Journey from Ukraine to NC is filled with fears, hopes. How a family reunited during war
The News & Observer (Raleigh) December 31, 2022
RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — UNC-Chapel Hill first-year student Rachel Kivlan walked up the steps of UNC’s Carroll Hall, where she had class in a few minutes.
It was Feb. 24, and a large television screen in the lobby showed tanks, sirens and smoke.
“Breaking News,” she read. “Russia invades Ukraine.”
“Holy (expletive),” Rachel thought.
She reached for her cell phone to call her mother, Svetlana Kivlan, in Charlotte. It took a few calls for her to answer.
“Do you know what’s happening?” Rachel asked.
“No,” Svetlana said. “I’m terrified.”
She had not answered the phone immediately because she was trying to get in touch with her brother, his wife and their two children. They lived in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and were not responding.
Rachel, 19, born in Charlotte to two Ukrainian immigrants, grew up in the United States. She had never met her extended family in Ukraine, although they talked through texts and video calls.
But she had one question for Svetlana.
“How do we get them out?”
Fighting begins in Ukraine
Viktoria Hrebenyk, Svetlana’s sister-in-law, woke up on the 16th floor of her high-rise apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine, to the sound of bombs.
She ran to the window, where a great plume of smoke darkened the sky and obscured the buildings. Viktoria shook her husband, Zhenya Hotovkin, awake.
“It’s war,” she cried. “They’ve started.”
She rushed to the closet to grab a duffel bag she had packed with essentials: medicine, water, sugar, pasta and other non-perishable foods.
“Just in case,” she thought while packing the bag.
Although she had read in the news about the likelihood of a Russian attack, she never truly believed it could happen. In Ukraine, she had a normal, comfortable life: a career she loved, plenty of friends, money she spent on makeup, a gym membership and trips to the spa.
She never thought the playgrounds she took her children to in the afternoons would become graveyards. The building that used to be their school became a bomb shelter where 2,000 people would seek refuge.
But now, she got her children, Alex, 12, and Masha, 8, into their winter coats, and told them to grab their favorite blankets, books and stuffed animals.
The family stumbled down to their apartment building’s basement, where 100 people huddled together for warmth on chairs and mattresses, surrounded by harsh cement walls with graffiti and exposed pipes. It was 14 degrees Fahrenheit down there.
Viktoria, Zhenya, Alex and Masha didn’t sleep.
Instead, they held hands while the building shook around them, not knowing when it would stop or if the structure would collapse onto them.
Viktoria comforted the elderly, checked people’s passports, and made sure those coming in could speak a safe word only Ukrainian people could pronounce. Zhenya stood watch over the neighborhood so looters would not raid the empty apartments.
They heard from a family friend that her 2-year-old son had been killed. They read about a massacre in Bucha, a suburb just outside of Kyiv, where more than 400 people died.
They shut their eyes tightly and mourned these losses while praying they would not be next.
They left the basement only a few times to shower or grab more clothes. When their snot turned brown because of bad ventilation in the basement, they took breaks at a nearby subway station to get fresh air.
Minutes bled into hours bled into days bled into weeks. Their skin grew pale, starved from sunlight. Their shelter felt like a prison. But they were grateful, because they knew what the alternative was.
Pictures of war
For days, Rachel and Svetlana didn’t hear anything from Zhenya, Viktoria, Alex and Masha.
Rachel couldn’t concentrate on schoolwork at UNC. It felt wrong to focus on her grades while reading about missile strikes. She was shocked that while her family was being bombed, day and night, people in her classes were just now learning about Ukraine or even joking about the crisis.
Svetlana had terrible dreams, which didn’t end when she woke up. They just became reality as she read the news each morning and wondered if her family was among the day’s death toll.
Rachel and Svetlana called each other often, commiserating in their helplessness and fear.
“We are living in a nightmare,” Svetlana would repeat to Rachel on those calls, again and again, like a mantra. “We are living in a nightmare.”
On Feb. 28, four days after the first bombs fell, Svetlana received a few pictures from her brother. Black smoke surrounding buildings that had disintegrated into nothing. Masha smiling in the shelter with a book on her lap. Masha and Alex hugging.
Those pictures were proof of life. Svetlana felt like she could breathe again. But the photographs were also proof of the danger her family was in.
“He’s there, I’m here,” she kept thinking, wracked with guilt that she was safe in the U.S. while her brother was trapped in a war zone. “And there’s nothing I can do.”
A few days later, she was able to talk to Zhenya over the phone.
“Do you have food?” Svetlana asked. “Do you need anything?”
Grocery stores in Kyiv had shut down, and resources were scarce. There were spells where there was no food. The family told Svetlana one man in their shelter started to risk going up to his apartment to bake fresh bread for everyone, just so they would have something to eat.
In Chapel Hill, Rachel felt handcuffed by how far away she was from both her mom in Charlotte and her family in Kyiv. She needed to do something, anything to help.
She and her manager at Purple Bowl, an acai bowl restaurant where she worked part-time, organized a fundraiser for Ukraine. Rachel and her coworkers spent a day making and selling yellow and blue acai bowls that resembled the Ukrainian flag. They raised more than $1,000 that would go directly to Rachel’s family.
Rachel didn’t feel like it was enough. She didn’t know how to safely transfer the money to Ukraine, and even if she did, she knew no amount of money could buy their safety. The only thing that would give her peace of mind was to find a way for them to leave Ukraine.
Her hopes were low. Her mother had been applying to get Zhenya and his family a U.S. visa for 20 years. Still, Rachel was determined to try.
Rachel felt, like she had for so much of her life, that she was living a double life. In high school, when her friends were able to be carefree teenagers, she would step out from her ninth-grade math class to answer a call from U.S. Immigration about her family’s case. Now in college, her friends were worried about where they were going to go for spring break, while her worries loomed so much larger.
She wanted to scream at them, “While you’re thinking about where you’re going to stay in Punta Cana, I’m trying to figure out for my family, where the hell are they going to live? How are they not going to starve?”
United for Ukraine
At the end of April, President Joe Biden announced Uniting for Ukraine, a new streamlined process for Ukrainian refugees to apply for asylum in the U.S.
Viktoria, Zhenya, Alex and Masha had evacuated to Novodnistrovsk, a town in Western Ukraine where Zhenya grew up. They were safer in Novodnistrovsk than they had been in Kyiv.
But they still heard air raid sirens three or four times a day. New reports estimated that 600 people had died in a March airstrike in Mariupol, and they worried about friends there whom they had not heard from.
Ukraine was their home. It was all they knew. They didn’t want to leave. But they realized it was the only way they would be completely safe.
Rachel and Svetlana scrambled to gather the required documents to apply for asylum.
Ukraine was receiving lots of media attention in the U.S. at the time, but Rachel knew the country had been struggling for decades. The U.S. hadn’t accepted her family before. She found it hard to believe the government would do so now.
One week after they applied, her phone rang.
“Our application was approved,” Svetlana said.
“You’re lying,” Rachel responded.
She hadn’t let herself picture what it would be like to meet her cousins for the first time, for fear of disappointment. Now, she let those thoughts creep in. Would they like each other? She had written her college essay about never having been able to spend Thanksgiving with her whole family. Would she be able to have that this year?
The acceptance was a cause for immense relief and joy. However, it also came with new worries.
Under the program’s stipulations, the sponsor takes on the full financial burden of the people seeking asylum in the U.S. They would be eligible to receive food stamps and Medicaid, but everything else would be up to Rachel’s family to provide.
Svetlana took six weeks off of work to prepare. She pored through housing websites until she found a small green house for reasonable rent a few minutes drive away from her house in the Charlotte suburbs. Svetlana’s parents, who lived with her, would move to the three-bedroom house to provide more support for Alex and Masha.
Rachel and her younger sister, Katherine, started a GoFundMe to supplement the cost of rent, and raised more than $2,000.
They asked for donations of old furniture from their neighborhood, and spent days getting the house ready. They decorated, bought spices for the kitchen and hung a welcome sign on the side of the house.
Next to the front door, they hung two flags, one American and one Ukrainian. Red, white, blue and yellow flew together freely in the wind, a sign of hope. Hope that their family would have a safe journey. Hope that the U.S. would welcome them with open arms. Hope that one day, the U.S. could become their home, just as it had for Svetlana and her husband, parents and children.
Journey to the US
At the end of June, Viktoria, Alex and Masha packed up their belongings into a single suitcase.
They would bring the necessities — clothes, important documents. But they would have to leave one important thing, the most important thing, behind: Zhenya.
When Ukraine was invaded, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy imposed martial law. Male citizens between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country because they’re eligible to be drafted. Zhenya would remain in Ukraine, working as a chef for people in the Ukrainian military and those in hospitals, while his family escaped.
Zhenya didn’t want to be separated from his family, didn’t want to miss seeing his children grow up, didn’t want to be alone in a war-torn country. But his first wish was for them to be safe.
After a tearful goodbye, Viktoria, Alex and Masha boarded a bus back to Kyiv. They had to travel on the ground because of the no-fly zone in Ukraine. From Kyiv, they took a train to Budapest, Hungary, where they spent a day sightseeing.
It was strange to be a tourist after months of living underground. They stayed at a hostel for the night. While they were getting ready for bed, they heard a loud noise.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
They froze. Had the war somehow followed them from Kyiv to Budapest?
But when they looked outside, they saw bright sparks of color. Fireworks, not bombs. Another reminder that no matter how far they fled from Ukraine, they could not escape the trauma they had been through.
The next day, they boarded a plane to Germany, and then another to Charlotte.
When they landed at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the first American who greeted them was an airport official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Hello, how are you?” he asked with a smile.
Viktoria was startled. In Ukraine, people did not smile anymore. She marveled at how freely this stranger smiled at them.
Svetlana picked them up at the airport. It was a beautiful day, and sunlight beamed as they walked up to her with dark, baggy clothes and weary eyes.
Svetlana had dreamed of this moment, after decades of putting together what her sister-in-law, niece and nephew looked like from pictures, Facebook posts and video calls. None of that matched seeing them in-person for the first time.
They piled into her car and drove to their new house.
Rachel and the rest of her family waited on the porch as they pulled up the driveway. There were hugs, tears, kisses, laughter.
It all felt so surreal.
Alex turned to Rachel.
“Everything in America is so much brighter,” he said, wide-eyed. “There’s actually life in the air.”
An uncertain future
Rachel and her sister spent the summer bonding with their cousins.
They took them to the neighborhood pool almost every day. Alex and Masha slowly lost their pallor from living underground for so long.
However, a tan and new environment couldn’t erase their PTSD. Alex especially struggled. Some of his friends had died, and some were missing in action.
In the fall, when Alex and Masha enrolled in public school, the structure helped, but they still dealt with learning a foreign language and some ignorant peers.
And they missed their father. They tried to talk to him every day, but it was a challenge with the time difference and his unpredictable schedule.
Viktoria has been trying to be self-sufficient in America, but even tasks like going to the grocery store or taking her children to the doctor are difficult because of the language barrier. She just got her learner’s permit so she can learn to drive, and she attends English classes every day.
In Ukraine, she had a career, good friends, money and independence. Now, she doesn’t know what she will do.
Rachel visits Charlotte often to eat home-cooked Russian-Ukrainian meals, to attend parent-teacher conferences for Alex and Masha and to be there for her family.
She’s painfully aware every day that her uncle is still in Ukraine, as well as other extended family members.
She thinks of them when she walks past the television screen in UNC’s journalism school. She thinks of them when she sees Russian propaganda on TikTok and identifies it as disinformation in her media ethics class.
For Rachel, thrust into the middle of a human rights crisis as a college first-year, saving her family was not the conclusion to her journey. It was the beginning.
UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.
©2022 Raleigh News & Observer.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.