Irene Lee shows the location of her hometown of Sumy, Ukraine, on a map. She plans to collect local donations to help the country buy a reconnaissance drone to monitor Russian troop movements near the border town. (Sean Roney)

KING CITY — A King City resident originally from Ukraine is seeking local help to raise money for a reconnaissance drone to be used in her hometown’s defense against Russian invasion.

Irene Lee spent the first 43 years of her life in Ukraine, hailing from the city of Sumy, located in the northeast area of the country at about 30 miles from the border with Russia. Her Ukrainian friends and relatives, who she remains in contact with, have told her about the threat they’re under from constant airstrikes.

Lee said one friend, Alexander, hides in his bathroom where there are no windows.

“When he goes to bed at night, he is never sure if he will wake up next morning,” she said.

The family of another friend, Sergey, stays in the basement of their house.

“His 8-year-old grandson cries in his sleep,” Lee said.

Another friend, Iryna, jokingly said in a Facebook post that as a result of the airstrikes, “her two dogs are not afraid of the sound of a vacuum cleaner anymore.”

After marrying her husband Ralph in Ukraine, Lee moved to King City in 2001. Every summer she has visited her hometown with her son to witness the city shift away from a struggling former Soviet locale to a prosperous European community.

Then, with the Feb. 24 invasion, Lee has been watching the news everyday to keep track of what is happening in Ukraine. Her husband has seen her crying while hearing about the devastation, from attacks on civilian targets to the funerals of young men from Sumy.

“I feel for my city, but I also feel for the whole country,” Lee said.

She prefers to watch Ukrainian news, since American news outlets tend to play the most tragic footage on loop, which she said is “heartbreaking.”

“The Ukrainians defending their motherland are showing unprecedented unity, strength, courage in battle with weapons in their hands,” Lee explained. “This war has cemented the people as one nation. Everybody does something to help their country and people.”

Lee, now retired, previously worked as an English as a Second Language instructor in King City and Monterey County. She said students didn’t understand the history of Eastern Europe, often asking if Ukrainian and Russian were the same language. She would clarify they were similar, but different and distinct, just like comparing Spanish to Italian.

The ongoing conflict has caused a feeling of bitterness toward Russia, with Lee characterizing the Russian troops as being like “orcs” from the “Lord of the Rings,” saying they were “cruel, ruthless and not smart, but still hard to defeat.”

Despite the difficulty, Lee said Ukrainians believe victory is possible and some of her friends like to discuss what they’ll do after the war is won.

The assistance from the United States and Europe has been appreciated, said Lee, whose own project has been to assist the war effort in her hometown of Sumy with the purchase of drones. She said Sumy is under constant threat, with smaller towns in the region having been struck, invaded or destroyed, and drones can be used for surveillance to monitor Russian troop movements.

Lee began with a donation of $100 and additional money from local contributors, which she sent through Western Union to her friends in Sumy to use toward the $3,000 price tag of a daytime drone. A drone capable of night reconnaissance would cost $7,000 to $10,000.

She said local donations could put a dent in that price tag to help her hometown purchase it from reliable sellers.

“There’s already shooting in the outskirts of the city, and they may start attacking the area again,” Lee said of Sumy’s position in the conflict and usefulness of a drone. “It would be a good help if they have it.”

Lee plans to send the donated money through Western Union at Rite Aid. Those interested in donating can contact her directly at 831-578-0682.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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