Written by Meizhen Qian
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Oksana Kononets is a well-known model and entrepreneur who represented Ukraine in the first Miss Wheelchair World competition in 2017, as well as a Miss Individuality title winner, and so much more. On March 19, 2022, Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters in San Dimas, California, was honored by a visit from Oksana, friends, and family. With this, Oksana hoped to share her personal experience in escaping the outbreak of conflict to help Tzu Chi provide more effective assistance for the people of Ukraine who had crossed into Poland.
Achieving Her Dream
On March 7, a local Los Angeles TV station, KTLA, reported that Oksana, 29, had attended the Runway of Dreams Foundation’s fashion show as a guest of honor. The program mentioned that to fulfill her dream of appearing on the show, she traveled from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, to Poland. After five frightening days of ground transportation, she flew to the United States for the event.
Oksana’s dream of attending the event was realized with a bit of help from her friend, Johnathan Chuang, a young man who grew up in a Tzu Chi family.
“I met Oksana five years ago when I was studying baking in Paris, France,” explained Johnathan. “She went to a big fashion show at that time. We had a lot in common and have kept in contact with each other since then.” His grandmother, Jenny Su, and mother, Sharon Chu, a Pâtissier by profession, are both veteran Tzu Chi volunteers.
“I learned that she had always wanted to come to Hollywood, hoping to inspire more people with disabilities as a model.” Johnathan, who has been influenced by the Tzu Chi philosophy since childhood, told volunteers. “I helped her make contacts and with sending her resume to agencies and organizations in the U.S., hoping she could get more opportunities to participate in performances.”
“My Disability Is Not an Obstacle”
In 2012, when Oksana was 19, she experienced a fall from the 5th floor, causing paralysis below the neck. She refused to let anything stop her, however. She underwent several months of rehabilitation, went back to college, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in social work.
In 2015, Oksana hoped to share her personal experiences with others to empower more people with disabilities, and took on modeling. In 2016, she won Miss Wheelchair Ukraine; in 2017, after the international competition, she became the first spokesperson with a disability for a prominent Ukrainian lingerie brand. In the same year, she was named one of the 100 most successful women of the year by the Ukrainian People magazine, and in 2018 and 2019, she continued to participate in Paris fashion shows, and was awarded the title of Woman of the Third Millennium.
Oksana’s professional experiences across Ukraine and Europe, combined with her personal philosophy, also aligned with those of the Runway of Dreams Foundation, which advocates for a more mindful fashion industry. The Foundation invited Oksana to attend an event in early March. When Oksana and her mother, Maryna Kononets, went to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to apply for a visa, Johnathan Chuang arranged for her flight and accommodation in the U.S.
However, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Oksana wanted to stay with her father who could not leave the country. She responded to Johnathan Chuang immediately, notifying him of her decision, and asked him to cancel her reservation. Yet, Oskana’s father hoped to ensure her safety.
Five Days’ Journey
Oksana and her mother, Maryna, accompanied by Johnathan Chuang, Jenny Su, and Sharon Chu, visited Tzu Chi USA’s Headquarters on March 19 and met with Debra Boudreaux, the organization’s CEO in the USA.
“My father, sister, grandmother in her 80s, and the family cat are all still in Kyiv. My father insisted that my mother and I leave Kyiv, and he wanted me not to give up on my dream,” explained Oksana. “I video chat with my family in Kyiv every day and hope to return home to them soon.”
The conflict made long-distance travel challenging. With airports closed, Oksana and her mother, Maryna, traveled into Poland by bus and train. Considering the many unforeseen dangers they might face during the journey, the mother and daughter had to pack lightly.
The journey from Kyiv to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, could have taken over 10 hours, but it took Oksana and her mother five days, concerns regarding missile impacts always at the forefront of their minds. “Since many Ukrainian women and children were traveling to the Polish border, people volunteered along the way to help folks get out of the country,” said Oksana. From time to time, she and her mother had to take refuge in underground shelters with others along the way, while she received a lot of support and made many new friends.
The Best of Friends
When Johnathan Chuang received news that Oksana and her mother had arrived at the Polish border, he immediately purchased tickets via his personal funds for them, and asked his mother, Sharon Chu, to coordinate with a family that could accommodate them. Oksana and her mother, who had obtained their visas to the U.S. before the conflict, arrived in Los Angeles in time before the March 5 event, and were able to attend the fashion show. During their temporary stay in Los Angeles, Johnathan Chuang took care of the transportation arrangements, and purchased supplies and clothing.
Debra Boudreaux, the CEO of Tzu Chi USA, was very concerned about Oksana and her mother’s situation and learned that, although they had both received the COVID-19 vaccine, they were not feeling well due to the difficult journey they’d experienced. Debra Boudreaux instantly contacted Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s CEO, Dr. William Keh, to make an appointment for an outpatient checkup and provided a $600 emergency relief cash card, hoping to help Oksana and her mother obtain the necessities.
The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation is fundraising for items to help support those now seeking refuge in Poland from Ukraine.