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Paralyzed Ukrainian model Oksana Kononets recalls fleeing from Russian invasion

After the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Oksana Kononets and her mother were determined to arrive in America for a special cause.

Earlier this month, the 29-year-old appeared in an annual fashion show hosted by Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit that supports adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. The model was left paralyzed at age 19 after she injured her spine caused by a fall from the fifth floor. She has used a wheelchair since 2012.

She was due to fly to Los Angeles on Feb. 26 for a show. But two days prior, on Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale attack on her home country.

“I remember how Kyiv was bombed,” she said. “I remember everything. Mama took our luggage and we headed to the train station. We didn’t know which direction to go. We just found a free space on the train and started to move. It was a huge crowd. But we needed to leave.”

Oksana Kononets said she and her mother traveled from Ukraine to Poland, the Netherlands and finally to the United States over the course of five days.

Kononets and her mother embarked on a five-day journey from Ukraine’s capital. During the trip, she and many others spent 11 hours on a train to Poland for safety.

“It was very hard to bring my wheelchair to the train,” she said. “One part broke. We tried to do everything we could to fix it. We also didn’t know where to stay. Should we stay in Ukraine? In Warsaw? Or somewhere else in Europe? I was scared and very tired. We needed to be safe.”

“I remember during my journey so many of us trying to leave, wondering where can we stay,” she shared. “There were grandmothers, 90-year-olds, with their pets. They didn’t want to leave their loved ones behind.”

After Kononets and her mother arrived in Poland, they traveled to the Netherlands. From there, they secured a flight to the U.S. with the help of a friend. And on March 5, the pair landed safely in Los Angeles.

“Throughout our journey, all we could think about was Ukraine and what was happening to my country, my people,” she said. “My friends stayed to serve and protect Ukraine and help as volunteers. I think of them constantly. While yes, Los Angeles surrounds me with beautiful nature, kind people and peace, I still think of my home. And I hear of friends who are killed. It’s too hard.”

Just days after landing in America, Kononets appeared on the runway. She said her goal was to raise awareness of people with disabilities who want to pursue careers in fashion. She also wanted to represent her pride for Ukraine.

“Before my accident, I worked as a makeup artist,” she explained. “After the trauma, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t be without work. But when I saw a girl in a wheelchair with the same disability who was a model, I found purpose. If she could do it, why can’t I? For two years, I worried I couldn’t do anything. That I was useless. But that image helped me recover. And since 2015, I worked as a model. It has been a dream to be on a runway even before the war.”

“When the war happened, I wanted to show, more than ever, that Ukrainian women are strong and have big dreams,” she continued. “I came to not only represent me but to represent what we’re capable of. I found strength in myself, and I felt support from my friends and family in this long, hard journey. But I know today that I have the power to fulfill my dream. I’m proud to be Ukrainian. It’s a huge honor. And I want to represent that.”

Kononets said she’s grateful for being in America. But her family remains on her mind constantly. Her father, sister and grandmother, who is 83, are still in Ukraine. The patriarch lost work after his business was bombed.

“The most important thing is that we’re alive,” she said. “We are thinking of our future. I’m thinking maybe here, I can try to find work in fashion as a model. That way, I can support my family. I would also like to volunteer and give back. Anything to help my family and those leaving Ukraine.”

“Right now there is a shortage of medicine in Ukraine,” she said. “This is a problem for people who have asthma and [other ailments]. We need more support in the medical field. It’s very hard. Just two days ago, my father stood in the queue to buy bread. He stood for two and a half hours. The other day he couldn’t move his foot. But today, I spoke with him, and he’s doing OK. But you wonder, when will this end?”

Kononets also commended Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s efforts during the devastating conflict.

“He has done good work as a president,” she said. “I also think it would be good if people can come to the USA. Europe right now, it’s very full. So many people escaped Ukraine and moved to other cities. Now more than ever, we need to support each other in the world.”

Kononets said she and her mother are taking it a day at a time as they stay closely connected with their family in Ukraine. She is hopeful to find work in the fashion industry that will allow her to continue raising awareness on those with disabilities, which will also help support her loved ones back home.

She remains hopeful that her country will persevere, noting that her people are “strong.”

“Never give up,” said Kononets. “You have to believe in yourself, no matter what. You can become stronger after something terrible happens to you. Dreams can come true.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has labeled the attack on Ukraine a “special military mission.” The invasion has sparked worldwide condemnation. Hundreds have already been reported either dead or wounded, including children. Millions have fled or attempted to escape the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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