My "Refugee" Journal

My Story, part 6

Read part 1part 2part 3, part 4 and part 5.

Ternopil, Ukraine
February 25, 2022, 7:15 am

Despite the gravity of the situation, the overall atmosphere in the van was celebratory. These cousins really loved spending time together, and given how far apart we lived, they only got to see each other a few times per year. The parents may have been worried, but the kids seemed convinced that it was a party! 

Our initial plan was to go to Poland, since it was less than a 2-hour drive away. However, we talked with American friends who had headed for Poland the day before, and they were still waiting in line at the border after 24 hours! They said that a worker from the U.S. Embassy had told them they would have done better to go to a Hungarian border crossing. Since we had many connections in Hungary and very few in Poland, this information simplified the decision of where to go. We plotted a southern route to avoid Lviv and the danger of air strikes near that city and headed for the Carpathian Mountains. 

As soon as we were on the road, I went to work on my phone. I touched base with George. I updated our families with our new travel plans. I contacted a friend in Budapest who had offered to put us up at her apartment if war started. I told her that we were headed her way, but we had too many people in the van to continue legally after we crossed the Hungarian border. I wrote to friends in Ukraine to find out how they were doing. I connected people who were fleeing with others who could help them. 

One of my friends in Kyiv was at her breaking point from all the explosions she was hearing and told me she wanted to leave, but she didn’t know how. I asked George to put her in touch with a friend who was doing evacuations, and within hours this man was at her apartment, like a special-order evacuation shuttle! He took her to a church south of Kyiv, where she was able to spend the night in a private guest room and hitch a ride with other evacuees the next day. Eventually she made it to her parents’ home in Spain. Later she told me that on that second day of the war when I contacted her, she just wanted someone to pick her up at her apartment and get her out of Kyiv—but that must have seemed like an impossible dream, and she didn’t even voice it. But God heard her unspoken prayer and granted her desire. Throughout her evacuation journey, she experienced God’s protection and leading over and over again, and she developed a much deeper understanding of God’s very personal care for her.

Now that I had made the decision to move forward with securing my children’s safety, I was liberated to do everything in my power to help others. It was energizing and life-giving. I was so thankful to have a smart phone and a cellular data plan. Sitting in the far back corner of that van, holding two children on my lap, I spent the hours of that ride tapping and swiping, monitoring all my chats, speed typing with my thumbs, and doing what I could to help in the face of the violence and chaos that had suddenly engulfed Ukraine.

In the midst of the good feelings I was getting from helping people, I was also struggling with crushing anxiety about the fate of our dog. I spent a lot of time trying to find a pet hotel where we could arrange to have him cared for until we could retrieve him. It seemed like a long shot. So many people were trying to leave Kyiv—would the people who ran such businesses even stick around to care for the animals? There were some posts on social media from Kyivans who planned to stay in the capital, and they were offering to take in people’s small caged pets (birds and rodents) to save them from being abandoned. But I couldn’t find any good leads for a place to take a dog.

We made good time for the first three hours of our journey. We kept passing gas stations with lines of cars and were grateful that we had enough gas to make it all the way to the border. The atmosphere in the van continued to be upbeat. The adults were more relaxed now that we were on our way, and the kids were acting like we were just taking a road trip with cousins—and that it was the best thing that could have happened to them! 

We made a pit stop after we reached the Carpathian Mountains at a gas station with a restaurant and large convenience store. The plan was to buy enough food to sustain us for at least 24 hours, in case the wait at the border was really long. There were a few other cars at the station when we pulled in, but no more than I had seen before on previous trips through the mountains, which was surprising. On a mission, I strode boldly through the doors of the convenience store—and then I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to put on a face mask. I held my breath, expecting someone to yell at me, but then I noticed that none of the other customers were wearing masks, and none of the employees seemed to care. With bombs exploding all over the country and an invading army trying to take Ukrainian cities, COVID suddenly seemed insignificant.

I stocked up on armloads of the most sustaining snack foods I could find and added a few special treats the kids requested. As some of the kids and I carried the loot back to the van, I was shocked to see lines starting to form at the gas pumps! Clearly, we had been on the leading edge of the wave of evacuees crossing the mountains that morning, and now the rest of them were catching up to us. 

We were almost ready to leave, and then I remembered that people had repeatedly told us to make sure we had toilet paper with us for the wait at the border. I headed back into the convenience store to buy packets of tissues, but there was already a long line at the cash register from the new arrivals. I decided that, having just purchased over $50-worth of snack food, I could help myself to some toilet paper with a clear conscience. I went into a bathroom stall and started unrolling the loose end of a roll of toilet paper and re-rolling it up around itself until I had the equivalent of about half a roll in my hands. Hoping that would be enough, I hid it inside my coat and hurried back to the van.

We pushed on, feeling like our goal was almost within sight, but we were no longer making good time. Soon traffic slowed almost to a standstill. The road was clear in one direction, but on our side of the narrow two-lane mountain highway, a long column of cars merely inched along. Eventually we reached a military checkpoint and understood the reason for the wait. They were courteous and efficient. They simply looked at Jon’s documents then quickly checked our trunk and waved us through. After that, traffic moved better for a little while, but then it slowed to a crawl again as we approached another checkpoint. We had to go through several of these checkpoints to reach the border, and there were long lines at each one. 

At one checkpoint, cars started cutting in line by driving on the opposite side of the road. Jon started waving his arms and ranting at these passing big shots in their fancy imported vehicles. They, of course, took no notice of him. Eventually he got so irritated that he positioned his large white van squarely in the middle of the road so that no one could pass him on either side. Cars came up behind him, blaring their horns, but he just sat there, immovable as a tank. We were going through the middle of a mountain village at that point, and four weathered old men were standing together out by the road in front of their houses watching the whole thing. They kept looking at us then looking at each other and chuckling among themselves. It was probably the most entertainment they’d had in months.

Eventually, we made it through the mountains and down to the lowland on the other side. The border was near now, and we had to decide which crossing to use. Having visited Hungary many times, we knew that we should not use the one being recommended on the official website we consulted. As the main crossing point between Ukraine and Hungary, its wait times are routinely more than double or triple that of the smaller crossings. Instead of trusting the official source, we called friends who lived right by the border, and they told us to go to a small crossing that we’d never heard of before. 

We arrived and joined the line at the border just before 4 pm. The last section of the journey, which would normally have taken about two and a half hours, had taken double that amount of time, but we were relieved that it hadn’t taken even longer. The line at the Ukrainian checkpoint was short and moving quickly, and soon we were talking to a border guard. He was kind but suggested that some of us walk across the border, because we could have trouble trying to pass the Hungarian side with more than the legal number of passengers in the van. I had fully expected this, and my six kids and I got out to cross on foot. 

We had all crossed borders countless times before, but never on foot as a family. It was a new experience and felt like a fun adventure. There weren’t many people walking across, so we were processed and on our way long before Jon and Stephanie and their kids got through in their van. Oddly, the Hungarian checkpoint was nowhere in sight, but it was clear which direction we were supposed to go. Instead of waiting for everyone else, we decided to take a stroll through no-man’s land. The sun was shining brightly on the trees and the vegetation on either side of the narrow, winding, paved lane we were following, and we were thankful for the opportunity to stretch our legs after eight hours of being sandwiched in the van. We walked down the middle of the road, only moving to the edge when a car needed to pass us on its way to the Hungarian checkpoint.

Before long, my eldest became impatient to know how far we had to walk and told me he was going to run ahead and see. Fully aware of the fact that we weren’t really out for a stroll in a park, I opened my mouth to tell him that he needed to stay with me, but he was already off like a sprinter from the starting line. I called after him, but he continued on as if he didn’t hear. Soon he was out of sight. I was concerned that he didn’t have his passport with him and might be stopped by a border guard, but I didn’t feel that I could chase after him and bring him back, because I didn’t want to leave the rest of the kids alone. Besides that, I was pretty sure that I couldn’t catch him. I was in good shape for a 43-year-old mother of 6, but he was a 15-year-old competitive runner and taller than I was. My second-born was really upset and ready to run ahead to bring him back, but I knew for a fact that he would never catch him. I decided to leave him to his own devices. Either he’d get in trouble and be sent back to us, having learned a lesson about impulsive behavior, or he’d get tired of his game and would come back on his own. Eventually he came back on his own. Not long after that, we reached the line of cars waiting at the Hungarian checkpoint. 

It was much longer than the line for the Ukrainian checkpoint, because it was moving much more slowly. We decided to wait for Jon and Stephanie and their kids instead of continuing across on foot. While we had been traveling, friends in Hungary had reached out to our church network there and found a van and a driver to meet us at the border so we could continue into Hungary without breaking the seatbelt law. That van had not arrived yet, so we were in no rush to get across the border. 

We stood off to the side of the road, watching the cars arriving to get in line. When Jon and Stephanie’s van showed up, we rejoined them. The kids were all excited to be back together again. As a mother, I was comforted to see how evacuating with family was a gift that was protecting my children from experiencing the emotional trauma other kids in their position were feeling. 

The next few hours were like a tailgate party, van-style. We kept the sliding door on the side of the van open for much of the time, and kids were constantly popping in and out. At one point, a group of the older cousins were actually dancing on the side of the road next to the van. Now that we were officially out of Ukraine, the adults could relax too, and it was hard not to smile at the kids’ joy and enthusiasm. We all enjoyed the piles of snacks that I’d bought at the gas station in the mountains and chatted as the van slowly inched towards our destination.

Read part 7.

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