Siren from iPhone app alerts Californians to Russian attacks on Ukrainian relatives

The howling of the air raid siren panicked. For days, scurry across her duplexes in Huntington Beach, a phone alert that her hometown in Ukraine is being bombed.

Jana Hovey felt helpless as she thought of her parents huddled in the dark basement of their apartment building 6000 miles away, praying to make up the night.

An ominous siren made her 7-year-old son run from his room and cover his ears. The family dog ​​barked while their three parrots jumped into their cage.

Hovey turned off the alarm and texted her parents: Are you well?

no answer.

It was a windy Saturday in Southern California, and palm trees were swaying outside her patio door. It was the ninth day of the Russian invasion, but it could be any day in the past two weeks, when her life became a painful cycle revolving around an app that became a lifesaver and a nightmare at the same time.

The conflict half a world away has changed the lives of nearly 112,000 people of Ukrainian descent in California. Like Hovey, many feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness. They donated money, collected supplies to ship home and took part in protests calling on world leaders to do more to stop Russia. But these actions seem insignificant compared to the scale of what is happening in their homeland.

Hovi, 37, was constantly following the Ukrainian news. She checked social media and entered chat rooms for any information she could about the situation in Kharkiv, the second largest city, under constant bombardment. Only 20 miles from the Russian border.

She shivered as she stared at the phone, waiting for her parents’ response. Her son Leonardo walked from behind and wrapped his arm to comfort her.

The missile alert app, called Alarm and developed for Ukrainian citizens, plunged it into the agony of a minute-by-minute war that amplified its sense of paralysis.

A woman showing an app on her phone

Ganna Hovey uses the Alarm app developed for Ukrainians to receive alerts about Russian air strikes. For Huffy, having access to this information has been both a blessing and a curse.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Alarms went off when she was working, cooking, driving her son to school and sleeping.

She said, “It’s torture.” “When I hear them, I think of what is happening now? What building did you hit?”

The sirens stole days of sleep. She was late getting Leonardo to school sometimes. He noticed his teachers and told that her advisors were available to him if he needed them.

“He’s a resilient boy,” she said, “he’s very small and doesn’t understand the situation.”

Hovey knew her phone was a blessing and a curse: She was able to keep in touch with her parents in a way that war-torn families couldn’t. But it was torture When they did not respond immediately.

She prayed and imagined that God would put a shield on her parents’ house.

“I repeat the mantra,” she said. “I say: Please don’t hit their house, please don’t hit their house.”

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Persuasive storytelling presentation from the Los Angeles Times.

Although her parents appreciated their daughter’s vigilance, so might the letters and phone calls A distraction, especially when they were running from their third floor apartment to the basement. Hovey said her mother told her to be patient and wait until they settled in this hut-like shelter.

“That’s what you asked me to do, but I didn’t,” she said. “I’m trying, but it’s really hard. A few times they didn’t hear the alarm.”

Hovey said some loudspeakers are warning Ukrainians of possible missile and air strikes damage. Although many Ukrainians downloaded the missile warning apps, the notifications did not always arrive. On two occasions, Hovey was the first to inform her parents of an impending attack.

“I told them to hide, to run,” she said. “And when they did, my mother told me: You are our guardian angel.”

This Saturday, it’s been two minutes since I sent the text message. Nothing yet. I opened the app.

“It just says:” Kharkiv, air alert. “Everyone is hiding,” she said.

The nudges gave her a bleak education about living in war.

“If it says planes,” she said, “that means it’s bad, you have to hide deep.” If it’s just a missile or an explosion, that means they are using small rockets. If you hide behind two walls away from the glass, you will be fine.”

She was planning a FaceTime with her parents this morning, but this one had to wait.

Hovey looked Via videos and photos in her phone shown on TV: her parents inside a dark basement, shots of collapsed buildings around Kharkiv. She wondered what her childhood makeup had turned into rubble. The elementary school that’s a block away from her parents’ house? Lysenko School of Music and Drama, where she sang in the choir and learned to play the piano?

she She used to take the subway to her university, where she majored in human resources. Now the tunnels are bomb shelters where some of their cousins ​​reside. Two friends with a one-year-old baby were sheltering in railroad cars.

Hovi left Kharkiv when she was 21 years old. She came to the United States after she met her future husband online. In 2015, she became an American citizen, just a year after giving birth to her son, Leonardo. The couple eventually separated.

Last year, Hovey asked her parents for green cards. Her mother, 57-year-old Svetlana Usenko, loved California and came to visit her every summer; Last year, they went to Catalina for a day. Hovey said her petition was approved in November and that the next step is to meet her parents at the US Embassy in Ukraine.

Her parents were planning to sell three properties and use the money to buy a house in the United States so that they could all live together. But these properties are now damaged or destroyed.

“My mother is afraid to come here empty handed,” she said. “I don’t care, I said, come here alive. That’s all I want. I’ll work three jobs if I have to. I’ll take care of you.”

She added, “I tell them, ‘When it is safe to leave, go to Poland. I will find out how to get you here.'”

Osenko said she will head to the border again. She had a heart problem and was afraid of running out of medicine during a long siege. But Kharkiv was attacked so severely that it was difficult to get out of it.

Hofei couldn’t stop crying. The sirens were constantly bothering her.

“I just want my dad here,” she said. “I want Leo to have a family.

“My dad was going to teach Leo how to fish and fix things,” she added.

Woman pointing to her father's picture on TV

Ganna Hovey points to a photo of her father taking shelter in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, while Russian soldiers attack the area. “They bomb us all the time,” Oleksandr Usenko, 65, said recently via video chat.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

To distract her from the alerts, she showed a reporter a video of her parents on her phone, Taken during the first three days of the invasion. Her father, Oleksandr Usenko, 65, is sitting on a cot in the hallway outside their apartment.

“This is how we live,” says her mother, a beauty salon owner, speaking with a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. “This is our bed.”

The crib is so small that they take turns sleeping. With food scarce, they mostly ate grain.

Oleksandr Usenko, a retired electrical engineer, talks to the camera.

“They bomb us all the time,” he says.

“Every 30 minutes,” his wife chime with the video. “There are sirens all the time.”

Three minutes later, Hofei realized that her mother had responded
To put it in one word: Yeah.

“That’s all she says sometimes. She doesn’t have time to respond,” Hovey said.

The short responses indicate the intensity of the war in Kharkiv. The blackout means her parents have to conserve the power. They also fear that Russian forces will use their mobile phones to locate and target them.

A woman video chatting with her mother on the device

Ganna Hovey talks with her mother, Svitlana Usenko, on video March 5 in Huntington Beach.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Half an hour later, Hovi was able to communicate with her mother via FaceTime. The video took a few seconds to load, then opened to her father, sitting on a chair near the stairwell. He waved. Her mother rotated the mobile phone camera to show other people sleeping in the basement.

Her parents kept the conversation short and asked her to tell the Americans that they wanted a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“Close the sky,” Hovey said, translating to a reporter. “All we need is to close the sky.”

They were blowing kisses back and forth and hung up the phone.

Parrots were still. The family dog ​​was waiting to be let out onto the balcony. Hovey opened the glass door for him while Leonardo walked over to hug her again. The phone was quiet.

“I just spoke to Papa,” she told him. “She’s fine now.”

Two days later, Hovi learned that her mother had set off for the Polish border. Her cell phone died, and Hovey could not reach her until Thursday night, when she learned that her mother was at Warsaw Chopin Airport. Hoe wasted no time and bought her plane ticket to Los Angeles. Her father decided to stay to help their extended family.

Two women and a boy embrace at Los Angeles International Airport

Jana Hovey and her son Leonardo hug their mother Friday at Los Angeles International Airport. Svetlana Usenko, 57, had fled alone from Ukraine: her husband is staying at home to take care of the family.

(Irrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

On Friday, Hovey and her son waited for her inside the Tom Bradley Lounge at Los Angeles International Airport.

“Baba! Baba! Leonardo shouted outside, jumping up.

“Mother!” Hovey said in English, waving and leaning over the fence.

They ran across the station, hugged each other, cried and kissed each other.

“This is surreal,” Hovey said. “I’m happy but I’m still sad.”

The three were holding hands as they slowly walked to the parking lot, talking about the situation back home in Kharkiv. Usenko said only a few buildings were standing, including their apartment complex. She was afraid this would make him an even bigger target.

Hovi stopped walking, put her right hand on her chest and gasped for air, thinking of her father. Her phone was quiet, but she was still connected to the siren.