Veronika Pavliutina asked her children to choose a special affiliation. And quick to pick. You had to go.
Explosions rocked their hometown of Odessa as Russia began invading Ukraine.
Yegor, 8, grabbed two small toy cars.
Nina, 11, picked up her riding helmet. She loves horses.
And Polina, 14, an artist, packed her painting supplies.
They didn’t know if they were going for a week or forever.
Now, two and a half months later, some hastily chosen possessions form the tangible reminders of the homeland of three children and their mother, a single mother who managed to get the family to safety in the United States, to the refuge of a third- Floor bedroom in a friend of a friend’s house in Philadelphia.
Neighbors in the city’s Mount Airy neighborhood have delivered meals and clothing, as well as Target gift cards. Nina was invited to ride at a local stable.
“Everything normal,” she said of this new life in America.
But of course not.
If it is difficult for parents to stumble out of a country under attack, it is even more difficult for children who carry not only small toys with them, but also excessive fears and worries for friends and family left behind.
Her mother, 44, taught cooking classes at her studio in Odessa, called Plushkin, whose motto is “Cook. Meal. Love.” Now, with no job or benefits and a future fraught with uncertainty, she must remain strong and confident and insist on the kids that everything will be fine, even if it turns out to be something no one does has planned.
“They really miss their home,” Pavliutina said. “I say, ‘It’s not safe at home. It will take time.’”
Polina says it’s hard to make friends if you don’t speak her language. The world has changed. The water also tastes different here. The news from Ukraine is not encouraging.
Russia attacked the southern city of Odessa on the first day, February 24, blowing up warehouses along with air defense systems and killing at least 22 people.
A few weeks earlier, as Europe watched nervously as Russian troops and weapons marched along the border with Ukraine, friends in Serbia said to Pavliutina: If there is a war, you can come to us.
She packed the kids and some suitcases and backpacks into the car and drove southwest, away from the sounds of the explosion.
“Putin actually announced it, how did he say? “This is not a war, this is a special military action,” Pavliutina said. “It felt like war”
The family crossed the border into Romania, reached Bucharest and stopped to rest after 36 hours of driving. Then they drove west to Belgrade, Serbia to their friends.
If the war ended in a week and everyone went home, Pavliutina thought, she would feel silly for running away — and upset that she spent her life savings.
Of course that didn’t happen. On March 2, evacuation trains began bringing civilians from Odessa. By this time Pavliutina and her children were gone.
About 7,400 miles away in Mount Airy, real estate agent Richard McIlhenny and his wife, Marissa Vergnetti, a preschool teacher, saw the news. And desperate.
Vergnetti spoke to her sister-in-law, whose grandparents were refugees from Ukraine during World War II, “We both feel helpless and heartbroken about everything,” she said.
They discussed the possibility of inviting refugees to live in their homes.
Vergnetti called her husband. “Can we do something like that?”
She knew that her husband had a close childhood friend who had lived in Odessa on business. Does the friend perhaps know a family who needed help?
As it turned out, he was a woman who ran a cooking studio. The cooking teacher was friends with his wife.
Richard called Marissa, “It’s happening.”
Neighbors came to the semi-detached house to help clean, move furniture, and stock up on supplies.
Pavliutina and her children disembarked from a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on March 15.
Her father is still in Ukraine. Her brother too – men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to go. Both live in everyday danger as the bombardment of Odessa, a port city strategic for Russia because of its location on the Black Sea, continues.
Today, about 10 weeks into the war, it’s hard to say how many Ukrainian refugees are settling in the Philadelphia area, other than “more and more.”
Many enter the United States on tourist visas or, having crossed the southern border, came north, moving with family and friends into the region’s large Ukrainian community, into quarters in churches, or, in Pavliutina’s case, into the homes of caring strangers.
This spate of new arrivals has largely bypassed the official US refugee process and resettlement agencies, which agree to help a certain number of people, making reliable numbers difficult to come by. Agencies like HIAS Pennsylvania continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees arriving after years of the immigration process under a program first instituted in 1990 to help Jews leave the former Soviet Union.
Almost 5.7 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries since the war began.
President Joe Biden’s plan to take in 100,000 refugees through Uniting for Ukraine relies on them having sponsors in the United States who assume all responsibility. These newcomers receive none of the employment, housing, or medical benefits due to official refugees.
About 20 years ago, Pavliutina lived briefly in northern New Jersey when her now ex-husband’s job took her to the United States. Since their split, she has occasionally traveled here to visit friends and see the country.
The practical effect was that she had a valid visa to enter the United States on the day of the Russian invasion
McIlhenny picked up the family at the airport.
“I’m so grateful,” Pavliutina said. “What Rich and Marissa did for me and my family was something I never expected people to do. It’s like, ‘Is it real?’ A room. people who cook for us.”
Cooking can be the key to the family’s future.
Pavliutina wants to restart her cooking studio as she is eligible to work under the Biden administration’s Temporary Protected Status for Ukraine designation, which allows an estimated 59,600 Ukrainians to stay here until at least October 19, 2023.
She needs a car. And an apartment so that her family has their own place to stay.
So far, these goals have proven unattainable. In this country, Pavliutina has no credit, no work experience and no job. A GoFundMe campaign stalled halfway to its $20,000 goal.
The children take part in school classes in Ukraine by Zoom. They will start school in Philadelphia in the fall.
Yegor enjoys spending time with Daniel, McIlhenny and Vergnetti’s son, a high school grad who only complains that the arrival of three younger kids has meant he “had to give up some snacks and stuff.”
Nina managed to ride horses through a family friend. She enjoys studying the local architecture. Polina enjoyed the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Neighbors continue to bring food and donations.
Yegor has perhaps the simplest adjustment, his mother said. He loves American ice cream. And played with the many Lego blocks he had been given.
“I like that everything is pretty and nice,” he said.
The language differences seem to bother him less than the girls, Pavliutina said. Polina feels that she must speak perfect English and does not risk tripping over words.
She told her mother that she wants to make friends and meet kids her own age just so they can spend time.
You ask about the future. Your mother doesn’t have good answers. Russian missile attacks continue to kill people in Odessa.
“We’ll come back as soon as it’s okay,” Pavliutina tells them.
She doesn’t know when that could be, when the war could end.
“The longer it takes,” she said, “the more I feel like there will be nothing left to go back to.”