Expressions of a refugeeOksana Protsenko finds a new home with the Vermilion Arts Guild

Oksana Protsenko’s feelings toward Russia go back much further in time than the invasion of Ukraine that began in late February 2022.

The Ukrainian refugee living in Vermilion tells the story of a family member who, in 1939, was sent to a camp for political prisoners in Siberia for teaching the Ukrainian language. The woman was sentenced to 25 years in the camp, where she was abused, but was released after 12, following the death of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union.

“Over the years,” Protsenko says during a recent phone interview along with her husband, Volodymyr “Vova” Chernoba, “Russia has tried to destroy the Ukrainian language, schools, books and history.”

An artist, Protsenko has joined the Vermilion Arts Guild – formed in 2006 to expand, enhance and support the organization Main Street Vermilion – and has contributed work to its shows, including the current exhibition, “Splash on the Lake.”

When the couple awoke to a country invaded, they were unprepared for the new reality. They ventured out from their home in Lviv, the largest city in the western part of Ukraine, to buy supplies such as groceries, gasoline and medicine and were met with long lines everywhere.

“At first, we thought we would stay in Ukraine and just wait,” says Chernoba, who does the majority of the speaking during the conversation, as he has a stronger grasp on English. “But later, under the pressure of Oksana’s parents, we decided to go to Poland.”

As you would expect, they found more chaos at the border. And when they learned that she would be allowed to cross, eventually, but that he wouldn’t be, they befriended a pair of women living near the border who were trying to leave with children. As the women wanted to take two cars across but with only one of them being legally allowed to drive, Protsenko agreed to drive one of the vehicles, so she stayed with them for what proved to be three days until they were able to enter Poland. 

“It was a very, very stressful situation,” she says. “It was just very awkward.”

Adds Chernoba, “I stayed in Ukraine and tried to help other people … to pass the border.

“Oksana really, really cried a lot because (she did not know) what would happen.”

After about two weeks in Poland, she was able to leave for the United States, at first to live with her sister in North Ridgeville. At first, the thought was for her to spend a few months in Ohio and then return to her home. Instead, after learning the Cleveland Clinic may be able to help treat his multiple sclerosis, Chernoba was able to join her after about three months. 

“People (here) are always (friendly) and want to help us with everything,” he says, noting that has included helping them find an apartment to rent in Vermilion. “It was very hard for us to find something. Because we are from Ukraine, we have no credit history. We are nothing here.”

They speak regularly to family and friends still living in Ukraine, including members of a church where Chernoba is the second pastor. 

They left behind a house about which they worry, along with the vast majority of Protsenko’s paintings in a nearby studio, including all of her larger works. A few of her pieces reside with her sister, and she has been creating small works on canvas in the apartment. 

Protsenko, who studied at the Lviv National Academy of Arts, characterizes them as abstracts representing her feelings about Vermilion. 

She is no stranger to abstract thematic work, saying in an email that since 2010, “one of the main subjects of my art became the impossibility of human existence without finding God, the desire to improve yourself and to find your way and place in life. (The) human soul is in a constant state of search for the meaning and purpose of life.”

According to Judy Kernell of the Vermilion Arts Guild, Protsenko has two paintings in “Splash on the Lake,” which runs through Sept. 3. (The next show, “Autumn Serenity,” is set for Sept. 9 through Oct. 29, with the “Christmas Holiday Art Show” closing out the year from Nov. 4 through Dec. 22.)

How much longer the couple calls Vermilion home depends on how much progress Chernoba makes in his treatments, and they received encouraging news on that front after a test in July. 

Despite the war continuing, they feel compelled to return to the country where they were born and until recently spent their entire lives.

“It’s very scary,” he says, “but we understand we need to be with the people of Ukraine.”