Goldman engineer who fled Ukraine talks 'survivor's guilt'

A 27-year-old Ukrainian woman living in Kyiv, could see the...
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A Goldman Sachs engineer who fled Ukraine opens up about her survivor's guilt, anger at Russia, and fears for her family's safety: 'We end every call with, "I love you"'

By Reed Alexander

Two months ago, Maria Korniiets made one of the toughest decisions of her life: to leave her country behind. administrations.

Maria, a 27-year-old Ukrainian woman living in Kyiv, could see the storm clouds gathering as tens of thousands of Russian soldiers amassed along the border and foreign capitals warned of a impending invasion.

In early January, she boarded a flight to Warsaw, Poland, hoping to avoid the disaster she was sure would come — even as her family refused to leave.

When Maria touched down in Poland, she knew she needed to find two things fast — a home and a job. First, she tracked down accommodations through Airbnb for less than $25 per night. By mid-February, Maria, who studied cybersecurity at the National Technical University of Ukraine, had secured a job as a software engineer at Goldman Sachs.

She started working for the powerhouse Wall Street bank — days after Russia launched a full-scale assault on her hometown. While her job is remote, Maria will primarily report to Goldman's Warsaw office, a large middle-office center comprising tech and support roles to help front-office colleagues in financial hubs like London and New York.

"I'm just thinking two hours at a time," Maria told Insider, adding that, since the incursion began on February 24, she's endured mostly sleepless nights. Back in Ukraine, her mother, grandparents, cousin, and an aunt are sheltering in place. Bits and pieces of information — including images of some of her favorite places growing up, which are now in ruins — flow in throughout the day, leaving her unsettled.

It's proven a "huge distraction" during her first week on the job, she added. "You follow news constantly and can't sleep."

On Wednesday, Russian troops achieved a breakthrough victory after days of being bogged down by Ukrainian forces. They reportedly captured large swathes of the city of Kherson, home to 300,000 people, in a sign that their growing onslaught may be causing Ukraine's resistance forces to falter.

Even now, as a Russian military convoy nearly 40 miles long threatens to besiege Kyiv, Maria's mother Iryna, 47, is adamant that she's not going anywhere. On Wednesday, speaking by phone from her Kyiv apartment, she told Insider that she's proud of her daugther, and hopes that they will be together again soon.

"I'm hoping that she will do her best at this job, that she will put in her best effort, and that she will make a career there," Iryna, who works at a state-run company within Ukraine's Ministry of Infrastructure, said of Maria's new job at Goldman Sachs. She added that her "main concern" right now is not her own safety — but instead, that her daughter is worried about her as the war presses on.

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Hiding in her bathroom at her Kyiv apartment with her 2-year-old cat Monya, Iryna told Insider that she won't leave her homeland, no matter how intense the fighting becomes. Her voice was layered with the same steely resolve that has earned Ukrainians admiration around the globe since the invasion started.

"Of course we will win," Iryna said, defiant. "I have relatives in Mariupol and Kharkiv. All those cities — we will hold them… I'm sure that Russia won't win. We have the West's support and the truth will prevail."

"Let the convoy come. We will bomb it away," she added. "And if not, we will become partisans," she said, referring to guerrilla fighters. "Why do people think they can just come to someone else's land and take whatever they want just because they want to? This is our land, and we will not give anything to them. This is our country."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iryna added, is "completely deranged."

Ukraine's determination to stop the Russian invasion has so far prevented Putin from taking over Kyiv, but not without a cost. The Ukranian government said on Wednesday that more than 2,000 Ukranian civilians had been killed thus far in the conflict.

While much of the fighting has centered on the nation's capitol, other members of Maria's family are in danger, including her 61-year-old aunt in Mariupol. On Thursday, officials in Mariupol, a city situated along the coast of the Black Sea, warned of a "critical" situation in which Russian forces had cut some of its more than 400,000 residents off from heat, water, and electricity, according to CNN.

Meanwhile, more than one million refugees have already fled the country, the United Nations has said, warning that as many as four million could seek refuge in neighboring countries like Romania and Poland.

For Maria, being away from Ukraine during the war has contributed to a growing feeling of "survivor's guilt," which the publication Psychology Today defines as showing up among those who have lived through life-threatening situations that their loved ones did not survive.

"People are dying there. Why them? Why not me?" Maria said. "You feel like you should be there fighting, but you're here. You see that people are suffering and they might not be able to get out."

"I almost hate myself," she said, echoing feelings that experts say are common but unmerited among trauma survivors.

"You see this peaceful sky and you go inside a coffee shop and you see these nice pancakes and people are smiling and music is playing," she added. "You get yourself a cup of coffee and a cake and you don't understand why it's you."

Maria feels conflicted about how she can help, and sometimes thinks about returning home or journeying to the border to give blood. On February 25, she participated in a large anti-war demonstration in Warsaw to show her support for her country. Most of the time, she worries about her mother.

"All I can do is hope she's taking good care of herself," she said amid tears.

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For her part, Iryna ventures outside for a few hours each day to volunteer at a café in her neighborhood in Kyiv, where she serves food to locals and then cleans up the dishes.

Back in the US, Wall Street has vowed to aid those affected by the violence, including impacted employees. Goldman CEO David Solomon said in a post on LinkedIn that his firm would "take care" of its colleagues in the region and "add our voices to all those calling for peace."

On Wednesday, Bank of America said it would provide $1 million to five organizations including the Red Cross, International Medical Corps, and World Central Kitchen, in a memo reviewed by Insider. It added that it would match employees' Ukrainian relief donations starting at $1, up to $5,000.

And GoFundMe has set up a centralized Ukraine Humanitarian Fund to crowdsource donations. As of midday Thursday, the hub had raised nearly $800,000 — almost 80% of its stated $1 million goal.

Iryna will turn 48 on March 26. She hopes that her birthday might coincide with a reunion for her and her daughter.

Maria thinks about that, too. "I was hoping we could have some fun," she said absently.

In spite of signals pointing toward the contrary, Iryna is confident it will happen. "After the war is over, we will see each other," she said, "and we will celebrate freedom and drink Champagne together."

In Warsaw, as Maria explores the unfamiliar city where she counts few friends and doesn't speak the language, her mind often turns to thoughts of seeing her mother again.

She imagines them darting between the city's shops together — Iryna especially loves home décor stores, she said — far from the rumble of air strikes and the glow of bombs that have come to illuminate Ukraine's night sky.

But the reality of the situation on the ground suggests that their wishes are increasingly unlikely. Putin appears committed to crushing Ukrainian resistance, stoking heightened fears by putting Russia's nuclear arsenal into a "special combat readiness" mode. Western officials have said that Putin's fury over his troops' setbacks in recent days may incentivize him to press a more aggressive attack.

For now, the situation is unpredictable. Maria and Iryna rely on text messages and video calls throughout the day to hear each other's voices and allay their fears.

Recently, while watching the news in Warsaw, Maria saw a report indicating that Kyiv had suffered a major strike. She feared the worst. "I had this feeling that it might be the last thing I might tell her," Maria recalled. Now, she added, neither mother nor daughter is leaving anything unsaid.

"We end every call with, 'I love you.'"

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