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I’m sheltering in my restaurant in Kyiv because I am going to fight for Ukraine | Opinion

As missiles hit my hometown of Kyiv, I won’t leave.

Zhenya Mykhailenko, executive chef and partner in the Kyiv restaurant chain Food vs. Marketing. Despite the Russian attack, he is not closing his ramen restaurant. Pictured here on the first night of the war, he and some of his workers in a restaurant that is also a bomb shelter.
Zhenya Mykhailenko, executive chef and partner in the Kyiv restaurant chain Food vs. Marketing. Despite the Russian attack, he is not closing his ramen restaurant. Pictured here on the first night of the war, he and some of his workers in a restaurant that is also a bomb shelter.Read moreVia Zoom

It was around 7 a.m. on Thursday. I woke up because my fiancée was crying next to me. “War,” she said. “War has begun.”

I was half asleep so it took me a while to process. We are so used to war. I told her to wake me up in an hour. But she was still crying. I realized something was wrong and new.

“Russians attacked us at the borders. There were casualties. We’re under attack from all sides,” she continued. My phone was on silent mode, and when I looked at it, I had a few dozen missed calls. It started to hit me. This is real.

Ever since I have had an alarming feeling inside that won’t leave me.

I am a partner in a restaurant chain in Kyiv, and the executive chef of seven restaurants and one coffee shop in the city. Walking to work this morning, there was nobody on the streets. You have the sounds of missiles exploding, and the smell of something burning is everywhere. Two of my restaurants are also bomb shelters. I will sleep in the ramen shop tonight with my fiancée, some of my workers, and any neighbor who needs a safe place.

» READ MORE: An explainer on why Putin’s Ukraine aggression will change the world and how we got here | Trudy Rubin

But I am not leaving. Even though missiles are hitting my city as I’m typing this, and the ventilation system in my restaurant is pulling in the smell of smoke, I am keeping my restaurants open.

I was born in Kyiv in 1985, when the USSR still existed. I grew up in the workers’ housing of the Soviet factory that my grandmother worked at for 40 years. When I was a child, Kyiv was full of crime. My cousin was murdered. Another cousin got six years in prison. I would go to school and come back without my jacket because someone would steal it off my back in the street. If I didn’t escape this reality, I would have also gone to prison.

I started cooking when I was 6. I spent every summer with my grandmother and grandfather in the country on a farm. We had animals. We would pick mushrooms. We would fish. In our post-USSR country, restaurants weren’t a thing.

But that changed for me in 1995, when my family visited the U.S. I was 10, and when we landed in California, I felt like I was in the shows I watched on Cartoon Network. It was like going through a portal into a completely different world. I knew that my ticket to a new life was going to the United States. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, we went to all kinds of restaurants, and that’s one of my best experiences. (And visiting Universal Studios and Disneyland.)

So in 2008, I went back to the U.S. — this time for culinary school in Los Angeles. It made me completely rethink my entire life and reprioritize my values. It was one of the best things that happened to me.

After my divorce in 2013, I planned on traveling and eventually getting back to Kyiv. I saw the beginning of the Maidan revolution — an uprising for democracy and against corruption. I decided that I was going to buy a plane ticket and come home because Ukraine was something worth fighting for.

When I landed, I saw a different country with different people. I returned to see a nation that overcame its communist past and evolved into a community of citizens who care about their country and want to live in a civil and democratic society. We value freedom more than anything else. We have created this world and we will protect it. I saw people shot in the revolution by special forces to defend these values.

The people of Ukraine have been building such a society ever since. My little girl, Freya, was born here, and I want her to grow up in this beautiful new world that we are building together.

Our country was run by various empires for centuries until 2014, when real Ukrainians who care about this country finally awoke from their deep sleep

But we have also been at war with Russia since 2014. Now it is getting worse.

The U.S. is doing more than we could have hoped for, and I thank President Joe Biden. This wasn’t his problem. But it is already becoming about more than just Ukraine. We are talking about serious nuclear consequences. The whole world should intervene in this.

I don’t know how they can resolve it. I don’t know whether it is diplomacy or how it could be done. I’m a chef in Kyiv. I’m not in a position to tell anyone how to do it. But thinking about the Chernobyl power plant seized by the Russians, we are one step away from another nuclear catastrophe.

I am going to evacuate my daughter from Kyiv. I hope everyone who wants to leave will be able to go somewhere safe. But I am staying. I know that every other person who stays in the city is willing to fight. I know that we Ukrainians will do the best we can to stop Russia.

I really hope “the best we can” is enough.

Zhenya Mykhailenko is the executive chef and copartner of Food vs. Marketing, a restaurant business that specializes in ramen and banh mi in Kyiv.