MADERA, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – Tetiana was going home from work and could feel it might be the last peaceful night in Chernihiv, Ukraine. She looked at the cold, late February sky and had a feeling.
She was right.
“It happened within minutes. Nearby, we heard a huge explosion and it felt like a cookie house crumbling down,” she shares in Ukrainian.
Her daughter, 26-year-old Yana, sits next to her and interprets. The family is reunited in Madera now, at the same place Yana called home during her year as a foreign exchange student with the Harts in 2012. She moved to the U.S permanently in 2015, graduating from Fresno State in 2020.
“My American family was a chance to start a new life,” says Yana.
Now it’s the start of a new life for Tetiana and Yana’s 14-year-old brother, Bohdan. They asked to omit their last name because they fear for their loved ones back home.
“We’re extremely grateful for everybody who welcomed us with open arms. We crossed so many borders,” Tetiana says.
The Chernihiv natives are two of hundreds of Ukrainians arriving at the U.S-Mexico border after the Biden administration committed to accepting as many as 100,000 refugees last month. Yana’s American dad, as she calls him, picked up the family from Mexico City last Saturday.
“They’re so happy to be here and not have only one pair of pants,” Travis Hart says.
Tetiana says she remembers packing in a hurry when the Russian invasion began nearly two months ago. It was like she was 10-years-old again, evacuating.
After the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, they’d told her family they could return in two days.
She never did.
“We forgot, back then, to grab our family pictures –so this time, I knew,” she says.
She says they took refuge in a family home in a nearby village, where they didn’t have power or internet for 25 days of Russian occupation. She says they couldn’t make any calls.
“They had special devices to track the phone calls. We had 30 seconds if we wanted to make any call. Sometimes they would come drunk and they would shoot at our feet.”
One of the first days hiding in their basement, they heard Russian soldiers upstairs.
“And we heard them saying, ‘I don’t know, if you’re unsure just throw a grenade in there.’ And that’s when we ran out and started talking that there are females in here, that there are children in here.”
For weeks, Tetiana says they survived mostly off bread and potatoes.
“Even when the bread started getting moldy, we had to cut off the edges.”
Finally, their chance at survival came in late March.
“We heard the shootings back and forth and then suddenly it got a little quieter and we heard upstairs Ukrainian speech asking, ‘Everybody alive? Anybody here? You have 10 minutes. You gotta get out.'”
When the family was finally able to escape to Poland, Yana turned to her American parents for help.
“Maxed out credit cards, did whatever we had to do, but they had to be here,” Hart says. “Once we saw them, it was definitely a flood of emotions –happiness, sadness.”
“As soon as I saw Travis’ face, I knew that we are safe now,” Tetiana shares.
They’re now staying with the Harts. Yana’s dad had to stay behind to fight for his country.
“I do not have any idea if I’m going to talk to [him] tomorrow,” Yana says. “My heart goes to everybody who’s still in Ukraine.”
“You feel happy but almost guilty that they all couldn’t be here, you know,” Hart says.
Yana’s family has launched a fundraising campaign for relocation support. To help, you can visit this website: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/relocation-from-ukraine-for-bohdan-and-tetiana#/