Olena Gnes went from being, in her words, a “regular, nothing special, Ukrainian woman” to being “the voice of Ukraine”. She is also, and above all, a 36-year-old mother of three who is trying to parent her children (and herself) through their trauma.
Her story is one of living, working and mothering in the midst of an unthinkable reality, when normal family life gets turned upside down and fear becomes a constant oppression. She has spent the last year trying to balance the need to protect her own children with her devotion to her beloved Ukraine and its people, and her feelings of responsibility to use her voice and platform.
View to listen and read on to learn about Olena’s story.
The Launch of a YouTube Channel
Previously a journalist, Olena moved into tourism after her maternity leave and began guiding visitors around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She says, “I fell in love with my new work. I was showing my beautiful country of Ukraine to guests from all over the world.” Through Chernobyl, and English-speaking tours of Kyiv, she was able to tell the story of Ukraine as a whole, sharing the country’s history and culture.
Olena as a tour guide before the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Covid hit, this work dried up overnight and – like many of us – Olena had to think outside the box. That’s when she launched her YouTube channel, What is Ukraine?, with a mission to encourage more tourism to the country once travel was possible again. She used the online platform to continue to educate people about the Chernobyl zone and Kyiv, and to share the history of Ukraine and its people. When international visitors were able to return to Ukraine, she posted videos to explain the Covid rules and restrictions so that foreigners would understand what they needed to do and what documents they needed to bring.
Olena discusses COVID rules in a video posted to her “What Is Ukraine” YouTube channel.
“Is it Safe?”
But, increasingly at the start of 2022, it wasn’t the issue of Covid that her subscribers were concerned about. People were getting in touch with her to ask whether it was safe to come to Ukraine and whether she thought Russia was about to attack. She could only answer honestly that she didn’t know, but that it seemed unthinkable that a full-scale war would break out: “I was saying, ‘I think war in the 21st century is nonsense – it won’t be good for anyone.’ It seemed impossible that something so stupid and terrible could happen in my peaceful, beautiful country.”
And yet, the very next morning, lying in bed with her husband and four-month-old baby, Olena was woken by the sound of explosions – “And I said, ‘Oh honey, wake-up. They’re bombing us.’” It seemed impossible, and yet it was happening.
Amidst the terror and disbelief, Olena quickly went live on YouTube to tell her followers that it was absolutely not safe to come. And this was just the start. She then went live every day from Kyiv to tell the story of what was happening. She says, “I thought, if the Russians kill me and my family, then at least this video will be available on the internet because it stays forever.” She wanted people to know that something terrible was happening in Ukraine, and move them to do whatever they could to help the Ukrainian people to survive.
Of course, Olena and her husband had a decision to make – to stay or to go. She explains how they talked about it, but it was more of an emotional decision than a rational one. With so much shock and adrenaline, there was very little room left for reason. They decided that her husband would join the army, and Olena and the children would stay in Kyiv. They would do what they could and hope for the best.
A heartbreaking video shared by Olena on her “What is Ukraine” YouTube channel. She sits with her children as they anguish over the news of their father leaving for the army to fight for Ukraine.
Olena shares a video on her “What Is Ukraine” YouTube channel on the decision to stay in Kyiv.
Becoming “The Voice of Ukraine”
At this time, her baby was sick and needed an injection so she took her four-month-old, six-year-old and eight-year-old children to the hospital. That’s where they were when they heard the air raid sirens again and the doctor ushered them down to the basement to shelter. They ended up staying there for the next three months, with just occasional trips outside or back home for supplies, clothes, or to take a shower. Olena says the hospital basement was “not the worst place to stay with children.”
Olena shown with her children in the early days of the full-scale invasion, living in a makeshift bomb shelter.
Of course, all of this was recorded on her YouTube channel, and it wasn’t long before international journalists started to get in touch. Given the extreme danger, most had left Kyiv when the invasion started so they were on the lookout for someone on the ground to cover the story.
Olena shares images of the sea of people trying to escape the danger in Kyiv.
As the default “voice of Ukraine”, Olena began giving interviews at all hours of the day and night. It was Anderson Cooper of CNN who gave her the most coverage of all, even making a 45-minute documentary about her, but her interviews were broadcast on American, Canadian, Australian and Japanese TV, the BBC, and all over.
Despite the growing danger in Kyiv, Olena was now in a position where she felt that she had even more of a responsibility to stay. She says, “At this point, I couldn’t leave because I had become a kind of ‘voice of Ukraine’, and I couldn’t run away because the Russians were coming – it’s wrong. We were going to stay and show that we are brave, that we are desperate, and that we deserve to be here. This is our home. It’s not us who need to run away.”
Shown above is Olena walking the streets of Kyiv in the early days of the war. She shares the truth about the atrocities that Russia committed in Bucha just near her home town and evidence of Russia’s attack on civilians; for example, the explosion of a railway station in Kramatorsk as civilians attempt to leave for a safer place.
Shown above the railway station in Kramatorsk before and after the tragic explosion.
The aftermath of Russia’s attack on Bucha.
The Weight of Constant Fear
Olena and her children moved back to their apartment in May, when there was less of an imminent threat in the city, but she describes the ever-present fear of spontaneous missile attacks – never knowing when one might hit your home, or just kill you in the street. She describes how this terror weighed on her as a mother, in particular: “What was most terrifying was this constant feeling of fear upon us…You know that while you’re reading to your children, a missile could come and kill you. Then when you say goodnight to your kids and tell them they’ll be fine, it’ll be alright, you don’t really know whether that’s true.”
Olena found a way to carry this unthinkable burden of terror and grief by consoling herself that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’: “I believed that my children would survive this war and that they would become stronger personalities. This was my vision. This was my plan.” But it didn’t work out that way.
In September, Olena noticed that her oldest daughter had stopped talking and was using animal sounds instead. She also found grey hairs in the eight-year-old girl’s young head. As Olena puts it, “I realized that there was something wrong with my daughter. She’s not becoming stronger. She’s traumatized. Her mental health was just, crushed.”
Olena already suspected that her daughter had some form of autism, possibly Asperger’s, so she took her to see a neurologist and a psychiatrist.
The Day That Changed Everything
On that same day, three things happened: the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a bill into law that released fathers of three children from the army, so her husband would soon be demobilized; their daughter was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, cementing Olena’s conviction that their current situation had to change; and they received an email from an American woman called Mary who was offering to be their sponsor and host through a program called Uniting for Ukraine.
Through this program, they would be given humanitarian parole and could stay with Mary in her home. In her email, Mary offered, “You can come and live in my house, and we’ll feed you. We’ll take care of you. We have two rooms for you, and a bathroom. This is where you can live.”
Not only that, but Mary and her husband are doctors and have experience working with children with Asperger’s. Olena took all of this as a very clear sign that this was what they had to do for their family: “It’s like the universe was just pushing my face into this – you have to do this.”
Olena’s children reunite with their father.
Guilt & Trauma
The family moved to the US in early November. By this point, the situation in Kyiv was not deemed quite as critical by the outside world and fewer international journalists were clamouring for interviews with Olena, so she describes a sense of release from this figurehead position as the voice of Ukraine: “I had a kind of freedom now to do what was best for myself and my children. I didn’t have to embody this image of a brave Ukrainian woman. Now I could be a simple Ukrainian woman who just wants to survive, and wants her children to survive.”
It was also good timing because her husband – who had joined the army voluntarily and spent eight months doing whatever was required of him – was officially and legally demobilized.
But Olena still feels guilty. She still feels that pull of devotion and responsibility for both her family and her beloved home country. She says, “I felt guilty when I stayed in Kyiv that I put my children into danger to be a strong spirit of Ukraine…And I feel guilty now because I prioritize my children more than Ukraine.”
She speaks of the pain, the torture, of knowing that Ukraine is under attack and so many are still suffering. She describes how her heart drops and the fear rises when she gets notifications on her phone of air raid sirens in Kyiv, and she thinks of her friends and family who stayed behind. But being at Mary’s house in Georgia has helped Olena to realize just how terrible and traumatizing it was to be in Ukraine face-to-face with war: “It’s living in the constant terror, day by day, night by night. It’s like living through an impossible nightmare.” She says that intense, terrible, physical fear has mostly dissipated for them now, although it’s never far away – the sound of a thunderstorm or an airplane can bring it rushing back in a moment.
The Voice Becomes a Light
Despite the lingering trauma and feelings of guilt, Olena is confident that they made the right decision for their family. Her oldest daughter is talking, smiling and laughing again, and studying Ukrainian online, and her younger children are doing well too. Having initially focused on managing the transition for them all, Olena and her husband are now starting to make some plans for the future. They have applied for work permits and social security numbers so that they can get work and driving licenses in the US. They don’t know when they will go back to Ukraine, but for now they are focusing on how to make a life for themselves and provide safety and security for their family.
Olena and her family now in the United States. She shares a video on “What Is Urkaine” about their trip to get work permits.
Throughout it all, though, Olena’s voice for Ukraine remains strong and active. She continues to post regular interviews and updates on her YouTube channel to shed light on the realities in Ukraine and convey her enduring love for her home country. She has also recently been made an Ambassador of Light for a Ukrainian non-profit called FFUN SDG-Help UA that is helping to get essential supplies to the people of Ukraine, such as electrical generators, heaters and rechargeable lights.
She is using her channel to raise awareness and funds for the organization, including hosting an interview with Christina Katrakis, the main ambassador for the group in Ukraine. As a result of this post, the organization received a wave of donations from Olena’s subscribers. She also talked to Anderson Cooper at CNN about Christina and her work, and they then did their own interview with her, reaching a much larger audience. Off the back of this, Hollywood director Charles Wessler has been in touch with Christina to become an Ambassador of Light and raise funds to support the organization’s work. A sizeable snowball that was kicked off by one simple interview on a YouTube channel.
Visit FFUN SDG-HELP UA to support Ukraine: voluteer, participate, or donate.
“YouTube influencers” are a dime a dozen these days, but rarely do we see someone use their platform with such heart, integrity and authenticity as Olena. This may just be the story of a “simple, random Ukrainian woman” but it reminds us that we all have the power and the responsibility to use our voices and our platforms to shine a light on the things that matter. Olena’s oldest daughter said she wanted to be an animal, not a human being, because that felt safer to her – she didn’t want to be the same species as those who are committing such terrible atrocities. Olena’s story is a beacon, a reminder that we can and must counter war, violence and oppression with a show of the very best of humanity – we have that within us.
Olena is committed to doing what she can to make the world feel safe again for her children. Her baby’s first new word, after arriving in the US, was “light”. “For me,” Olena says, “this is another magical sign that what we are doing is great, and we just have to keep doing it.”
Follow Olena Gnes on YouTube at “What is Ukraine”.