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A man must decide to flee Ukraine to join his family or stay to care for his parents

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Taking care of aging parents while also raising one's own family is a familiar tension. But what if a war forced you to choose between the two? That's the gut-wrenching dilemma faced by the Ukrainian man we're about to meet. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley brings us his story.

ANDRIY KONONENKO: Come. For me, let me show you briefly.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I first met 52-year-old Andriy Kononenko in February when he showed me around his language school in Kyiv. He had other branches in cities like Odesa to teach Russian and Ukrainian to foreigners. This time, we meet in a once-trendy, now half-empty shopping mall in the Ukrainian capital. Kononenko says when the war broke out, he joined his neighborhood territorial defense force and manned a checkpoint.

KONONENKO: Every block was like a fortress. The atmosphere was so electrifying. We did not sleep, didn't eat, nothing.

BEARDSLEY: He's not sleeping these days either. His wife and three kids got out immediately to Poland. Now they have visas to go to the U.S. As a father of three, he could join them, but there's a problem.

KONONENKO: Because my parents are stuck in the occupied territories, and they are not exactly young people. And there is no way they can travel. It's far. You know, you have to travel through about 50 checkpoints, Russian checkpoints, and they will take everything from you. They will undress you to see if you don't have any tattoos, like patriotic tattoos.

BEARDSLEY: His parents are stuck in his boyhood home in the south near Crimea. He says they're pushing him to be with his family.

KONONENKO: You need to go. You need to be where your family is. Leave us here. We are going to be fine as long as there's two of us. There are other people around to help out.

BEARDSLEY: But he knows they're not OK. He says most people have fled, including doctors. And missiles have struck the town recently. He doesn't know if they're Russian or Ukrainian, but one killed a boyhood friend who was a fisherman. Kononenko also worries about the rumored Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kyiv recently urged people living in Kherson to get out. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.

KONONENKO: Tears me apart. It's the right thing to stay here to be there immediately where they need me. And it's also the right thing to go be with my family. It's the wrong thing to leave my parents like that. And it's also wrong thing not to join my family.

BEARDSLEY: Kononenko says this is the agonizing choice he's now facing. It's nothing unusual in a country where most people's lives have been ripped apart by a senseless war.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.