2 young families flee war-torn Ukraine, staying in Cranberry
Two young Ukrainian families are relieved to be watching the deer and chipmunks frolic on their hosts’ Cranberry Township lawn, and not wondering where the next bomb will fall.
Anna Kisel and her sons Matvey, 12, and Illia, 10, and Irena Tkachenko and her sons Ivan, 14, and Yegor, 9, arrived in the U.S. two weeks ago to stay at the home of their friend, Yana, and her husband, Maksym Yarmatsevych, who moved from Ukraine to Butler County 11 years ago.
The two grateful mothers on Thursday talked about their harrowing ordeal when Russian bombs began raining down on their hometown of Kharkov at 4 a.m. Feb. 24.
“It happened at night,” Kisel said through Maksym’s mother, Lyudmyla Martin, who translated for the families. “Everywhere we heard explosions and everyone was very afraid and don’t know what to do. Should we run or stay in our home?”
Kisel recalled her thoughts as she helped her sons climb down a ladder into their building’s unfinished basement.
“Instead of waking up and sending the kids to school, we woke up to a war,” she said.
Matvey recalls feeling terrified at the first explosion.
“I never imagined it would happen in my country,” the boy said through Martin.
Tkachenko recalled listening to newscasters on radio and TV reporting that the invasion could happen that night.
The reports said Ukrainian officials were urging residents to get an emergency pack together containing their passports, birth certificates, medicines and other essentials in case they needed to flee.
“We were sleeping with the windows open when we heard explosions,” she said. “We understood that war had started.”
She said because her family’s apartment building had no basement, the family members hid between the walls at first to avoid the shooting going on outside.
As soon as they felt it was safe, the family rushed to the building of a family member, which had a basement.
After seven days in the basement and with bombs falling day and night, the family drove to an uncle’s house in a small village away from Kharkov.
For two months, 14 people lived in the two-room house. The family then fled to Poland to a friend’s two-room apartment, where six people were already staying.
“The kids went to school in Poland,” Tkachenko said.
As for Kisel, she packed the boys into the family car at 6 a.m., two hours after the first bomb fell, to head for her husband’s employer, where there was a basement.
“It was so cold,” Kisel recalled. “The car was freezing.”
For eight days, 16 people lived together in the basement. The boys did not go outside.
“The planes that were bombing were flying so low, and all day it was bombs and alarms ringing,” Kisel said.
At first, food was still available at a nearby supermarket, but lines were long and prices were high.
In addition, all shop owners accepted only cash, as debit and credit cards could not be used because banks were closed.
As food became more scarce, a strict schedule was created determining how much food each person received at mealtimes.
Meals were prepared on a small electric stove in the basement.
Kisel said during their subterranean confinement, she and her husband tried to keep their boys’ spirits up by telling them that the situation was temporary and to stay positive.
“We said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re all together, and we’ll protect you,’” she said.
If the adults had a moment of doubt, fear or worry, they kept their emotions from the youngsters, Kisel said.
The family then spent four days driving in slow, heavy traffic and with limited options for gasoline to a region in western Ukraine.
“The Russian planes were always bombing,” Kisel said. “We have no place to hide. It was very difficult to get out.”
When they arrived in the Volyn Oblast region in northwest Ukraine, they realized the people there were accustomed to arrivals from the war-torn east because the families were given clothes and food.
“People gave them for free a little house, and they stayed there three months,” Martin said.
While the two families fought to feed and protect their children, Yana and Maksym were checking the “Uniting for Ukraine” website to see if they had been accepted to host their friends.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ “U for U” program provides a pathway for Ukrainian families to come to the U.S. for two months and stay with a family who agrees to take financial responsibility for them.
Yana said she was thrilled to find she and Maksym were deemed eligible, and began working to get the families of Anna, a childhood friend, and Irena, a college friend, to their home.
The families arrived in New York City two weeks ago, and Yana and Maksym, who paid for the party’s plane tickets, took two cars to pick them up and bring them back to Cranberry Township.
The entire party needed immediate tuberculosis tests at $115 for the three adults and $95 for the four boys.
The families have been enjoying the U.S., but the boys are suffering the effects of their memories during the war.
Fireworks held in Cranberry Township terrified them, and fireflies sent them running to their parents to report helicopters were in the sky.
“During the fireworks, everyone was scared,” Kisel said. “The kids said, ‘Mom, they’re bombing!’”
The medical helicopter stationed at UPMC Passavant North in Cranberry Township frightens the boys every time it takes to the skies, their mothers said.
But the boys are enjoying America and will take a trip to Kennywood next week.
“Everything is beautiful here,” Matvey said. “The people are all busy. It’s very different from the Ukrainian style of life.”
The young mothers are more than relieved to see their boys safe from the invasion.
“Ukrainian people are more serious, but in the U.S., everybody is so nice and smiling,” said Kisel, who hopes to be joined by her husband in a few weeks. “We appreciate Maks and Yana, because there are not too many people who have such great souls. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
The huge financial burden taken on by the Yarmatsevych family in welcoming the two other families is challenging, but the couple are thrilled to host them.
“They just feel like ‘How can I not do anything?’” Martin said of her son and daughter-in-law. “The families and kids have such a terrible life in Ukraine. They are still bombing every day.”
She said Putin’s troops are leaving incendiary devices shaped like cylinders or balls lying around populated areas. The objects explode when curious children pick them.
“He is evil,” Martin said as she wiped away a tear.
Yana said she and Maks are happy to help the two families and will continue to do so until they return to Ukraine.
“People should help each other, and nobody knows what could happen tomorrow,” she said. “War could happen to anybody.”