My "Refugee" Journal

My Story, part 5

This is how you fit 6 people on a bench seat intended for 3 in order to evacuate 2 large families in 1 van.

Read part 1part 2part 3, and part 4.

Ternopil, Ukraine
February 25, 2022, 5:30 am

Jon’s words provided relief from the torment of the night. I welcomed the chance for action and something to distract me from all my worries. How quickly could I gather our few belongings and dress the kids so we could leave the scene of my waking nightmare? It shouldn’t take long. 

I texted back, “Give us 30 minutes.” 

Jon later told me he was surprised at what a short time frame I gave him, but I was desperate for a change.

Everyone was still sleeping in the basement, but I didn’t want to leave my kids without at least one of them knowing where I was so that he could explain it to the others, should they wake. I knelt beside my eldest and quietly tried to rouse him so I could communicate my plans. I immediately had to stop, because his noisy protests at being disturbed threatened to wake everyone else! So I moved on to my second-born. As soon as I whispered in his ear, he immediately sat up and listened closely as I explained my plans.

“Do you want me to come help you?” he asked.

Realizing his help would be invaluable, I woke my third-born child and communicated the plan to him, then my 13-year-old son and I left the basement and headed upstairs to our rooms. My son quickly packed up the few things in the older boys’ bedroom, stuffing everything back into their backpacks, and then he joined me in my room, where I was busy repacking the clothes I’d carefully hung in the wardrobes and gathering up all our toiletries and the other things that I’d unpacked to help us feel more settled. 

“Should I go pack up our stuff in the kitchen?” he asked.

I had forgotten all about our large stock of grocery staples that I had just purchased a few days before in anticipation of staying here for two or three weeks! But it didn’t make sense to haul them along. They were heavy and would take up precious space in a vehicle that was already going to be packed past its capacity. 

“Just get the things that would be useful as snacks on the road,” I answered.

He hurried downstairs to do that and soon returned to help me finish packing up my room. While we were working, my phone rang. It was a video call from my husband. It was 5:37 am, and he was getting ready to leave our apartment in violation of the curfew to rendezvous with his ride out of Kyiv, but he had a problem. Anastasia, the woman who had offered him a spot in her car, had just called to say that her son had experienced a severe allergic reaction the previous evening in response to spending the morning in the car with our dog. She was really apologetic, but she said that George could not bring our dog; she was worried her son would not be able to survive a whole day in the same car with him. 

“What do I do?” George asked me plaintively.

In that moment, with the overwhelming uncertainty of an unexpected war looming on every side of us and the Russian army closing in on the capital city, the foremost thought in my mind was that George needed to get out of Kyiv and rejoin us. The fate of our dog was insignificant compared to the life of the father of my children.

“You have to get out of Kyiv,” I responded immediately.

“And leave Jack?”

“If that’s the only choice, yes.”

Later we learned that there were evacuation trains and busses that George could have taken with our dog, but at the time, it felt like catching a ride with Anastasia and her son was George’s only hope. A bunch of people were still staying at our apartment, and one family had no immediate plans to leave. They agreed to take care of Jack, and George told them that if at any point they decided they needed to leave for their safety, they should just put Jack outside before locking up the apartment. Jack was a German shepherd mix who had started life off as a street dog. He had a good chance of being able to fend for himself. Maybe we would be able to return to Kyiv at some point and locate him?

My 13-year-old was listening to all this, stricken. In addition to being responsible and mature, he is sensitive and emotional, and Jack had been his special buddy for years, helping him balance out his sometimes violent emotions. But in this crucial moment, my son did not have an outburst. Displaying a maturity beyond his years, he immediately grasped the gravity of the situation and why George couldn’t bring our pet. George turned his phone to face Jack so that the boy and the dog could see each other. My son said hi to his friend—and goodbye—in the same cheerful tone he always used with Jack, even though I could see that his eyes were wet with unshed tears.

I hung up the phone and gave my son a long, tight hug. I felt physically ill with worry and grief for both Jack and my son, but there was no time to sit and cry. Instead I took a deep breath and moved on to the next thing. We were preparing for our own departure, and we still needed to wake everyone and get them dressed.

We carried all our things downstairs and put them near the exit to the building, then we went back to the basement to wake the other kids and help the little ones get dressed. The older boys had slept in their clothes, so they were basically ready to go already. I don’t think we ate any breakfast that morning, and I’m pretty sure nobody brushed his teeth.

Jon arrived around 6:30 am. He had already loaded his family’s things in the van, but Stephanie and the kids were still at home. I was glad that we had so little with us, because it meant that it wasn’t hard to fit it all in the van’s limited cargo space.

While we were putting our stuff into the van, a man whom Jon knew approached. They shook hands and talked for a little. Jon had been struggling with anxiety at least as much as I had been, and this man’s calm and confidence was a huge contrast to what we had been experiencing for the past 24 hours. When Jon told him our plan to leave, this man was so compassionate and understanding. Even though he was staying, he emphasized that there was no shame in leaving, because some people are just built to live under stress and pressure, while others can’t handle it. This, coming from a Ukrainian, was profoundly comforting. We hadn’t even had time to process everything that was happening, but the beginnings of guilt over fleeing were already starting to take root in my soul—and we hadn’t even gotten into our escape vehicle yet!

Once we got everything loaded, we got in the van and went to pick up Stephanie and their six kids. Once all 12 kids were assembled next to the van, Jon laid some ground rules.

“Kids, today it’s really important that you listen and do whatever we say right away,” he said with sobering intensity. 

“Yeah,” I chimed in, trying to make my tone as comforting and gentle as possible, “and you need to understand that if we yell, it’s not because we’re angry. We just want to keep you safe, okay?”

The kids nodded seriously and climbed into the van. It had three rows of seats with belts for three people in each row, but that day, only the three people in the front row wore seatbelts. Those people were Jon, who was driving, and the eldest child from each family: my 15-year-old son and Jon and Stephanie’s 12-year-old daughter. The second row had Stephanie, holding her 1-year-old and 4-year-old on her lap, with her 6-year-old, 8-year-old, and 11-year-old children sitting side-by-side next to her. The final row had me, holding my 3-year-old and 5-year-old on my lap, with my 8-year-old, 11-year-old, and 13-year-old jammed in, hip-to-hip, beside me.

We made one more quick stop before leaving. Jon’s brother Aaron and his Ukrainian wife Dara and two young children were choosing to stay, and we wanted to say goodbye to them. We pulled into a parking spot by the side of the road where Aaron and Dara were waiting for us, and everyone extricated themselves from the crowded van. All the adults had tears in their eyes. Goodbyes are hard enough without the sickening uncertainty of war adding to the separation. Aaron and Dara had been keeping our pet rats, since animals weren’t allowed at the place where we had been staying, and they promised my boys that they would take good care of them for us. I hadn’t considered taking them, because I was worried that we wouldn’t be allowed to cross the border with them. Right before I climbed back in the van, Dara threw her arms around my neck and said fiercely in my ear, “We’ll get your husband back to you!”

Shortly after 7:00 am, all 15 of us were loaded back into that 9-seat van. We were only taking a few suitcases, some musical instruments, a bunch of backpacks, and a few treasured toys. We had no idea if we would ever return, but I don’t think any of us spent any energy grieving the things that we were leaving behind. In that moment, we were just grateful to be leaving behind the fear and suspense that had engulfed us for the past day and night.

Read part 6.

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6 replies on “My Story, part 5”

I’m sure it is hard to review all the stress of those days, but it is helpful to us who are far away to understand what all you went through.

You’re right. It has been an emotional process, sometimes involving fresh tears as I force myself to relive the hardest moments. But I feel compelled to do this. It is difficult but healing–and many people, like you, have said that I’m doing an important service by telling my story.

This: “some people are just built to live under stress and pressure, while others can’t handle it.” Yes. Thank you for that. And it’s a spectrum, too. It’s not just two straight groups, those who can and those who can’t; everyone has their own level of what they are built to handle. It’s really hard when people in one family are on different ends of the spectrum.

Also, pets! We ended up evacuating with our beloved rabbit. I was unhappy about the bother of that at first, but there was just no other choice under pressure. It turned out to be really good for our kids to have him to care for along the way, though.

I totally agree that it’s a spectrum; that’s very perceptive of you. I also think that life experiences can push us more toward one end of the spectrum or the other. Prior to the experience of having a newborn fighting for his life in the NICU almost seven years ago, I had no idea what an anxiety attack was. But the day after he was discharged from the hospital, I had a full-blown panic attack, and I’ve been susceptible to anxiety attacks ever since. They make it far more challenging for me to live under stress and pressure now than before.

I’m so glad that you were able to take along your rabbit! Pets are so special. **Spoiler alert** We do eventually get all our pets back, and having them helps us feel more grounded and secure.

Yes! Past experiences really color what is going on now. I’m sorry you had such trauma with your baby. I definitely realized that my past deportation was what made me almost hysterical when we left home this time. It was the same emotions of being forced out of my home again and very similar circumstances. I was breaking down not because of the shells whistling overhead; it was sitting in the back of a van in the dark with my children, being driven away from home with no idea of what was ahead… again. That’s probably what made me so resistant to evacuation at all.

I’m very glad that you got your pets back. I was afraid to ask.

Wow, yeah, I can see why it would have been so difficult to accept the need to evacuate. I’m so sorry for all the hard stuff that you’ve had to go through. I’m praying that things start to get better for you soon.

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