Families from war-torn Ukraine find solace and refuge in Ashland

In Ashland after fleeing war-torn Ukraine, from left, are Mehmet Sabri Kaya, Hanna Yakubovska and their son, Mykyta Derevianchenko. They are one of 14 families settling here with the help of Uniting for Ukraine Rogue Valley.
March 18, 2023

Additional hosts sought for families seeking to escape Ukraine

By Jim Flint for Ashland.news

Six weeks before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hanna Yakubovska arrived in Ashland with her husband, Kaya, and 15-year-old son, Mykyta, to take up residence in a first-floor apartment owned by Bonnie Johnson, who lives upstairs.

Johnson donated use of the apartment through mid-June while the family gets settled. Hanna’s family is one of several Ukrainian refugee families welcomed and aided by local residents working with Uniting for Ukraine Rogue Valley.

Like the rest of us, in early 2022 Hanna heard rumblings about Russia massing troops on the Ukrainian border and worried about warnings of war in the news. For her, residing in Kharkiv at the time, just 26 miles from the Russian border, the rumblings were palpable.

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine with a population of about 1.5 million. Founded in 1654, it became a major center of industry, trade and Ukrainian culture with numerous museums, theaters, libraries and hundreds of industrial facilities.

Hanna, who has a doctoral degree in physical chemistry, was a senior researcher at the Institute for Scintillation Materials (ISM), one of the top international research organizations working in the area of radiation detection.

She also worked for Fabula Publishing House as a translator (English-Ukrainian) of non-fiction literature on information technology and management, and tutored chemistry students. Husband Kaya taught English online for Turkish students.

The lead-up

Hanna, 42, was leading a normal life of work and play, even days before Russia started making troop moves.

Her first husband had died from a ruptured gallbladder in 2009 when their son was only 2. But in June of 2021, Hanna met Kaya, 35, in Turkey. He started living with them in November of that year.

It was a busy holiday season for the family. They visited the newly opened Fantasy Park to see its many light sculptures, art installations and musical performances. They checked out the newly renovated Kharkiv Zoo, attended a puppet theater performance based on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” went to a jazz concert at the Kharkiv Opera and Ballet Theatre, and attended a New Year’s concert at the Ukraina Cinema and Concert Hall.

Hanna also enjoyed introducing Kaya to his new city.

It was all leading up to getting married in February. But in January, Kaya was diagnosed with a herniated disc. He had surgery in Sanliurfa, Turkey, one of the areas hit by the massive earthquakes this February. And, because of a rehabilitation period through March, they postponed the wedding.

A turn for the worse

Things began to deteriorate quickly in February as rumors led to action.

“It was scary when the American embassy left Kyiv,” Hanna said. “Then foreign students began to leave Kharkiv a week before the war.”

It prompted her to prepare for possible evacuation and, on her birthday, Feb. 16, she organized and packed documents and other necessities for an escape.

“I still remember the overwhelming fear and despair,” she said. “My father was seriously sick with a urinary infection as a result of getting COVID, even though he had been vaccinated. I had no idea how we could evacuate him. We didn’t have a car.”

On Feb. 23, after returning from her job at ISM, she tutored a 15-year-old chemistry student for two hours and then worked on translation of an IT book late into the evening. She fell asleep sometime after 2 a.m.

“At about 5 in the morning, I jumped out of bed from the sounds of explosions and a bloody glow in the sky,” she said. “I saw neighbors loading things into a car, shouting ‘War!’”

People started leaving the city immediately. Those without cars, a luxury for many Ukrainians, left by train when they could or on foot. More than a million eventually fled before the city was captured by the Russians. It has since been liberated by Ukraine forces.

Those who remained in the city sheltered in place if they could or sought shelter elsewhere if their homes were bombed. They stood in lines for potable water and scrambled to find food and medicine.

The city was shelled, day and night.

“We spent most of the time in a dusty basement,” Hanna said. “And every night we heard the unbearable sounds of fighter planes flying over the city in search of the next victims.”

The attacks continued on a daily basis. Hanna kept in touch with friends and students, many who posted videos of homes damaged by the bombing. Life became more difficult as each day brought more destruction and hardship.

“In the chaos of the first days, it was hard to find not only drinking water but also bread, candles and matches,” she said. “Three days after the start of the war, I went to the market to look for food. People stood in huge lines — not for food, but for cigarettes! I was able to find a dried fruit stand and took the last thing on the counter.”

Back home, she heard the noise of shelling overhead, punctuated by the ringing of a church bell. It was forbidden to turn on the lights at night so matches and candles, in short supply, were used discreetly to light the way in the house.

At times, she found a bit more at the market, but not much.

“The ATMs were, of course, empty,” she said. “I stood in two-hour queues at the supermarket when I was able to get there, and the shelves were mostly empty. There wasn’t much, only a lot of Coca-Cola and other synthetic muck. One day I was able to buy sausages and a piece of cheese.”

As she was returning home with the groceries, suddenly there was the sound of continuous heavy gunfire. Hanna ran to the first house with a basement and waited out the shelling there.

In subsequent days she observed Russian collaborators giving light signals to Russian pilots, looting of stores, and addicts fighting over drugs.

“My son asked me every day when the war would end and tried to persuade me to leave Kharkiv. I started looking for ways to escape. Fear for the future of my son made me want to leave.”

Mykyta, left, enjoys a swing with a friend in a Kharkiv, Ukraine, park before war broke out. He and his parents have settled in Ashland.
The escape

Hanna learned that three friends went to the train station with their families and finally were able to leave after waiting more than 20 hours. They barely squeezed in and didn’t know where the train was going.

The next day a friend found Hanna and Mykyta a driver to take them to the train station. He was a war relief volunteer who had gasoline. She invited a colleague with two young children to join them.

Kaya was still in Turkey, recuperating from the surgery, and planned to join them later. Her father declined to leave. He said he would guard their home and apartments. A urologist neighbor promised to look after her father.

“I remember that day, March 4, very well,” Hanna said. “There were no cars on the once busy highway and no people on the street as we drove through the city center.”

Destruction was everywhere. Bridges were blocked and it took the driver a long time to find a crossing to the other side of the river where the train station was situated.

Abandoned cars littered the streets near the station. About a half mile from the railway, they released the driver and continued to the station on foot.

When they arrived, the platform was nearly empty. Most of the station windows were broken. About a half hour before they arrived, the station had been bombed and most of the people there scattered, seeking shelter or heading back to their homes.

They learned that another train was scheduled to leave in about an hour, so they decided to wait. Many of those who fled earlier returned by the time the train pulled in. Under the watch of armed soldiers, the crowd pressed forward to board.

“The train left when the cars were 150% full,” Hanna said. It was bound for Lviv via Kyiv, a 20-hour trip.

Hanna and Mykyta carried two backpacks. Inside were a small electric kettle, dry shampoo, soap, an iron mug, a fork, a spoon, a knife, dried fruits, cookies, a packet of necessary medicines, a change of underwear, a pair of socks, insulated pants, a couple of T-shirts, spring jackets, one towel, documents, diplomas, a thousand dollars, old photographs, a pair of gold earrings, and rings she inherited from her late mother.

On the train, she befriended a woman traveling with her 11-year-old daughter.

“They wore dirty clothes, carried a 5-liter bottle of water and a small bag that contained, as I understood it, clothes, a laptop and a cat,” Hanna said.

When they arrived in Lviv, it was very cold, -5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit). Her colleague with children had arranged to stay with friends. Hanna and Mykyta spent the night in a tent at the city stadium. The next morning, with the mother and daughter they met on the train, they continued their journey. They waited for five hours in a cold underpass for an old Soviet-era electric train to take them on the 18-hour trip to Przemysl, Poland.

“When we left the borders of Ukraine, I felt mortally tired,” Hanna said. “From Przemysl we went by train to Krakow. In total, we were on the road for 42 hours without sleep.”

Volunteers in Poland provided food and hot tea. In Krakow, they found shelter in a hospital for the insane. She spent the day in deep despair. And then she received the good news from Kaya.

“Kaya found a volunteer in Amsterdam among his friends who bought us bus tickets to Amsterdam and paid for hotel accommodations. It was the farthest point yet from the enraged Russians,” she said.

They arrived in Amsterdam on March 13. During the stay in the Netherlands, foster families welcomed them and helped her find a job.

Meanwhile, Hanna decided to move her father to live with relatives in the Cherkasy region in central Ukraine. She arranged to meet Kaya in Turkey and together they would go to Ukraine to move her father and to get married. Mykyta would remain in Amsterdam.

Pictured here on their wedding day last May are Kaya and Hanna from Kharkiv, Ukraine, war refugees who came to Ashland via the Netherlands.

They wed on May 20 in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, near the Slovakia border, returning to Amsterdam as husband and wife.

They made many friends in the Netherlands, but she was unable to find a job in her field, working instead as a loader for a coffee machine company, then in a factory, and finally in an assembly shop. Kaya, meanwhile, was fighting the red tape of securing a resident’s permit and insurance.

In addition, the Netherlands was in the midst of a housing crisis because there were so many refugees. And the three of them, fluent in English, did not speak Dutch.

Because of those difficulties, the family decided to seek better opportunities in the United States.

“The U.S. is a country based on citizenship, not race, so we can be American but we can never be Dutch,” Hanna said.

Finding Ashland

Kaya learned about Uniting for Ukraine Rogue Valley (UURV) and got in touch with UURV Chair Scott Bandoroff, who arranged for them to come to Ashland.

They flew to New York City where they were given a two-year pass for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Uniting for Ukraine program. From there they took two flights to Medford where they were met by Bandoroff, who introduced them to their host, Bonnie Johnson.

Hanna has not yet found employment in her field. Kaya wants to become a truck driver and is on track to get certification. Mykyta, who originally planned to attend Ashland High School, instead attends online classes with his Ukraine classmates. Because of the time difference, he studies and is online at night, sleeping during the day.

“I like my Ukrainian school,” Mykyta said. “I have many friends there and our teachers are nice.”

He wanted to move to a safe place, but he misses his friends, his relatives and his school.

“I dream to go back home to Kharkiv and want to get an education at Kharkiv National University,” he said.

His parents, on the other hand, want to settle in the United States.

“Our neighboring countries are too dangerous,” Hanna said, “and no one knows when the war will end.”

What would it take for them to be able to return to Ukraine?

“Victory for Ukraine, the collapse of Russia, and an economic miracle in Ukraine,” she said.

How you can help

UURV is currently involved with 14 families, the majority living in Ashland. One family is in Talent and one in Medford.

“We are in desperate need of hosts,” said Bandoroff, an Ashland psychologist and relational therapist. “We have a waitlist of people who want to escape Ukraine, but we can’t bring them if we don’t have somewhere to put them.”

UURV provides financial and logistical support to host families to reduce their burden.

“We are also interested in volunteer support,” he said, “primarily on a team to help support our families so our hosts are not unduly taxed. We also could use frequent flyer miles, preferably on United, as airfare is our biggest expense.”

UURV was formed in May of 2022.

“It was just before I went to Poland to volunteer with Ukrainian refugees last June,” he said. “It was there that I met our first family, brought over in August.”

Three families are now in their own housing. UURV is raising funds to help families with rent when they are ready to transition.

“We also have a couple other organizations, like Rotary, which are raising funds to provide rent for a family for a year,” he said. “We have had furniture donated and furnished the living spaces of all three families who are now living independently. Nine refugees are currently employed and others have been able to pick up odd jobs.”

UURV has its own English as a Second Language program with eight volunteer teachers offering beginner and intermediate ESL classes.

“Our biggest concern is what happens after two years when visas expire,” Bandoroff said. “Some of them do not have homes — or cities — to return to.”

If you are interested in helping UURV, contact the organization at unitingforukrainerv.org. On the site is a form where you can offer assistance or request more information.

Reach writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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