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Ukrainian expats want the U.S. to do more for friends and relatives fighting Russia

Victoria Hotova and her baby left their home in Kyiv last month. They attended a rally in support of Ukraine in Sunny Isles, Florida on Friday.
Greg Allen/NPR
Victoria Hotova and her baby left their home in Kyiv last month. They attended a rally in support of Ukraine in Sunny Isles, Florida on Friday.

Just north of Miami, the upscale beachside community of Sunny Isles is home to large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian emigres. Some have been here for decades. Others, like Victoria Hotova have just arrived.

Hotova's daughter Anna is just ten months old. The two left their home in Kyiv last month, the day the Russian invasion began. They traveled by car to Munich, and then flew to Miami where Hotova's mother has a home. She's says she's happy to have gotten her daughter to safety.

"But all my family left is Ukraine, because my husband must protect our Ukraine, my grandmother, grandfather," she says. "That's why I can't sleep. And I must say nobody (helps) Ukraine."

Hotova spoke while draped in a Ukrainian flag, one of a few dozen at a rally in Sunny Isles who were asking the U.S. to step up its military assistance to their home country. Two Russians recently arrived from Moscow were also part of the demonstration. "We don't understand why Putin starts this war," said one of them, Andrei Elaenikov.

Elaenikov held a sign that said "Stop Putin" in Russian and English. He says he had to leave Moscow after a confrontation at a rally, when "(A) policeman in Russia (told) me 'Don't say war is war because it's not war.' But I understand this is war and I (don't) support this war."

Andrei Elaenikov and his friend Nikita Kavilin who recently arrived from Moscow.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Andrei Elaenikov and his friend Nikita Kavilin who recently arrived from Moscow.

Elaenikov says under a new law in Russia, he could be jailed for up to 15 years just for calling the invasion a war. He's not sure when he'll be able to return home.

Julia Lemesh is co-president of a Florida for Ukraine, a new group formed after the Russian invasion. She says there have been a few tense moments between Russians and Ukrainians, but for the most part she finds overwhelming support.

"People from different communities and diasporas, Byelorussian, Russian, Georgian, Armenian, they do come to support us," she says. "We are lucky to have a really strong community of different diasporas here in Sunny Isles."

Lemesh says she understands why the U.S. is reluctant to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But her contacts with military forces in her home country tell her they desperately need more advanced weapons.

"I got a message...two hours ago," she says. "They are saying...we absolutely cannot protect with what the United States and other countries send us in terms of weapons. We really need advanced anti-aircraft warfare and at least fighter jets."

Supporters of Ukraine at the rally.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Supporters of Ukraine at the rally.

Her group is also sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In a small warehouse in nearby Hallandale Beach volunteers have been packing and shipping medical supplies, backpacks, sleeping bags, boots, and other gear to help Ukrainian fighters. The group's co-president, Raphael Nagli says they're directly working with humanitarian organizations in Ukraine.

"We (are) getting detailed lists from them what's most needed," Nagli says. "It's going to Poland. From there, our volunteers, our trusted volunteers, pick up those products and deliver to places where they're needed the most."

Nagli has a company that does business in Ukraine. His export license allows only humanitarian aid shipments, so this week the group sent supplies and several thousand dollars to help an organization evacuating wounded children from Ukraine.

But when his company comes across any paramilitary equipment — drones, helmets, tactical vests — they refer it to another group with the appropriate license. This week, Florida for Ukraine posted a note on social media from a military contact in Ukraine, thanking them for expediting a shipment that included medical supplies and three drones.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 24, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say Victoria Hotova's daughter is 10 weeks old. She is 10 months old.