Inna Kozub and her family used to play ice hockey together constantly.
Her daughter, her sister, and her niece are all members of the Kharkiv Panthers women’s rec hockey team.
“They play with me,” Kozub said. “Even though [my daughter and niece] are 14, they were good enough to be allowed to be members of our [senior] team.”
But three weeks ago, her family’s life was thrust into chaos.
Kozub and her family used to live in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city. While they feared an impending Russian invasion, none of them would have guessed that their city with a population comparable to San Diego would soon become one of the most violent war zones in the world. Ukrainian officials recently warned residents to cover windows with damp cloth to protect themselves from smoke, as Russian forces attacked a gas pipeline and a broadcast tower, among other non-military targets in the city.
On Feb. 24, Kozub and her family were forced to flee their home and hide underground, as constant air sirens quickly made them realize things would likely not return to normal any time soon.
“We were living seven days in a subway station, and we never came back home,” she said. “We didn’t even have clothes with us, since we were forced to leave so quickly.”
Eventually, they were able to flee to Germany, where they were granted refugee status and a hotel room to stay for free. But for their first few days in Germany, they were still unable to afford basic necessities like clothes and food.
When word spread that major Ukrainian population centers, including Kyiv and Dnipro, were under attack, Kozub received constant messages and phone calls from her close friends in South Jersey, whom she befriended through hockey.
In 2018, the New Jersey Jaguars, a women’s rec hockey team from Mount Laurel, arranged a tournament in Kharkiv. During the games, the women formed strong friendships, despite the language barrier, and have stayed in touch ever since.
“One of the players randomly reached out to my coach, who posts videos of our drills online,” said Sally Tarabah, a Jaguars player. “So she reached out to him, and they started talking and they came up with the idea that, ‘Hey, maybe we could do a friendship tournament. He can bring with him an American team, and we’ll start playing just a couple of games.’ So I started working on it, started building a team, and put everything together.”
Tarabah said the friendship between the women from opposite sides of the world quickly flourished through their shared love of hockey.
“Sports just transcends politics,” she said. “They transcend religion and culture. We all love sports and that’s something that we had in common. We didn’t speak the same language. We didn’t have the same life. But when we got on the ice, we were all equal.”
The idea was so popular, that it began to spread throughout their women’s hockey community.
“Our goal was to go over there and do some clinics,” said Jaguars player Trish Silvestri. “So even some women from other teams joined up and wanted to come with us.”
During the trip, the team of mostly Jaguars players scrimmaged with three Ukrainian teams from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Dnipro.
“The friendship, and humility, and the hospitality that they showed just made us like sisters almost immediately,” said Jaguars player Anna Gardner. “And then also joining on the level of sport just kind of ties it all together.”
While visiting, the Jaguars donated 700 lbs. of hockey gear to the Ukrainian teams’ children’s programs, much of which can be prohibitively expensive. In the U.S., a hockey stick can cost close to $100, which becomes much pricier when factoring in the cost to import dozens of them.
The South Jersey team was struck by the pride Ukrainians took in their country’s distinctive culture, not knowing much about it before the trip.
“It’s something entirely different from being Russian,” Tarabah said. “And this community is what we really became embraced by once we traveled to Ukraine and made these friends in the process of fundraising.”
Afterward, the Jaguars remained close with their Ukrainian peers, and hosted them in Bethlehem, Pa. for a tournament the following year. In 2019, the Jaguars returned to play with them in Croatia. And the Jaguars even planned to return to Ukraine this year.
But now, with Ukraine under siege, those plans have been scrapped. And the Jaguars have shifted their focus toward raising money to support their Ukrainian friends, and will host their first fundraiser this Sunday evening at Naked Brewing Company in Huntingdon Valley.
“I think we’ll keep going as long as this keeps going as well,” Silvestri said. “No one knows when this is going to end, so rebuilding would be a great thing to look forward to. But in this scenario, it’s kind of like, you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. And even if the war ended for them, tomorrow or next week, it’s still not that easy to go back to normalcy.”
Kozub is pessimistic that things will ever return to normal.
“Unfortunately, I think the war will last for a long time, because Putin never, never changes his plan, never changes his mind,” she said. “It is not human. So he will ruin Ukraine until the last person [is killed].”
Although their fundraising efforts are just getting off the ground, Kozub said the $2,500 the Jaguars have donated from their own pockets has already made a huge difference for her family so far.
“We don’t work now. So when you get some money, you feel a little bit more comfortable,” Kozub said. “Me and my daughter use it for food, to buy clothes, and for some other things like for a shower.”
Kozub says she doesn’t even know if her home in Kharkiv is still standing, as the city remains an active warzone.
But as she and her family begin life as refugees in Germany, Kozub longs to return to Ukraine, and keeps a quixotic hope that things will eventually stabilize enough, so that she’s once again able to share the ice with the women who have helped keep her family alive.
“We are very thankful for their support. And we hope that when these bad days end, we will meet together and play hockey together again,” she said. “This is our dream.”