George’s alarm went off at 6:30 am. He roused himself from his bed on the floor in the open kitchen area. The apartment was dark and quiet. He quickly gathered his few belongings and put them back in his backpack. He visited the bathroom and combed his hair. Breakfast and coffee were not on the agenda, and he was soon ready to leave.
No Man’s Land, Dzvinkove Border Crossing, Ukraine February 25, 2022, 6:00 pm
The sun went down on us as we waited to cross the Hungarian border. The sky slowly faded to black, and still the single-file line of cars stretched far in front of us. Eventually we reached a place where we could see the Hungarian checkpoint. It looked so close, but we knew that it could still take hours to reach it. Even though it was now in sight, I was reluctant to leave the cozy atmosphere of the van to go stand in line with the other people crossing on foot. But eventually I could put it off no longer. We knew that our ride was in position on the other side, and by calling and watching to see who answered a phone and began talking, we were even able to identify our driver and his van. I gathered my kids and grabbed a blanket or two to ward off the cold, and we walked to the end of the pedestrian line. Like the line of cars, it was much longer and moving much slower than its counterpart on the Ukrainian side of the border.
George had been having a very different experience from us. After we had said goodbye on the call early that morning, he left our apartment with Olya to find some way to rendezvous with Anastasia and her son and get out of Kyiv. Because of the curfew still in effect, he didn’t know how they were going to get to the pick-up point and whether or not stairs might be involved, so George ditched the small suitcase he had packed for his evacuation and emptied almost everything out of his backpack. He has a congenital spinal condition that acts up anytime he lifts anything over 15 pounds, so he couldn’t take a heavy backpack or risk having to carry his rolling suitcase up or down stairs. As a result, he left home with nothing but the clothes on his back, his phone and laptop, his wallet and documents, and a few changes of socks and underwear.
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.
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.
Ternopil, Ukraine February 24, 2022, a little after 12 noon
That first day of the full-scale Russian invasion was one of contradictory extremes for us. The kids and I spent the first half of the day mostly alone in a basement, sheltering in place because of repeated air raid sirens in the morning. Then, shortly after noon, one of my brothers-in-law Jon came and found us. He was accompanied by a good friend, the Ukrainian pastor of the church that my husband and I had planted in this city fourteen years earlier. No words were necessary or even possible. We just held each other, tears in our eyes, drawing comfort from each other’s presence.
The night before the start of the war, George and the seven other members of our team had met and prayed and decided that if Russia invaded, they would all evacuate from Kyiv. Early the next morning, when the sounds of explosions jolted everyone from sleep, they all gathered at our apartment. At a time like that, you want to be with other people, and our apartment had a private basement to serve as a bomb shelter plus stores of non-perishable food and water that I had been gathering for weeks.
The train ride west from Kyiv took about seven hours. When we arrived in the city of Ternopil that night, fellow passengers helped me lift the kids and our stuff down the high steps of the old-fashioned train wagon. One of my brothers-in-law found us on the crowded platform. He had our three oldest kids with him. We all hugged, and the big boys took our bags.
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.
Despite all the upheaval and change that have characterized our life for the past 13 months, my husband George has been thriving. After he managed to get out of Ukraine in the wee hours of day 3 of the war and reunite with the kids and me, he went to bed, utterly exhausted. But he only slept for a few hours, and when he woke up, he immediately found himself surrounded by amazing opportunities to do enormous good. Without pausing to catch his breath or even missing a beat, he jumped into a swirl of activities and new partnerships that resulted in hundreds of evacuations in the critical early weeks of the war, millions of dollars of aid to the people of Ukraine, and ongoing care for the long-term needs of refugees in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.