracle occurred; two places opened up in the car convoy of Polish volunteers from Warsaw, who were arriving with the help of military cargo for the Ukrainian army. 

Oksana spoke highly of the men who drove them to the border; the good samaritans paid for a hotel, gave the pair food, took them for a COVID-19 test, and then the next day brought them to the airport to fly to Amsterdam. It was from Amsterdam that Oksana and her mother would take their final step to get to Los Angeles.  

It is clear that this journey is one the Kononets won’t soon forget, not because of the obstacles, but because of the offerings. “Along the way, we felt the incredible support of others who saw our yellow and blue ribbons and learned that we are from Ukraine. People  you are a miracle!,” Oksana exclaimed. “My physical condition was weak, the road was difficult, but I will remember the feeling of support from strangers forever and it supported me and didn’t allow me to despair and lose heart.”

As soon as Jonathan Chuang received word that the Kononets had evacuated safely, he immediately purchased their tickets to Los Angeles. Jonathan then asked his mother, Sharon Chu, to help find a family that could accommodate Oksana and her mother, who had thankfully obtained their visas to the U.S. before the conflict in preparation for the runway show. 

The pair arrived safely in Los Angeles before the March 5 event and were able to attend as planned. During their stay in Los Angeles, Jonathan knew Oksana and her mother had much more on their mind than normal day-to-day affairs; he took care of the transportation arrangements and purchased supplies and clothing to ease their burden in any way he could. Jonathan helped the pair every step of the way, and noted the trip to Poland was “scary.” Oksana echoed the same reflections once she finally hit American soil.

Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux (left) explains how to use the emergency relief cash card to Oksana and her mother Maryna Kononets. Photo/Meizhen Qian

Jonathan’s efforts were life-saving for the mother and daughter duo, but even more, he made a dream become a reality. Jonathan’s mother, Sharon, contacted a friend who housed the Kononets for two and a half weeks. Jonathan then utilized ukrainetakeshelter.com in the interim, where he connected Oksana and her mother with a family who have extended their home to them until the war is over. The family also fundraised a few thousand dollars to purchase a new wheelchair for Oksana. Out of these many benevolent acts, the model seems to have found a special kind of safe haven in Jonathan.

“Throughout our trip, I felt the insane support of another person. This is my friend Jonathan Chuang, whom I have known for five years and who helps me with all matters in a foreign country. Some people have never found such a good friend and real man in their lives, but I was lucky in that”, Oksana said.

Though they reached the U.S. safely and Oksana was able to participate in the fashion show, it is just the first leg of the inspiring woman’s journey. Oksana plans to work with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation in their initiatives to support displaced Ukranians, using her platform and bottomless well of strength to fight for her people. After receiving aid from Tzu Chi, coordinated by Jonathan and his mother, Oksana instantly felt the spirit of the Foundation’s mission.

“It was thanks to [Jonathan] and his family that I personally met [Tzu Chi], its [CEO Debra Boudreaux], coordinator Rene and other incredible people who do so much good, especially at this difficult time for my country. I had long heard from Jonathan about the Foundation, its work, and finally, I was able to see the whole big family with my own eyes,” the model expressed.

Jonathan furthered this idea when speaking of his friend, “She wants to help the Ukrainian people obviously to be safe and find homes and figure out their lives after the war, and she also wants to help people with disabilities because she knows how hard it is to live with a disability.”

Oksana and Jonathan’s friendship is one that literally knows no borders; their love and respect for one another are palpable, and the reciprocal nature of their dynamic is a source of inspiration. Jonathan said of his dear friend, “we have a very close friendship and we’ve always been supportive of each other. There’s no one I can trust more than her. She always pushes me to be better and to follow my dreams.”

Following Their Footsteps

As the war continued, with no end in sight, Oksana’s older sister, Olena, made the decision to evacuate Ukraine and reunite with her family. The driving motivation for Olena had her sister at the forefront; Oksana had left so suddenly, that she was without many necessities and proper clothing. The 33-year-old contacted Tzu Chi to make arrangements in getting Oksana a suitcase. When she made her first stop in Warsaw, she spoke more to Tzu Chi about how her life at home had turned into a devastating reality.

War goes on and blood of innocents is spilled. Children are dying … children, adults, women are dying. I came to Warsaw to [get] a visa for myself and go to Canada because it’s safer there. Somehow as [soon] as I start talking about war, I start crying immediately because it’s very scary and it’s very dangerous.

Olena Kononets

Even with the precarious journey ahead, Olena remembered to bring luggage for Oksana, and explained what she had planned next. “I brought things for my sister … this big suitcase is for her because at the beginning of the war she fled from the country, on the first days of war and they had only three hours to prepare. They took only the [most] necessary things and they went to America … they didn’t expect that they [would] have to stay there for so long.”

Olena Kononets holds a small suitcase for herself and a large bag for her sister, Oksana, who left Ukraine with only three hours to prepare. Photo/Ting Fan

Olena packed both summer and winter clothes for her sister, bringing only a small bag for herself. When Olena met up with Tzu Chi volunteers, she said she wasn’t sure how long she might stay in Warsaw, saying it will be as long as it takes to get a Canadian visa, which is easier to obtain than an American one. The team knew nothing was certain for the young woman, so they provided her with a shopping gift card and blanket to alleviate some of her burden while she waited in Poland.

After her mother and sister evacuated to the United States, Olena stayed with her father and boyfriend in Kyiv. She never imagined that the war would continue on, and now has gone two and half months without her mother and sister as her city is continually shelled by rockets. It was not a simple decision to flee Ukraine, and Olena was forced to leave behind everything she knew. For Olena, there was more to think about than all she would be saying goodbye to for the time being.

“I left behind so many things,” Olena said, “it was very difficult, but on the other hand I don’t want to be traumatized by this situation anymore. I miss my sister so much. And my mom, too… I miss them so much, it’s been two months. They are my blood, my loved ones, I dream to meet them as soon as possible, to hug them, and kiss them… I hope that I will see them very soon.”

Eventually, Olena hopes to join her sister and mother in America, but for now
she is focused on getting to Canada safely. When she arrives, she will begin the lengthy process of obtaining a U.S. visa, but will at least be on the same continent as her loved ones – one step closer to reuniting after the calamity of war.

Olena Kononets holds a cash card and blanket from Tzu Chi that she received upon arriving in Warsaw. Photo/Olena Kononets

Tzu Chi Presses on With Love and Compassion

The Kononets are just one representation of the millions of displaced Ukrainians fighting to survive. Unfortunately, their story chronicles an experience that is not unique, a deeply-penetrating trauma that many Ukrainians have still not escaped from. The more we share these all-too-real realities, the more action we can take. Being aware of this war is not enough, empathy alone is empty.

All in all, everyone has the responsibility of taking care of people suffering in the world.

Dharma Master Cheng Yen

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation works to understand the personal struggles behind every mass crisis, to listen intently to those who are suffering, and then find solutions on an intricately individual level. Along the way, our volunteers make meaningful connections with our beneficiaries; one basic act of compassion extends infinitely outward with each person we speak to. We can save the majority simply by listening intently to the few who can share on their behalf.

Oksana Kononets is determined to use her story and her platform to help her fellow Ukrainians remain safe, supported, and hopeful in rebuilding their lives.

Oksana Kononets and her mother Maryna learn more about Tzu Chi. Photo/Meizhen Qian

Leaving Ukraine, I also wanted to be useful to all who remained in it. And that's why I was very happy when [Tzu Chi] offered me cooperation. Thus, our common knowledge and contacts helped to organize successful work on humanitarian support for displaced Ukrainians in Poland. In the future, I am convinced that this is just the beginning of our cooperation and maybe I will also be able to volunteer and help organizations in other areas.

Oksana Kononets

The experiences of the Ukrainian people has taught the world the raw meaning of courage; they’ve given us new perspectives on gratitude and on hope. Through this terror, we’ve also remembered the fleeting nature of life, and have reconnected with our innate humanity to give ourselves to others in need. 

Look at what is happening in our world. We all live on Earth, but in different countries. Within the same minute, people experience different events. People are alive this second, but will there be the next second? Will there be tomorrow?

Master Cheng Yen
Oksana Kononets, accompanied by her mother Maryna and Jonathan Chuang, visit Tzu Chi USA’s National Headquarters in San Dimas, CA. Photo/Meizhen Qian

Although tomorrow will always be uncertain, we can all do everything in our power to ensure today is better than yesterday. Oksana did, and today she has become a shining example to the world of determination, willpower, and ultimately triumph.

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