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Duluth mother says Americans understand little about Ukraine

In Alevtyna "Tina" Gjessing's view, most Americans have little understanding of the situation in her home country of Ukraine.

"I don't think they're on the wrong side, I think they just don't have enough information," said Gjessing, 41, who moved from her native city of Lugansk to Duluth in 2006.

Lugansk is in the far eastern part of Ukraine, much more heavily influenced by Russia than the western part of the country. There's a longstanding East-West divide in her homeland, she said.

Gjessing was the daughter of a Ukrainian mother and Russian father and spoke both languages. But she still recalls her discomfort while traveling with a school group to western Ukraine as a 16-year-old.

"I could see with my own eyes that they didn't like us because we were from the East," she said.

Gjessing is unhappy about the protests in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, that began in November and resulted in President Viktor Yanukovych being forced out of office last month.

"What is happening, it's aggression, it's violence," said Gjessing, who speaks faster as she warms to the topic. "This is all against not just the constitution, it's against humanity."

There was no referendum and no proper political process to remove Yanukovych, she argued.

"Actually, he's still the Ukrainian president," she said. "He just can't do anything."

The de facto Russian takeover of Crimea also is misunderstood, she said. Western media are wrong in reporting that the referendum in which Crimeans will decide whether to unite with Russia would violate the Ukrainian constitution, she said.

"Did you read (the) constitution of Ukraine?" she asked rhetorically. "Did you know that Crimea is (an) autonomous republic, and they have (their) own constitution? They have rights about territory."

Gjessing worries about her parents, in their 70s and still living in Lugansk.

"I fear for their lives," she said.

She keeps in touch with them through Skype, but Internet service is unreliable in Ukraine, she said. When she loses contact, she worries more.

For health and financial reasons, her parents haven't been able to travel to Minnesota to see her and their grandsons. She hasn't been able to afford to visit them, either, and she wouldn't go now, she said.

"I would really love to bring my boys to them," said Gjessing, who has become a U.S. citizen. "I hope they will live long enough. But this situation right now in Ukraine makes it really difficult. I don't want to put my children in danger."