In Cologne, they lived in a large auditorium with sectioned areas each accommodating six people; everything was provided for free — food, toiletries, donated clothing, even transportation throughout the city. As of April 15, Victoria was in Chicago with a Russian family where she has been employed as a housekeeper on and off for several years. She is happy to be able to work, but worries about Lena and the boys, about the future, about Ukraine. And of course, about Andriy, Lena’s husband. She misses Kyiv.
In Cologne, Lena was given an apartment and a stipend, has enrolled the boys in a school, and for the time being is waiting, filling out papers to establish her status and hoping to be joined by Andriy, hoping to come to the US.
For Yulia, my niece from Kharkiv, serendipity, the kindness of strangers, luck, all played a pivotal role, and her astonishing resolve and courage did the rest. And took my breath away.
For days after the invasion I had been urging Yulia to jump in her car and leave, go anywhere, get away from the devastation. She was hesitant, doubtful — her mother Louisa refused to move, there was a dog, a cat, her friend Natasha and little son Kyriusha whom Yulia didn’t want to leave behind... and she was afraid to drive hundreds of miles in order to reach the western border. And then, go where?
In the meantime, Luke, a college friend of my daughter’s, read a Facebook post that she had written about the plight of our relatives, comparing her family’s life with theirs. It was a moving plea asking for any help anyone can offer, and it moved Luke and his wife Dacia.
Within days after the Facebook post appeared, my daughter Ariana called me and tearfully said that her friends were opening their home to Victoria, Lena, Yulia, the children, sight unseen, no questions asked. They live in Switzerland, so the offer was not an unrealistic pie in the sky proposition, but a tangible possibility of asylum.
When I told Yulia she asked: “How realistic is driving across all of Ukraine and most of Europe…?” A fair question, but answers are easy when there is no other choice.
And so, on March 12, Yulia, her mother, Oscar the cat set out in her car, followed by Natasha, Kyriusha (Luke and Dacia accepted them with open arms as well) and Irma the dog in Natasha’s car.
On March 15 they reached Lviv where they left Yulia’s mother and Irma with relatives, gave them Natasha’s car, and started out on the adventure of a lifetime three days later.
Through Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Yulia, Natasha, Kyriusha and Oscar the cat, drove, stopping at refugee centers, hotels, churches, even a vacant house offered to them by a man who was taking care of it.
They reached the Snider household in Chavanne-de-Bogis, Switzerland, March 23, Kyriusha’s 5th birthday. When Dacia found out, she baked a cake while everyone was unpacking, thus ending their odyssey with a celebration.
Eleven days, 1774 miles and a new life. But this is only the unknown beginning.
Tatiana Liaugminas was born after WWII to Ukrainian parents, refugees from the former Soviet Union. She’s an American citizen, with relatives in Ukraine. She teaches Russian at the University of Dayton.