Chronicles of refugees: how Ukrainians got out of the war-torn homeland and build a new life in Florida
For sisters from Ukraine, Florida is the land of salt water, rollerblading and a safe harbor. They hope that their father will be able to join them and that their stay here is not temporary. The path of the sisters was long and difficult, but now, being safe, they told about all the difficulties to the publication Tampa Bay.
It was dark, midnight when they finally arrived. The girls turned around rubbing their eyes. They didn't know what day it was or where they really were. Only that it was the last stop.
A month after escaping from Ukraine (crossing the border with Poland, catching a taxi and a train, flying through Turkey and Mexico), they ended up in Florida.
Their new house was small, blue, with a garage and a glassed-in porch. Grandma and grandpa opened the door, hugged them.
Now, 12-year-old Yuliya Khamota and her 10-year-old sister, Alina, could fold their backpacks, hide their down coats, and start a new life where they don't have to shudder when air raid sirens wail over their city.
The girls tried not to think about those terrible days or about the father who had to stay.
That night in early April, relieved, they stopped running.
Warplanes rumbled over their home in Ukraine. They woke the girls like a train rushing out of the clouds.
Through the bedroom window, they saw fighter jets hurtling across the sky.
Soon, all over the city, they saw closed shops, boarded up shop windows, drivers waiting for fuel for two hours.
The girls didn't know what was going on. Yulia, as quiet and serious as her mother, was scared. Alina, usually optimistic, got angry.
They heard that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to take over their country. But they couldn't imagine what that meant.
Their Ukraine has always been independent, like their parents for most of their lives. When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother was the same age as Yulia.
The girls have always lived in Lviv. An ancient city near the western border of Ukraine, its cobbled streets lead to a walled center. Statues of angels guard the towering churches.
When Russia invaded from the east in February, thousands of people fled to Lvov. But when planes flew overhead and a World War II bomb shelter opened next to the playground, the girls' parents decided to leave.
Yulia and Alina stuffed clothes and mittens into their backpacks. There was no place for laptops or soft toys. They hugged their old dog and climbed into the battered family car.
From the back window, the girls watched their house shrink, the white picket fence disappear, as well as their sprawling garden with berries and lilies.
They froze on the way to Poland, but could not use fuel for heat. In three days they traveled only 40 miles (65 km).
The parents barely spoke. The car glided past a pile of wrecked cars, abandoned suitcases, tired, cold and hungry people, wandering west. Occasionally they would stop for a bite of beetroot soup made from the steaming pots of strangers.
When gas ran out, the last few miles to the border, a family fleeing the war, walked.
The girls' mother, 43-year-old Galina Khamota, had no plan. But she had family in Florida.
Her parents live in Gulfport, as does her sister Ulyana Filipovich.
Ulyana and her fiancé, Gulfport Garage owner Eric Kudar, struggled to bring Galina and the girls to the US. The Times wrote about their trip in March.
Uliana and Eric flew to Poland, where they learned that buses were taking refugees to an abandoned shopping center near the Ukrainian border. They watched for hours how tired people got down, including dozens of children: alone, without luggage and outerwear.
Then they saw the girls.
Alina, Yulia and Galina did not sleep, hardly ate for six days. The girls seemed stunned. Their mother is shocked.
The driver found them in one of the last hotel rooms in Rzeszow. The next morning they all took the train to Warsaw.
It was cold. Time stopped. Every morning, the girls and their mother got up early and walked to the US embassy to fill out endless forms. They stayed at their Airbnb.
When their mother wasn't watching war news on YouTube, the girls shared their phones: Alina started watching anime, and Yulia learned to crochet.
They called their father every night. Andrei Khamota, 45, was then working at the steel plant when it opened.
Julia and Alina overheard conversations about lawyers and immigration. They learned that they were now refugees. Whatever it is.
My aunt wanted to bring them to the US on a visitor visa, but the authorities refused. Because, perhaps, there will be no Ukraine, so where will they return.
And then for the first time it dawned on the girls: they may never return home.
Most of their friends have gone to Europe. By April, when they had been in Poland for almost a month, more than 3 million Ukrainians had fled.
Aunt Uliana heard about Ukrainians entering the US from Mexico. Uncle Eric booked $13 worth of tickets from Poland to Turkey and on to Mexico.
The girls have never flown in an airplane. Their mother was stressed. They followed her through checkpoints and down long corridors.
At the Mexican airport, they finally saw something familiar - the Ukrainian flag. And hundreds of people who speak their own language are sleeping on the floor.
Neither the girls nor the mother spoke English. Eric, who went to pick them up, did not speak Ukrainian. And none of them are in Spanish.
He taught Galina how to tell the immigration officers: "We need a humanitarian password." He had to prove that he could support the girls and their mother, that they would not need government assistance.
Finally, internally displaced persons received documents to enter the United States.
But they couldn't stay forever. They should have found a lawyer, turned to a judge, asked for asylum, just like millions of other refugees.
The air was sticky. Girls never sweat like that. The sun shone so brightly that it hurt my eyes.
Everyone in Florida seemed so tanned and friendly. They noticed that not many houses in Gulfport have gardens, but they all have cars.
The pizza surpassed even grandma's dumplings. And hot dogs! How could they not know about hot dogs?
Then there was Walmart, where you could buy pancakes, T-shirts and skateboards in one store.
Julia picked up a sundress and sandals. Alina chose jeans and sneakers.
Their grandparents bought a mattress for their mother's living room. Bunk beds for the guest room, for girls.
“You are very lucky,” their mother constantly reminded them. So many of their friends were still in shelters. Recently, seven civilians were killed in Lvov.
Julia knitted baby Yoda to sit on their chest of drawers, painted sunflowers and flamingos to decorate the wall. Alina pinned anime art on another.
The girls glued clouds to the ceiling, hung lace curtains and a poster given to them by their aunt. There was something written on it in English, but they couldn't read it (it said "The best is yet to come").
Shortly before sunset, the girls followed their family to Gulfport Beach, where hundreds of people played volleyball, lit sparklers, and spread out blankets.
Julia knew that it was Independence Day in the United States. Alina drank a warm Pepsi while waiting for fireworks - she only saw him on YouTube.
The girls had never been to the beach before coming to Florida. Sand, sun and salt water felt like freedom.
Their hair is bleached. Their cheeks became tanned. The sisters began to smile.
“They seem happy. But they are worried about their dad,” Aunt Ulyana said. “You never know what will happen tomorrow, or how long it will last, whether they will see him again.”
When the first volley of fireworks broke out, Yulia gasped. Alina grabbed her mother's phone and started filming.
“I want to show dad,” she said.
And dad was at home, with their dog, listening to the rockets.
The new alphabet was difficult. After three months in Florida, they were still trying to understand him.
Their aunt signed them up for tutoring at Cumon, where her son has been studying since he moved to the US at the age of 5. “It will take you a year or two before you can speak English fluently,” Andrian told his cousins. “But you will speak better than your mother or even mine.”
At 17, high school student Boca-Ciega had no accent, excelled in advanced studies, and applied to college.
“Watch TV,” Andrian advised the girls. - Watch movies. Listen and learn."
“Big sister works hard,” said teacher Misa Franklin. “The youngest just wants to play.”
While the girls were doing vocabulary, their mother was waiting in the hall. She also took English lessons. But Galina was too embarrassed to try speaking in public and didn't know enough to get her driver's license. So her sister, a full-time dental hygienist, took them everywhere.
Things are not going well in Ukraine, Galina told her sister that day. The sirens didn't stop. Andrei had to sit in a shelter. The factory slowed down so much that he only worked part-time. Food prices have skyrocketed. And he couldn't find the salt.
Every day she checked where the bombs had fallen, how many people had died.
Her nightly conversation with Andrei was the only consolation. Videos with girls were his only highlights.
On a hot summer day, the girls and their cousin Andrian rode their bicycles to the playground.
They leaned them against the fence and saddled the swing flying higher and higher. The cousin laughed. The girls were usually so reserved.
They seemed old enough to worry about what was going on, he thought. But too small to really understand.
School will start soon. Julia received a scholarship to Walden School, a small private high school nearby. Alina enrolled in Bear Creek Public Elementary School. For the first time since leaving Ukraine, they will be separated.
The adults gave them so many summer adventures: the zoo, Busch Gardens, rollercoasters.
But when they were with their mother, they felt her grief. The girls' favorite pastime was a few hours with Andrian, out of the eyes of adults.
"It's okay," he said as he watched them. “They don’t have to think about the war or what they left behind.”
On the second day at school, Yulia tied a belt around her waist, threaded two red scarves through the loops, and waited under a tree.
A dark-haired girl ran up and crossed her elbows. Julia laughed, and they ran to line up. English was still difficult, but she understood Capture the Flag.
The girl was in the sixth grade in Ukraine when her school was closed. At Walden, all three high school classes study together so Julia can catch up at her own pace.
Judy Jemison, who opened the school, read about the sisters in the Times and shared their story with her students. Her students made “Support Ukraine” badges and stickers, sold them in the city and raised over $3000 for the family.
“They couldn't wait to meet Yulia,” the teacher said.
“Well, if I emphasize something. It must be important,” said the teacher, outlining the scientific method on the blackboard. Julia pulled out a pencil.
While the other students were drawing their magic markers, Julia took notes. In English.
“I think she understands more than we do,” the dark-haired Sofia once said. But she's so shy. I wish she would talk more."
The church smelled of candles and incense—Ukraine. The priest walked between the benches with the censer and greeted everyone by name.
The choir sang in Ukrainian. Women tied lace scarves on their hair.
Everything seemed familiar.
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“Bless Julia, keep her healthy,” the priest said, offering her to touch the golden Bible. “Bless Alina, give her strength.”
Andrian, the servant, wore a golden cassock, like the priest. He and his mom have attended St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Pinellas Park since they moved to Florida.
Several members, like the girls, have joined recently - they also fled the war.
After reading the Holy Scriptures, singing hymns and taking communion, Father Stefan Siniari looked at the 39 people who filled his tiny church and prayed in English: “Remember, Lord, our Motherland, Ukraine. Our fathers, husbands, children who are still there. Remember all those who ran. As well as the countries that have adopted them: Poland, Canada, the USA.”
After eight months of YouTube, TV, music and film, Julia was able to translate for her mother and sister.
Alina didn't really try. An assistant helped her at school. But what she cared about the most needed no words: cycling, skateboarding, football. She has a lot of friends with whom she has fun and does not need to talk.
“Instead of learning English,” my uncle remarked, “she teaches them everything Ukrainian.”
In November, Alina turned 11 years old. Ten fifth-graders came to her celebration at the trampoline site. One girl stayed overnight.
Julia fried frozen waffles for breakfast. She bought an easel, switched from watercolor to oil. The teacher told her that she was better at drawing than her classmates.
The girl wanted to tell her father about this, but there was no Internet in Lviv, and she could not talk to him for several days.
The last time the sisters talked to him, he had neither electricity nor heat. The temperature dropped below zero. When the girls were sweating on the beach, their father wrapped himself in all the blankets in the house.
“He is depressed and lonely,” Mom said. One night, as he was driving home from the factory, a rocket exploded five minutes behind him.
Ukraine has just expelled Russian troops from the Kherson region.
“If it wasn’t for the US, Ukraine wouldn’t have the weapons to fight like this,” Ulyana told her sister.
Like most Ukrainians, Galina and Uliana are confident that Ukraine will win. They just don't know how long it will take.
The same with immigration. It seemed like the rules kept changing.
The lawyer saw their story in the Times and offered to help at a reduced cost. They received "temporary protected status", that is, they can stay in the US for a year, until April 3.
“You should be eligible for asylum,” Miami-based lawyer Nydia Borge said. “You fled because the government could not protect you.”
She helped Galina apply.
“Girls need a dad,” Borge said. “And thousands of other Ukrainians in the same situation.”
According to the lawyer, Galina did everything necessary to stay in the United States. She then told her client what she did not want to hear: now you must wait.
It was dark, midnight, when he finally arrived. Alina did not sleep looking out for headlights.
She had been looking forward to meeting her father for a very long time.
Nine months after he helped his family escape Ukraine and returned to the train to enlist and fight, he was in Florida.
The youngest daughter opened the door and hugged him.
Now 45-year-old Andrei Khamota no longer needs to worry about his girls, about his wife and his own safety. He looks ahead and tries not to think about all they left behind.
“Everything happened quickly,” said Ulyana. “No one believed it until he got here.”
In mid-November, with Russian attacks cutting off power and internet for most of Lviv, Ulyana became worried about the approaching winter and started looking for a way to get her son-in-law out.
The Ukrainian government has demanded that men between the ages of 18 and 60 remain ready to participate in hostilities. But with power outages in so many cities and so many men still not given guns, Eric learned, those separated from their families were allowed to leave.
He and Uliana found a program through US Immigration called Unity for Ukraine. If an American agreed to sponsor a Ukrainian promising to cover all expenses, the refugee could stay and work for two years when applying for permanent residence.
“It's better than his wife and daughters,” Eric said. “So far, they’ve only been given one year.”
Andrew left the dog to his parents, who live away from the fighting, and made it to Gulfport the day before Thanksgiving.
The father could not believe how much his girls had changed. They both got a lot taller. Their hair is bleached. The daughters were tanned. He had never seen them so happy.
Yulia told her dad about her new school, Alina about her new friends. They showed him their bikes and roller skates and took him to the beach.
And on a rainy Friday in December, just after dark, the family gathered in Gulfport Park to take pictures against the backdrop of holiday lights.
They didn't put up a Christmas tree at home. They didn't ask for gifts. The only thing they wanted, they already had.
"Unity for Ukraine"
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has created a route for Ukrainians fleeing the war to the United States. If someone has a sponsor and does not need financial support from the government, they can apply to stay for two years, during which they will be allowed to work.
War in Ukraine in numbers:
- more than 8 million Ukrainians have left their country since the beginning of the war;
- more than 100 people made it to the US;
- over 11 people in Florida.
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