UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — In February, Yana and Pavlo Okseniuk were living with their kids, Denys and Mariia, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
They were a “pretty average family,” Yana’s sister Yulia Abushevich said. Yana worked at a daycare, while Pavlo worked as a driver.
Denys, 17, was in his first year at university, studying cybersecurity. And Mariia, 7, was in grade school.
But like so many other Ukrainians, their lives were violently uprooted when Russia invaded the country Feb. 24.
Three months later, the Okseniuks are now living in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, thousands of miles from their war-torn home.
During the time in between, the family made their way from Kyiv to a suburb of Warsaw, Poland to a refugee camp in Tijuana, Mexico before finally entering the United States and flying to Chicago.
Speaking in a Zoom interview last week, Yana, Denys and Mariia talked about how they decided to leave Ukraine and what their life has looked like since. Pavlo was not available to be interviewed.
The family spoke a bit in English, but mostly were translated by Abushevich, who has lived in the United States for the past 20 years.
When rumblings of war ratcheted up this winter, the Okseniuks said they initially weren’t concerned.
At first, “they were not scared, and thought it was more fear-inducing news, and wouldn’t believe that something like this would happen,” Abushevich said, summarizing what Denys and Yana told her in Ukrainian.
But then, Yana’s boss told her to prepare “a small suitcase in case they have to leave immediately, like the most urgent items should be in there,” she said through her sister. “And that’s when they started getting worried,” Abushevich said.
When Russia finally did invade in late February, the family first fled to their summer house outside of Kyiv, where in more normal times they would go on weekends.
But after spending only one night there and watching the destruction unfold around the country, the family made the urgent decision to flee to Poland.
“And that was very smart because I actually told them not to go, that this is crazy, it’s going to stop. But they started driving,” Abushevich said.
The journey ended up taking “two or three days,” Denys said, with most of the holdup occurring at the Polish border, where an influx of traffic forced them to spend a night in their car.
“I was scared, I was really scared, because it’s unbelievable that this is going on, and you like don’t understand what’s going on right now and you’re scared about your family, friends. You don’t know what to do next,” Denys said.
Finally, the family was able to leave the country, and spent the next month in a suburb of Warsaw, Abushevich said. Their ultimate goal was to get to the United States.
The Okseniuks have wanted to move to the U.S. for a long time, Abushevich said, but visa delays under normal circumstances can take several years.
The family spoke to lawyers about coming to the country after they arrived in Poland, but at the time there was no direct way for them to do so.
The Okseniuks then learned they could possibly enter the United States through an unlikely route. At the time, thousands of Ukrainians were being allowed through the country’s southern border with Mexico on humanitarian grounds, according to NPR.
That was weeks before the Biden Administration announced an initiative to streamline entry for Ukrainian refugees seeking to enter the United States.
“They connected with some of the people who were already in Mexico, with the volunteers that are in Mexico, to understand. Because obviously crossing the globe to be in Mexico and getting rejected was a possibility,” Abushevich said.
Finally in early April, the family flew to Mexico City, then traveled north to Tijuana. There, they spent three days in a refugee camp near the U.S. border.
Denys described the camp “like a dream.” It was in a huge hangar with mattresses on the floor, thousands of people and only two bathrooms, he said through his aunt. The whole family ended up getting the stomach flu while there.
When they landed in Mexico, the Okseniuks were able to add themselves to a list of Ukrainians looking to cross the border, Abushevich said.
After a few days of waiting, including a “very stressful” last minute delay, they were finally able to cross into San Diego in the middle of the night. The family spent one night in a hotel before flying to Chicago from Los Angeles.
“Everything happened so quickly. I think they probably had more events in the past month than they probably have in their entire life, as far as like life changing events,” Abushevich said. “So like there’s adrenaline rushing but at the same time they’re super tired, sick. I think they were trying to get excited, like ‘we’re here!’ but they couldn’t even believe it.”
A month later, the family is settling in to a new life in Ukrainian Village and Chicago.
Mariia has enrolled in second grade at Columbus Elementary, 1003 N. Leavitt St., which offers bilingual language programs for Ukrainian speakers. Abushevich said she’s making friends and has already been invited on playdates.
Denys is attending Wells Community Academy High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave., where he’s trying to get his transcript transferred from Ukraine so administrators can decide which grade to place him in.
When they first arrived, the Okseniuks stayed at a temporary apartment before finding a permanent spot near the center of Ukrainian Village.
Abushevich said it was really difficult for them to find housing, even among landlords in the Ukrainian community sympathetic to their situation.
“They don’t have any specific status. No Social Security, no job,” Abushevich said. “I’ve seen people post in our [Facebook] community page multiple times begging for an apartment but I mean, as you can probably understand, as an apartment owner it’s hard to rent to someone like them because it’s a huge risk, right? So basically, I had to be a cosigner. I don’t know what other people are doing. It’s scary to imagine.”
Abushevich has launched a GoFundMe to help ease the family’s transition and pay for rent and basic supplies, especially clothing. So far, it’s raised $8,500, just over half of its goal.
“They have no clothes. They have whatever they have on, maybe another change of clothes, because they came in with a little backpack,” she said.
While the Okseniuks were able to safely make it to the United States, Yana and Abushevich’s father and grandfather are still in Ukraine, as well as aunts, uncles and other family members.
Abushevich said while some of them can’t leave, or don’t want to, they still live in constant fear.
“Especially once they hear the news about what happened in Bucha and Mariupol. So, like it can happen to any other city basically, that’s the overall impression,” she said.
The Okseniuks said they feel lucky to have made it safely out of Ukraine. But they’re also still missing home, and the life they had there.
“Sometimes they say when they wake up they still feel like they’re back in Ukraine. Probably easy to feel because here you’re surrounded by such a great community too [in Ukrainian Village] but mostly just really sad. Probably going to take some time,” Abushevich said.
As for Abushevich herself, who has been aiding her sister’s family throughout their journey, she feels grateful, too.
“It’s just exciting to share all the opportunities,” she said. “[Denys] can go to an incredible school and make a good living and you know, travel the world and always come back to Ukraine at some point if he wants to. Same for my niece and for my sister, I’m trying to get them excited about the opportunities. If you work hard, American dream still exists.”
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