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Sunday, July 21, 2024


Local Ukrainians React to Russian Invasion


By Collin Hall

COURT HOUSE – Ukrainians across Cape May County are grieving for their country just hours after Russia began its full assault deep into Ukraine’s territory.

Lesya Lambert, who owns Atilis Gym, in Wildwood, alongside her husband, Chris, is the only member of her Ukrainian family in America. She came to Cape May County almost two decades ago on a J-1 student visa to work for the summer and “fell in love with the place,” she said.

She moved to the county with a visa to pursue an education at Atlantic Community College and now lives in Court House with her husband.

Lambert is devastated by the attacks on her country and fears for the lives of those she loves.

“I did not see this coming at all,” she said. “I was there just three weeks ago. Ukrainians are very kind and selfless people. We did not believe it that our neighbors in Russia would do this to us. All my family is there in Ukraine – my mother, my brother, my nephew, my uncles, my cousins… It is heartbreaking. My family is very close to the capital and are now hiding in the countryside.”

Lambert sobbed as she told her story.

“Cape May County is home to many Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans,” she said, adding that the pain from the invasion echoes through the county and the U.S.

“Cape May County has a very strong European community,” she said. “I know a lot of Ukrainians here. We come here, we fall in love, we make this place our home.”

She said the local community has rallied around her through the violence, adding, “It’s incredible to see how many people support us, how much they love us.”

Roxy Donnelly, who lives in Wildwood, expressed similar devastation in an interview with the Herald. Her parents and grandparents hail from Ukraine and fled to Philadelphia when the Soviet Union began to crack down on dissidents in the late 1940s.  

She explained, “My dad’s parents were very prominent over there… I was born in Philadelphia, but my parents and family were born in Ukraine. When my grandparents were alive, the Russians were snatching prominent people because they did not want knowledge to spread. Because my grandparents were teachers, they feared they would be taken, and, in the middle of the night, they took a horse and a buggy and fled. They left their farmland, their estate, and fled to Poland.”

She said her father fought against the Soviet Union and her father’s brother was killed on the Russian front near the end of World War II.

Donnelly said it pains her deeply to see new attacks on Ukrainian land. She had the chance to visit Ukraine in the 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Once she arrived with her family, she recalled family members crying and kissing the Ukrainian ground they feared they had lost forever.

“They never thought they would see the land again,” she said.

Each year, thousands of students come from eastern Europe to work at Cape May County businesses for the summer. Many, as Lambert said, eventually end up calling the county their home.
When they were absent during the summers of 2020 and 2021, the impacts on the local economy were tangible. During this time of great violence, support from the community, as Lambert said, is essential. 
This article will be updated if more Ukrainians respond with their stories.
To contact Collin Hall, email


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