Ukrainian model Kristy Ponomar is stuck in her Paris hotel room with COVID-19 while her family is living in a bomb shelter in Ukraine’s capital. She was supposed to fly back to Kyiv, now that Paris Fashion Week is over, but she is still contagious, the airport is closed, and her parents are telling her to stay away.
“I will stay here because all my family and my boyfriend say to me, ‘Don’t come back now, you don’t need to sleep in a bomb shelter, it doesn’t help anyone.’ So I will stay here, and I don’t know when I can come back home,” she tells me.
The only way she could even get to Ukraine now is by car or train, but the Russian army has been destroying roads and bridges to keep Ukrainians from fleeing—and Ukraine has also destroyed at least one bridge to slow Russia’s advance into Kyiv—so the trip would be long, difficult, and incredibly dangerous.
Ponomar says her modeling agencies in Italy and France are supporting her by providing hotels for her to stay at and helping her get the supplies she needs. And she says they’ve offered to host her family members, too, if they want, and are able, to leave Ukraine. “But I just want to go back home,” she says. “My whole life is in Ukraine—my family, my boyfriend, my little dog.”
The 21-year-old model caused quite a stir during fashion month and on social media due to her posts and comments about Russian president Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine.
On February 24, the day the war was declared, she was booked to walk Prada’s fall/winter show in Milan. On Instagram that day, she shared a photo of herself crying backstage and another of her at an anti-war protest with other Ukrainian models. “Fuck war! Fuck Putin! I wanna come back home and stay safe! I just did @prada it’s was the hardest show in my life. I walking for you my Ukraine. Thank you amazing @prada team for support me #nowarinukraine,” she wrote.
Ponomar tells me she was getting ready to go to the show when her mother called to tell her she’d heard bombs go off outside their home and thought the invasion had started. “I cried for like three hours backstage,” she says, adding that she got herself together to walk the runway, but once that was over, she broke down.
“The whole Prada team came to me and said, ‘If you need something, you can ask.’ And Raf Simons (the current co-creative director of Prada) came to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry. If you don’t want to go on the runway, that’s okay, just tell us. We understand if you can’t,’” she tells me. “The fashion community has been super kind to us Ukrainian models now.”
Though it’s been dreadful being stuck in Paris while her family hides from Russian bombs back home, Ponomar says she’s found a community of Ukrainian models—refugees—also staying in the French city, with whom she communicates regularly. “From the first day, we started connecting with each other, and we go to strikes together, and we help each other, like, ‘Do you need some food? Do you need some help? Do you need some money?’ Because a lot of models don’t have enough money to stay for a long time,” she says, adding that she’s actually one of the eldest of the group, as most of the models who traveled to fashion month from her country are 16 or 17 and are “very scared.”
Many non-Ukrainian models have also offered them support, Ponomar says. At the Saint Laurent show on March 1, she says a model from Poland and another from Russia came up to her to express their sympathy. “And I was so happy, because now a lot of Russian models have started to ignore Ukrainians. I think they think that because [our countries] are at war, we have a problem,” she says. “I feel super strange about it, because I don’t say anything bad about Russian people. I know not everyone in Russia thinks Putin is a good president, and I know a lot of Russian people are good people.”
Ponomar says she didn’t expect to feel such tension with Russian models during the shows, just as she didn’t expect to lose most of her Russian followers when she started sharing Instagram posts and stories about the war and information on how to help Ukraine. “Many of them said to me, ‘Why are you speaking about Ukraine? We want your model content.’ And I just said, like, ‘Guys, are you okay? You’re waiting for my pictures from shows when my family’s sitting in a bomb shelter?’ And they just started unfollowing me,” she says.
Before the invasion, she says, “All my content on TikTok and Instagram was about modeling, about my work, about my travels, about my friends—but then war started, so that doesn’t matter now.”
Ponomar’s uncle and cousin joined the Ukrainian army, and her boyfriend also works closely with the troops. Meanwhile, her mom works at the Kyiv post office during the day (between bomb sirens), and then spends the nights with Ponomar’s father and little brother underground. The model said she worries about her loved ones and prays for their safety every day, but it gives her hope that “our army is being super strong” and that her parents keep assuring her they are doing fine. “I video-call them every day, and my mom texts me every three hours, ‘We are okay,’” she says.
When I ask her how they felt about her traveling from Milan to Paris to walk for brands amid the chaos, Ponomar says they couldn’t be more supportive and proud. “My mom is always asking me for links to translated articles about the shows,” she says with a laugh. “And sometimes service is bad and the articles don’t load, so she says, ‘Oh, just send me the photos of you so I can show them to everybody.’”
Ponomar has been a model for six years and very much wants to continue her career once peace is restored in her country. Though the contrast of her situation (modeling couture in Paris while her loved ones are in the middle of a war) is very much front of mind, she says she understands why fashion month carried on as planned. “I think it must happen because it’s a job, people can’t just cancel everything,” she says. “But I do think some brands can speak about the situation. Because some—like Balenciaga and Isabel Marant—did speak out, but others just act like, ‘Nothing’s happening, we’re just doing some show.’ But I think if you’re a big brand, you have some influence in this world, so you need to speak about this.”
Ponomar is currently in isolation in her hotel as she recovers from COVID-19 (it’s the second time she’s gotten it, even though she’s fully vaccinated and boosted). She says she’ll get home as soon as she can, but for now, she’s going to spend her time talking to her family and continuing to share information about the war.
“Our families in Ukraine keep telling us models here, ‘You can’t join the army, you can’t help. Just stay where you’re safe,’” she says. But that’s why she’s made it her mission to help through social media, by posting photos of what’s really happening and giving people easy ways to aid Ukrainians in need.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.