Live updates: Russia launches attacks across Ukraine, Biden vows ‘consequences’ for Putin and Moscow

Sisters Vera and Marta Penkalskyj first traveled to Ukraine in 2016, young women from Philadelphia eager to meet their aunts, uncles, and cousins, and to deepen their connection to the land of their ancestors.

Marta returned the next year to teach English. She went back again in 2018 — and this time she stayed.

She’d be there now if not for her father’s plea:

“Marta,” he said in a video call to Ukraine as more and more Russian troops massed on the borders, “this isn’t looking bad – it’s looking terrible. I would be a bad father if I didn’t beg you to come home this very instant.”

She agreed. Last Wednesday Marta walked through the door of the family home.

“It was ‘Relief!’” said Vera, 26.

For two sisters, granddaughters of Ukrainian immigrants, raised in the city’s Ukrainian schools and churches, and both graduates of Manor College, the Jenkintown school founded by Ukrainians, the crisis in Eastern Europe is not a distant emergency, an inconsequential crawl of updates across the bottom of a TV screen or a story on a page to be turned in a newspaper.

It’s a calamity that threatened to trap one of them in a potential war zone, and now endangers people they love in Ukraine.

“It was heartbreaking, leaving all of my loved ones,” said Marta, 23. “I hope I will make it back there to everyone. A lot of people’s lives are on the line.”

During earlier, historic conflicts with Russia, she noted, people in Ukraine hurried to buy wheat, salt, matches, whatever supplies that could help them get through the immediate hardship.

Not this time.

“Today they’ve bought every bullet in sight,” she said. “There will be a huge resistance, though the cost will be catastrophic.”

Western government officials warned on Wednesday that a Russian attack appeared imminent, as Ukraine prepared to declare a national state of emergency. President Joe Biden announced new sanctions after Russian President Vladimir Putin officially recognized two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent states, and moved to send in troops for “peacekeeping functions.”

U.S. officials estimate that up to 190,000 Russian soldiers stand at the borders of Ukraine, nearly double the number of a month ago.

The fear of invasion and war has hit hard in the Philadelphia region, home to a large and dynamic Ukrainian community. Today 15,245 Ukrainian immigrants make their homes in the city and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties, as do 54,324 people of Ukrainian ancestry.

Ukrainians here are well-organized, represented in groups like the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia, and in institutions such as the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown and the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union in Feasterville.

Vera, a mental-health therapist, and Marta, who studies East European history, have been part of that community all their lives. Ukrainian by blood, American by birth, they’ve embraced a heritage first passed down from their grandparents.

During World War II, the Soviets and Nazis made Ukraine a battleground even as Ukrainian guerrilla forces fought both sides. Some 5 million to 7 million Ukrainians lay dead at the end of the war.

The sisters’ grandparents met in a displaced-persons camp in Germany. From there they were able to immigrate to Boston, then moved to Philadelphia.

Vera and Marta grew up in a Ukrainian household in the Northeast, attending grade school at St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic School in Tacony, and belonging, then and now, to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Melrose Park.

Weekends meant classes at the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center, and both took part in Plast, the Ukrainian scouting organization that’s similar to the Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts.

The first obligation of a Plast scout: “To be faithful to God and Ukraine.”

After graduating from high school at St. Basil Academy, Vera and then Marta chose Manor College, which describes itself as the nation’s only accredited institution of higher education founded by Ukrainian Sisters.

The Sisters of Saint Basil the Great came to Philadelphia to care for Ukrainian American orphans in 1911, and founded the college in 1947, wanting to give young women of Ukrainian ancestry a chance to pursue their learning at a place that honored their heritage.

Today the private, Catholic institution offers two- and four-year degrees to 750 students of all faiths and backgrounds.

“Heritage is such a powerful tool,” Marta said. “It’s feared by Putin and his regime.”

Both women live in Lehighton, Pa., about 80 miles north of Philadelphia, where their parents moved a few months ago. Both are fluent in Ukrainian, a skill Vera enhanced during two recent visits to Ukraine, where Marta was taking master’s-level courses at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Both worry about what’s to come as Russia nears a full invasion.

“It’s not only a threat to Ukraine, it’s impacting democracy and global security,” Vera said. “The question here is who will be next?”

Marta’s boyfriend is in Ukraine. His mother, a doctor, is preparing to treat a tide of wounded and injured.

“While I was in Ukraine, every day you get bombarded with messages saying the war is about to begin,” Marta said. “It’s brought something to Ukraine that people might have underestimated: a unity of spirit.”