Darya Zorka initially earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, but she left that line of work to pursue her true passion as an artist. She dedicated years to taking art classes and honing her craft, eventually posting her art on Instagram (@darya.zorka) and opening an Etsy shop. Her career began to build as she gained followers and customers.
Then, on Feb. 24, everything changed.
Darya is originally from Belarus, and when she moved to the U.S. in her early twenties, she met her husband, who is originally from Kyiv, Ukraine. On Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, leaving family members and friends stranded in the crosshairs of a war.
Her husband’s family, including his mother, 85-year-old grandmother, aunt, two teenage sisters and three cats, were in Kyiv at the time. When Darya and her husband heard the news, they called his family, waking them up to inform them that their city was being attacked.
“It’s a horrible experience when you have to call your loved ones and tell them their city is being bombed and they have to evacuate and it’s five in the morning,” Darya says.
Darya and her husband tried to convince his family to leave Kyiv, but the streets were jammed with people trying to evacuate the city. Their family faced a choice: either try to leave and sit in the car amid missile attacks, or sit in their house and hope it would not be hit.
The family decided to stay in Kyiv, which was a stressful time for the family.
“Kyiv was bombed and people were dying, and we were very, very scared,” Darya says. “It’s like a lottery — their house could be next. You don’t know. You have no idea where it will hit.”
Eventually, the family left Kyiv to travel to where Darya’s mother lives in Poland. However, the journey was difficult as the family drove through dangerous territories.
Then, another crisis occurred. After driving for days without enough sleep, Darya’s mother-in-law fell asleep behind the wheel and the car crashed into a tree with the entire family inside.
“Since we have this big time difference, we woke up and we saw the message that they hit a tree and got in this car accident, and this is not the message that you want to read when you wake up,” Darya says. “They survived by a miracle.”
Remarkably, everyone escaped the crash with only minor injuries, but their car — their source of transportation to safety in Poland — was totaled.
Luckily, Ukrainians in a car behind them on the road saw the crash and assisted the family. They then managed to find a driver to take them farther toward their destination, but it was difficult to travel without a car. After a few stressful weeks, though, the family reached Poland safely and has remained there since.
However, it has been difficult for the family to adjust to life in Poland.
“Every day they talk about coming back [to Ukraine],” Darya says. “They’re not going to stay there. They don’t want to settle there. It is especially hard for his grandma. She lived all her life in Kyiv. She can wake up one day and begin to pack her stuff and when you ask, ‘Where are you going?’ she says, ‘I’m going to Kyiv.’ And it happens from time to time.”
As all this unfolded, Darya grappled with the desire to help Ukraine amid her expanding art career.
“I kind of was on the edge, like what am I supposed to do next?” Darya says. “Am I an artist now, or no? Should I continue my art career, or should I focus on Ukraine right now because this is what is so important right now in my life and in life with my family? So I just decided to combine and do both.”
Instead of choosing between activism and art, Darya found a way to do both, combining her passions. To help Ukraine, she organized a successful fundraiser, Sunflowers for Ukraine, using her art. She created digital files of some of her paintings of sunflowers that people can purchase, download and print. All the money she raises from these paintings goes toward supporting Ukraine.
Darya also began to write informational posts about Ukraine and share how to help. These posts began to go viral, reaching hundreds of thousands of people, far beyond her usual reach of a couple thousand.
“I just couldn’t continue with my art journey like nothing is going on — to post pretty pictures of pretty paintings and just ignore what is going on in my family,” Darya says. “So I decided to speak about it, post about it, bring awareness and show what is going on and teach people about Ukraine in general. [I wanted to] introduce them to Ukraine because, especially in the U.S., people were so unaware.”
Although much of the coverage about Ukraine is about the war, Darya tries to also emphasize other aspects of Ukraine. While she grew up in Belarus, Darya recalls many fond memories from spending summers with her grandmother in Crimea, Ukraine during her childhood. Her love of Ukraine grew as she reached adulthood and took more trips there independently, where she enjoyed its nature — for example, she hiked the Carpathian Mountains — as well as learned about its culture and met people from there. In fact, prior to moving to the U.S., she considered moving to Ukraine.
“I was telling my girlfriends that I’m going to marry a Ukrainian guy,” she says. “I’m moving to Ukraine and I’m going to marry a Ukrainian guy because I love Ukraine and I love Ukrainians. Then, I got an opportunity to move to the U.S. and my girlfriends were joking like, ‘Imagine if you meet a Ukrainian in the U.S. and you marry him.’ And this is exactly what happened.”
Darya aims to highlight the Ukrainian culture she loves in her posts as a part of her activism.
“My idea is not to talk only about the war because Ukraine is much more than war,” Darya says. “It’s a huge, beautiful country with incredible culture, with incredible history. I love nature, and my paintings are inspired by nature. Ukraine has incredible nature. They have seas, they have mountains, they have desert [and] they have so many ecosystems.”
However, her choice to speak out about the conflict in Ukraine has presented its own set of hardships. Darya has received a lot of hate on social media for her activism, and she has lost followers and friends.
“Many people just disappeared because [they would say], ‘What do you know about this stuff? Just paint pretty paintings and don’t talk about politics,’ and I was telling [them], ‘It’s not politics. This is life and if you think that this is politics, I don’t want to know you anymore.’ This is my family and you are telling me it’s politics?” Darya says.
She thought that once she launched into activism, her art career would end. However, the opposite happened. She found a supportive community on Instagram and actually received more sales.
“These people came because of my information about Ukraine, but they stayed because they liked my art and they eventually purchased my art,” Darya says. “They began to speak about me and advertise me as an artist on their pages, and I was like ‘Wow.’ I think my message is do what you really care about, and don’t think about consequences. I kind of gave up my art career and decided, ‘OK, I don’t care anymore.’ This career flourished because I stopped thinking about what people think about me [and] what people want to see on my page or from me. This is me. This is my page. This is my space. This is my life, and I do what I want to do. If you don’t like it, just leave. If you like it, stay.”
Her activism also opened doors to completely new opportunities. In fact, Frontline PBS reached out to Darya about becoming a translator for a documentary project about the war in Ukraine set to air this fall. Darya has worked with that team to translate raw footage from Ukraine.
“What I saw was so different from what we see on the news because news is very limited to us,” Darya says. “It was live in real time — what is going on right now. Nobody edited it. I saw it with my eyes. It was very hard to watch and very hard to translate, and it was very hard because Ukraine is very dear to my heart and I’ve been there so many times and my husband’s family lives there. It was really touching.”
Although she still receives hate, Darya sees her impact as valuable and appreciates the community she has built.
“I saw that I can make an impact, and people who came to my page loved my art, but they also loved what I was doing as an activist [and] as a blogger who talks about Ukraine,” she says. “I was surprised that I can do both because I thought I could only be an artist or I can only be an activist, but no.”
While Darya feels “very, very lucky” because her family members are still alive and safe in Poland, the time is still stressful, and many of her and her husband’s friends remain in danger.
“We have many friends in Kyiv and Ukraine, and some of them are going to be drafted to the army,” Darya says. “They’re not there yet, but eventually they’re going to, and it’s scary. We have friends of our friends who died. We have neighbors of our friends who were killed. We know people whom we lost to this war. When you’re getting messages like this every day, when you see friends of your friends are getting killed or houses getting bombed — like my husband’s school was destroyed, or his neighborhood where he used to grow up was hit, or his classmate was sitting in his apartment and his apartment was hit by a missile. When you are living in these conditions, you can’t pretend that nothing is going on. You can’t just do what you always did and pretend that everything is fine because nothing is fine. That’s why I keep talking. That’s why I keep reaching people, I keep posting [and] I keep educating.”
Darya is inspired by the unity and bravery of the Ukrainian people, and she encourages other women to be inspired, as well.
“I wasn’t so brave before, and I got this inspiration from the Ukrainian people because they’re brave and they’re bold,” Darya says. “They know what they want. They know what they care about. They know who they love and what they love, and they fight for it. It works for women too because if you know who you are, if you know what you’re fighting for, if you know what you love, you shouldn’t be afraid to do anything.”
To help Ukraine, Darya encourages people to stay informed and to donate consistently if possible. She says that any small token of support — even reposting something about Ukraine — can help.
“Don’t forget about it,” Darya says. “We have very short attention spans and we just want to move on, but what is happening now is much bigger than Ukraine. It’s much bigger than just some conflict in Europe. I think it’s important to stay informed and keep talking about it. It doesn’t have to be only about war. Just learn something Ukrainian, like what you are interested in. You can be interested in architecture or nature or music. Pick something and learn about it, and bring it into your life.”