We meet lots of refugees from Ukraine here in Budapest. It’s easy. All you have to do is go to a park and listen for people speaking Ukrainian or Russian. Then you ask them where they’re from and how they ended up in Budapest. People are desperate to tell their refugee stories. They often start with the morning of February 24, 2022, with the moment they realized war had started.
This is my story, but to tell it properly, I have to go back to the moment when I first started to take the threat of invasion seriously.
My husband and I, our 6 kids, 2 pet rats, and 1 dog were living in Kyiv. We had been living in Ukraine for a long time. My husband had been there since the age of 16, I had been there since shortly after we had gotten married 19 years earlier, and our kids had all grown up there.
By this point, we had lived through two revolutions, the Russian takeover of Crimea, and 8 years of fighting in the eastern part of the country. The unofficial war with Russian separatists in the east had been frightening at first, but as the years dragged on and the violence stayed far away from us, it had just become a daily fact of life.
In October 2021, Russia began to mass troops on three sides of Ukraine. For a while, I was blissfully unaware of the gathering storm, but in early December my husband’s brother-in-law, a veteran missionary and all-around savvy, knowledgable person, asked us what we planned to do if Russia invaded. The conversation that followed had a very sobering effect on me. As a result, I packed two small suitcases with our important documents, valuables, and items that had sentimental value. I stacked them next to my desk, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and talked to my husband to develop a family evacuation plan.
The plan was very simple: pull our 5-seat sedan out of the car-sharing fleet where it was generating passive income, cram all 8 members of our family plus our 3 pets inside, and head west. In retrospect, it was a laughably stupid plan with far too many aspects that could fail.
As we progressed into January, concern over what Putin was planning continued to mount. We started to receive emails from the U.S. Embassy advising us to leave Ukraine, and my family in the United States started to contact me frequently. They refrained from telling us outright what to do, but I could tell they were terribly worried about us, and their fear was contagious. I fought to trust God, find peace, and live one day at a time. Sometimes I found the blissful peace of Jesus that defies human understanding, but it was a daily—sometimes an hourly—struggle.
We had no plans to leave. Kyiv was our home. Where would we even go? Moving back to the United States never entered our thoughts, though my dad and my brother repeatedly assured us we would always have a place to stay with them. Our family has never lived in the United States. While we enjoy visiting, it’s not home, and it would take a whole lot more than the threat of war to cause us to give up on the missionary lifestyle we know and put ourselves through the major upheaval of transitioning to life in the U.S. It would take the clear leading of God. But assuming we had a place to flee, we still hesitated—because how much do you disrupt your family over fear about a what if that you don’t believe will ever become a reality?
Even though I didn’t believe Putin would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as the weeks passed, I started to feel mounting suspense. The hardest thing for me was not the fear of the what ifs, but the uncertainty about the now. What were we supposed to do? I felt that God had told me I didn’t need to be afraid, but were we being irresponsible parents by not evacuating our kids? Or were we being obedient to God?
I remember telling my husband that if I knew for sure that none of us would die as a result of our decision to stay, I would be at peace, no matter what happened. But without that foreknowledge, I was in a torment of suspense. Should we go or should we stay? How long did we have to make a decision? I began to feel suffocated, crushed under the weight of indecision.
In early February my two brothers-in-law who live in the city of Ternopil in Western Ukraine came to Kyiv for a few days. When they headed home, we decided to send our three oldest boys with them. That way, if we found ourselves needing to evacuate, at least the rest of us would fit in our car. Kyiv schools were shut due to COVID, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for the older boys to get some coveted time with their cousins in Ternopil. The rest of us planned to make a visit to Ternopil in a few weeks, to see friends and relatives there and bring our boys home again once things on the border with Russia calmed down.
In the meantime, we decided to pull our car out of the car-sharing fleet. We wanted to keep it parked by our apartment so it would be ready to serve as our getaway vehicle, if need be.
But the same night that my husband was going to go retrieve it, a renter totaled it.
To make matters worse, the emails from the U.S. Embassy had become increasingly urgent. Now they were saying that all American citizens should leave Ukraine immediately by any means available. They were actually chartering flights back to the U.S. and offering tickets to U.S. citizens. Any citizen who chose to remain in Ukraine, we were told, had to understand that the U.S. Government would not evacuate them if Russia invaded. If we chose to disregard their warnings, we would be on our own. One day I even got a call on my cell phone from an unfamiliar number. I answered hesitantly and was shocked to find a representative of the U.S. State Department on the other end. He wanted to know what our plans were and make sure we understood the gravity of the situation, that the U.S. would take no responsibility for us if we chose to stay.
If the suspense and indecision had been difficult to manage before, now they were absolutely overwhelming. I went back and forth in my mind multiple times per day—should we go or should we stay? I was tormented and paralyzed.
Five days before the start of the invasion, my husband offered to call a friend who is an army chaplain to see what her take on the situation was. The general mood among Ukrainians was that if anything happened, it would be confined to the eastern part of the country, because Putin was too smart to launch a full-scale invasion that would cost him so much and would be destined to fail. So we were a little stunned by what our chaplain friend said to us.
“George, if I were in your place, I would get Sharon and the kids out of Kyiv. LISTEN TO ME!! Get…them…out!”
We didn’t argue. It was almost a relief to have someone whom we trusted a lot more than the Western media give us a definitive answer. We immediately bought four train tickets to Ternopil for the next day, Sunday, February 20.
Since our getaway bags had been standing at the ready for months, it wasn’t hard to finish packing. I put a few changes of clothes in each of the kids’ backpacks and told them to add anything that they would be really sad never to see again. I was trying to downplay the gravity of the situation, but I wanted them to take anything with sentimental value in case the worst came to pass. I explained that we didn’t need to take toys, because we could always buy more toys, but that if they had something that was special because of who had given it to them, they should take that. I also packed a backpack for myself and collected my musical instruments.
George chose to remain in Kyiv to continue our church planting work with our team. He would come to Ternopil in a few weeks to help me bring our whole family back home by train. We met with our house church that Sunday morning. We had no way of knowing it was the last time some of us would see each other for a very long time. As I sit here writing, I’ve been separated from over half of those dear people for over a year.
As I was getting ready to leave our apartment, a friend gave me a large cake to take with me. It was a sweet gesture, but I wanted so badly to refuse it! I was already feeling stressed about managing three little kids (ages 3, 5, and 8), their backpacks, my backpack, two small suitcases, and my musical instruments—and now I had a cake to top it off! But I tried to accept it graciously and adjust.
And then, just as we were about to walk out the door, my 5-year-old came up and said he wanted to take his toy electric guitar. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around trying to transport one more item, so I explained that we couldn’t take it because it wouldn’t fit in any of our bags and might get broken if it wasn’t packed properly. He started to cry—huge, choking sobs. Surprised, I got down on one knee to look into his face and asked him what was wrong.
“What if the Russians bomb our house and break my guitar?” he wailed.
At that, I almost started to cry too. It’s a messed up world when a 5-year-old has to be tormented by such thoughts. To my knowledge, we had never talked about the possibility of Kyiv being bombed in his hearing, but somehow he knew the grave danger our home faced.
I clasped him to myself in a desperate hug and said, “Of course you can take your guitar, buddy.” So he wore his backpack on his back and used the guitar strap to hang the bright red plastic toy on the front of his body. He attracted a lot of bemused looks at the train station, but he was so pleased.
We were quite the pair, because I too wore a backpack on my back and had a musical instrument (my flute) slung across my front. I also carried my violin and my 3-year-old’s backpack in one hand, and held the 3-year-old by the hand with my other hand. The 5-year-old and the 8-year-old managed to carry the cake between them by each holding one handle of the plastic shopping bag it was in. George went to the train station with us, and he and my 8-year-old managed the two small rolling suitcases. (The 8-year-old insisted that he be allowed to take one.)
Our goodbye on the platform was cheerful, as if we were just going away for a short time. I was relieved to be free of the suspense that had plagued me for so many weeks, and as far as I was concerned, all this upheaval was simply a pretext for some unexpected vacation time with loved ones in another city.
How very wrong I was.
Read part 2.
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