Yanina Nickless, who was born and raised in Ukraine, said she is proud of her country for its resolve against Russian aggression. Nickless, now a U.S citizen, is shown on Long Wharf in Portland beside a portion of the Berlin Wall on Feb. 28. She was virtual guest speaker of Congresswoman Chellie Pingree for the State of the Union address that night. Nickless spoke about her homeland and her family in a recent interview. Courtesy photo/Rep. Chellie Pingree

One day during the first week of March, Yanina Nickless’s mother counted 33 Russian planes flying low over their small village, presumably headed toward the city of Kherson, a port city in the south of Ukraine.

Kherson fell to the Russians, and while there are no timetables in war and matters can change quickly, as of Monday, March 7, the attacks on Ukraine continue.

Being 4,600 miles from parents, cousins and other family members when your homeland is under siege from a foreign power, when the news is of bombs falling and troops in the streets, brings fear for their safety and unending, gnawing worry.

It also brings resolve.

It has brought a firm resolve to the Ukrainian people, including Nickless, 27, who was born in Ukraine and lived there with her family until a few years ago. It brought a resolve to her parents, who she said told her they plan to stay in their small farming community.

Asked what she hopes for, Nickless, in an interview on Friday, March 4, put it this way:


“I don’t hope — I know — I will go see my family in a free Ukraine,” she said. “We are fighting like mad. Never have I been so proud of my people, my president. They are fighting for every single person there, and I know they will win.”

Nickless lives in Old Orchard Beach with her husband, Sean. She is the human resources coordinator for the town of Kennebunkport. She came to the U.S. from Ukraine in the summer of 2014, and again in 2015, working in the hotel industry under a special visa. She enrolled at the University of Southern Maine where she studied political science and international relations. She and Sean married — there were two weddings — a small ceremony in the U.S. and a big one in Ukraine, with both their families and friends, in 2016.

Nickless was involved in Maine Model United Nations for several years, according to the USM Free Press, stepping into the role of secretary general in 2018. She was student speaker at her 2019 commencement at USM and became a U.S. citizen in 2020.

Nickless said she had spoken to her mother the previous day (March 3), who told her the radio towers had been bombarded, and surmised the connection going forward might be poor, which has proven to be true.

“I have talked to my parents since Friday, but they have problems with electricity now, so whenever they have it, they text me that they are holding strong,” she said in an email. “I tried calling a few times, but the connection was interrupted.”

Yanina Nickless, center, with her mother, Olena Makarenko, and her father, Oleksandr Makarenko, during a trip with her husband to visit them in Ukraine in November. She has been able to keep in touch during the Russian invasion, though that has recently become more difficult, with frequent electrical outages there, she said Monday. Courtesy photo/Yanina Nickless

Nickless was raised in a farming community of about 200 people. An only child, she has aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins in the village. Her father, who has a degree in agriculture, farms grapes, strawberries and peaches commercially. Her mother is a librarian. In Ukraine, Nickless said, libraries are similar to parks and recreation departments and offer an array of events and programs for children and adults.


“For now, they are OK” (because they live in a small village), said Nickless of her parents. “I think they are going to stay. I talked to them several times about leaving, but they have said, ‘no.'”

Her father is doing what he can to keep the community his family lives in and the other villages surrounding it safe.

“My dad joined the territorial defense force,” she said. In teams of two, members of the defense force make their way through the villages on foot, making sure people are safe. He told her, “I know you are safe, and I can go do what I need to do,” she said.

She has two cousins in the Ukrainian military, in the eastern part of the country.

Nickless and her husband made the trip to Ukraine in November, and she has photos of happy days with her family. It was one of several trips the pair have made there since their wedding.

“I can’t describe how happy I am we went,” she said of the recent trip.


Nickless, who was Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s virtual guest at the State of the Union address, said she has had overwhelming support since news of the Russian invasion emerged.

“I cannot describe to you how great my coworkers are, they’re so supportive and nice, that helps,” she said. “And my husband’s family is supporting us, bringing meals, helping when they can. It keeps me going.”

Nickless said she is staying strong for her parents, “and I know they are strong.”

She said assistance for Ukraine would be welcome.

Maine Emergency Management Agency prepared a list of vetted agencies for those who wish to make donations: https://www.maine.gov/mema/response-recovery/disaster-recovery/donation-management.

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