Anya Nieman calls it one of the worst nights of her life.
As the reports began to surface that the capital city of Kyiv in Ukraine was being bombed by the Russian military, Nieman was on the phone with her parents, who live in Israel, and with friends who live across the globe.
“We were just screaming and crying,” she recalls.
“We were just glued to the news (as the weeks went on),” Nieman continued. “It was just a sense of horror and desperation.”
Like most living in America, Nieman has watched as the war in Ukraine has dragged on for the last several months. Triggered by an invasion by Russian forces, the conflict has already resulted in thousands of deaths and millions of Ukrainians left homeless.
The backlash against Russia, and in particular Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been intense. Not only have governments around the world united to oppose the aggression, but citizens, particularly in America, have offered their assistance to Ukrainians displaced by the war.
For Nieman, however, the conflict is personal.
A resident of Cheshire for the last 16 years, Nieman was born in Luhansk, a city in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. Though she moved from her homeland to America approximately 30 years ago, Nieman still has family living in Ukraine. As she has watched the news evolve over the weeks, her pride in her home country has intensified, as has her anxiety.
“This is so beyond anything I could have possibly imagined,” said Nieman.
“I was one of the ones who never thought that Russia would invade (all of Ukraine),” Nieman explained. “But when Putin gave his speech saying (Russia) was going to cleanse Ukraine of Nazi sympathizers, that’s when I realized — this was going to be an intentional genocidal invasion.”
Though Nieman didn’t believe that Russia would ultimately choose to act on a full-scale invasion, President Putin’s obsession with Ukraine was well known to her. In fact, Nieman describes the current conflict not as a new war but, in many ways, a continuation.
In 2014, Putin ordered Russian troops to “annex” the peninsula of Crimea, on the eastern side of the Ukraine, the very region from which Nieman’s family originates. “Those days (during the attack) were so traumatic,” she recalled. “I had a lot of family there and their houses were being shelled.”
Though most of her immediate family had already left Ukraine before the current hostilities began, she still has cousins living there, one of whom, she recounted, had to evacuate with his family, including a special-needs son, and spend 36 hours in a car driving towards a safe area, through his war-torn country.
Yet, when Nieman has checked in with those who remain in the country, what she hears is a sense of defiance mixed with optimism.
“I’d ask my friends (and family) in Ukraine, ‘Why are you staying there?’ and they’d say, ‘This is our country. We will survive. We will win,’” she stated. “It might sound like they are talking (in) slogans, but that’s how they are all thinking.”
Sitting at home in Cheshire, Nieman admits that she has felt helpless watching the war unfold on her television screen, so she decided she needed to do something.
A longtime distance runner, Nieman determined that, as a way to raise money to help those in need because of the war, she would look to host a run in Cheshire. It was, she admits, a daunting undertaking.
“It definitely wasn’t easier than I imagined,” she said, with a laugh. “As a distance runner, I know how complicated (putting one on) can be. I would never have thought of doing so myself, if it wasn’t for … desperately wanting to do something to help.”
Seeking out advice from local friends, including fellow Cheshire resident Doug Leven, who, in addition to working with the Cheshire YMCA has also participated in several runs, Nieman was directed to get in contact with everyone from the Town Manager to the Parks and Recreation Department to set things up. When she touched base with the Police Department, “That’s where it got big,” she recalls.
Working with Cheshire Officer Kristian Johnson, who, Nieman states, “went beyond what was needed” to help her arrange the event, Nieman eventually set a date, place, and time for her event. The first-ever Cheshire for Ukraine 5K Run/Walk will be held on Saturday, May 21, from 8:30 to 11 a.m., beginning at Lock 12 Historical Park and continuing from there. In partnership with Razom for Ukraine, and sponsored by the Bartlett Legal Group, LLC, the event will raise relief funds to aid the people of Ukraine, with the goal to tally at least $4,000. In addition, Nieman’s employer, Appspace, has pledged to match all of their employee donations up to $2,000.
“As someone who has lived here, it makes me feel great (to see the support from the community),” said Nieman. “I have always felt a part of this community, but especially in difficult times — to see Town Hall lit in (colors of the Ukrainian flag) — it really is special.”
For Nieman, the event is a way to provide real money for relief efforts that are needed immediately. But she also believes it will provide people with an opportunity to gather for a good cause and bond with neighbors.
“This is open to anyone of any level of ability,” Nieman said. “They can come and run or walk.”
“I just want this to be about togetherness, about an activity that can impact people positively both physically and mentally … and an experience that results in some very real aid for Ukraine.”
In addition to Nieman, organizers include her husband John Nieman, Alice Selipanov, Melissa Mendez, Anna Laskin, Margaret Coombs, George Daniels, and Anna Makarkina. In-person adult participants are asked to contribute a $25 donation. A $10 per-child donation will be requested, and those who want to join virtually are asked to contribute $15. Donations made on a GoFundMe page will serve as a registration. Supporters are asked to bring proof of their donation.
For more information, or to sponsor the event, contact Anya Nieman at email@example.com.