Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

Like many of Ukraine’s youth, Nikita Pirnach never seriously considered traveling to the United States, except on business or for a short holiday. And also like many other young Ukrainians, his life drastically changed with Russia’s full-scale invasion last February.

Not only would Pirnach’s life be uprooted, but he would soon find himself transplanted to Milwaukee. While his family chose to remain in Irpin after it was liberated, they had felt the environment was not safe for their son.

It was a hard decision and a long journey, but eventually Pirnach landed on his feet in Irpin’s Sister City. A short time after arriving he was “adopted” by Anya Verkhovskaya and integrated into her family.

Milwaukee Independent interviewed Pirnach in early June, just before the editorial team left for a second assignment in Ukraine. As part of the trip, a return visit to Irpin was planned. Traveling with Verkhovskaya, and her team from the local humanitarian nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, Milwaukee Independent met Pirnach’s family at their home in Irpin.

The area was still surrounded by destroyed structures that had not improved since Russian troops were forced into a humiliating retreat from the city. Pirnach’s home also continued to wear the scars of battle, with chipped bricks from bullet impacts and a collection of spent ammunition shells kept in a pile on the porch.

The family had been spared the complete plunder that most homes endured. Only gold jewelry had been taken, and nothing was destroyed just for spite. Pirnach’s grandfather was also bewildered that his valuable collection of whisky had not been touched. It was one of the first things that Russian soldiers sought during an occupation.

The photo collection that accompanies this interview with Pirnach also includes images from the visit with his family in Irpin, and later events involving Milwaukee’s Ukrainian community.


Q&A with Nikita Pirnach

Milwaukee Independent: What was your life like growing up in Irpin? What did you enjoy most about the city?

Nikita Pirnach: My childhood in my hometown was wonderful. The city was growing with me simultaneously, constantly improving and expanding in the realm of infrastructure and local institutions. The whole city is a home for me, not in a small meaning, but as a place where you feel safe and have a lot of friends and acquaintances. I enjoyed the nature, parks, people, local businesses, and convenience of life.

Milwaukee Independent: Who inspired you most in your youth? And did the Chernobyl disaster have any impact on your family?

Nikita Pirnach: My family inspired me the most. Their lives were not easy due to bleak times in USSR. For me, they are embodiments of kindness, courage, and hard work even in those tough, unjust, and corrupt times. Yes, my family was impacted by the Chernobyl disaster. When the nuclear accident happened, my mother was 14 and her brother was 6, and they along with their cousins had been displaced to a distant Ukrainian city – Kramatorsk, in the Luhansk region. It is a place that nowadays has been suffering since 2014, when the Russian invasion started. Most of my relatives who stayed in Irpin because of their work and homes, underwent surgeries to have their thyroids removed.

Milwaukee Independent: What struggles have you faced since Russia’s full-scale invasion, after the occupation and liberation of Irpin?

Nikita Pirnach: We were subjected to constant displacement, wandering from acquaintances to acquaintances of acquaintances. I felt daily fear and pressure. My elderly grandmother and grandfather stayed in Irpin, and miraculously fled intact after holding out for a long time as the occupation came closer. A short time after they fled, we got a lot of news about murders, even of news correspondents being killed. Many people we knew and even close friends were killed, or underwent torture and violence in Irpin and Bucha. The number of those stories is very big. They are just terrible, and it is so hard to believe that humans could do such things to a human. It was unsafe to live in my neighborhood after the liberation of Irpin, let alone to walk the streets. There were a lot of mines and unexploded ordnance left behind, some as traps intended to hurt residents when they returned home.

Milwaukee Independent: Can you talk about your journey to Milwaukee? What was the experience like?

Nikita Pirnach: When I first became aware that I had the opportunity to flee to the United States, I became obsessed with the country. I began to learn and improve my English constantly. I came to Milwaukee through Poland. It was a great experience, and I still cannot get used to the boundless kindness and desire to help from this country and all the people here. I am inexpressibly thankful for all the support to my country and our citizens.

Milwaukee Independent: How are you adapting to your stay in Milwaukee? What are some of the hardships and joys in your daily life?

Nikita Pirnach: I’m adjusting to my new life in Milwaukee thanks to all the people here who I met, my host family, and the help from the Federal government. There are no hardships for me. I am still very glad and thankful today as on the very first day that I arrived.

Milwaukee Independent: What hopes do you have for your future?

Nikita Pirnach: I am hoping to complete my education in Wisconsin and pick up all the experience and knowledge that I possibly can. I have not decided what exactly will I do yet, but I think I will eventually go back to Ukraine, to my family, and my hometown. I want to contribute to the rebuilding of my country, and to see the justice that will be applied to all of Russia’s crimes and the people who committed them. But first Urkaine has to win the war, so for now I can only dream about returning home to make it a better place.

© PHOTO NOTE: All the original editorial images published here have been posted to That Facebook collection of photos contains the Milwaukee Independent copyright and watermark for attribution, and may be used for private social media sharing. Do not download and repost images directly from this page.
Series: Return to Ukraine

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war