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A Ukrainian family finds solace in America but cannot escape heartbreak

ARLINGTON, VA - APRIL 9: Amira, the younger daughter of the Koliubaiev family, sits quietly by herself in Arlington, VA on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Photo by Shuran Huang For NPR)
Amira, the younger daughter in the Koliubaiev family, sits quietly by herself in Arlington, Va., on April 9. She and her mother and sister are staying with a host family after fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Koliubaiev family joined a small caravan with friends and drove more than 500 miles to the Hungarian border. Steps from the checkpoint, Artem Koliubaiev said goodbye to his wife and children, not sure when or if the family would reunite.

Eka Koliubaieva and their two daughters are in the U.S. now, where they have found safe haven in a Washington, D.C., suburb. They've been here for more than a month, hosted by an American couple who learned about them on social media. (In Ukraine, as well as several other countries of Eastern Europe, the paternal surname may be varied slightly based on the family member's gender.)

"Our first desire was to stay, not to go," Koliubaieva says. "But the next day, there were explosions all around and our windows were shaking, our furniture was shaking, and we realized we have to go.

"It was unthinkable to imagine that in the 21st century, somebody would come and bomb a European city, our downtown — that was impossible to accept," she says.

President Biden has said the U.S. will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing the war, but only a trickle have resettled so far. Koliubaieva and her daughters made the journey to America on tourist visas that are scheduled to expire in September. For now, they're grateful for a safe haven in Arlington, Va., near Washington.

"After all of our experiences, everything we lived through, this was at least a place where we could sleep normally and regain our physical strength," Koliubaieva, 42, said on a recent spring day as she sat in the backyard of Susan Thompson-Gaines and David Gaines' home.

The couple says this isn't the first time they've invited strangers to live with them. Last year, they hosted an Afghan family that now lives on its own nearby. Thompson-Gaines stumbled upon a Facebook post by a friend of the Koliubaiev family saying that a Ukrainian mother and her two daughters who had escaped the war were looking for shelter.

"It's opening up your heart in your life to let people in," says Thompson-Gaines, a self-styled " kindness activist." "It doesn't matter where you're from. Every person wants the same thing. We all want safety. We want a warm place to sleep. We want food. We want our children to have education."

A night of celebration before the invasion

The war in Ukraine has fueled the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, one that advocacy groups predict will last for years. Most of the nearly 5 million people who have fled since February have resettled in nearby European countries. The United States granted refugee status to just 12 Ukrainians in March, down from 514 in January and February during the Russian buildup to the war, according to U.S. State Department data. Just how many may have entered through other pathways is unclear. People who obtain official refugee status are able to access temporary government assistance and a path to U.S. citizenship, both of which are more difficult to obtain for those who enter on visas.

Feb. 23 had been a day like any other, perhaps even better than most. Eka Koliubaieva (her full name is Kateryna) had a meeting about expanding her jewelry-making business. That evening, she attended a major film premiere with her film producer husband and their daughters. They stayed out past midnight. But within hours, they went from celebration to terror as Russia began bombing Ukraine.

Two days later, at the Hungarian border, Koliubaiev, 34, said goodbye to his family — like all Ukrainian men age 60 and under, he was required to stay behind. He has joined volunteers from the Ukrainian film industry to provide essentials like food, clothes, diapers and medical supplies to some of the 7.1 million people the U.N. says have been displaced within the country's borders.

A father surprises his daughter on her 16th birthday

Koliubaieva, who flew with her daughters from Budapest to Washington, was left torn and emotionally numb. "I certainly don't feel any guilt for not being there now, but I can't say I feel any relief for being here either," she says. "What I do feel is just a sense of despair."

They had been at their hosts' Virginia house for about a month when there was a knock at the door late one night. The surprise guest was Koliubaiev. He had managed to fly to the U.S. on his filmmaker's visa to celebrate daughter Erika's 16th birthday as part of a business trip that included stops in Warsaw and Paris. He didn't tell the family in advance because he didn't want them to worry.

And so, for a week, the family was briefly reunited, away from the bombs and shelling. Sharing tea and cake with their hosts as birds chirped in the spring sunshine, they sat close to one another, Koliubaiev wrapping his arm around the youngest, Amira, 11. She sat quietly, her hair covering part of her face, while the rest of her family described their flight from Kyiv, which the Koliubaiev family has called home for some five generations.

Koliubaieva and the girls avoid watching news coverage of the war, keeping up instead through social media as well as friends and family back home. Some of the stories are gruesome. Koliubaiev told them about reports of Russian soldiers nailing neighborhood dogs to a fence and eating them after they ran out of food rations. "It's more horrible than on television," he says.

Knowing his wife and daughters are safe in the U.S. has provided major relief for Koliubaiev. "I stopped [being] nervous about them and I can handle something else in Ukraine so I can put more attention on the daily work," he says.

The kindness of strangers helps the family settle in

Mother and daughters have tried to regain a sense of normalcy. They take walks, go on runs and play basketball, while Koliubaieva has started a new line of jewelry. They often share meals with their hosts, plant sunflowers together and participate in local activities.

"I really can't imagine not helping someone who needs a safe place to stay," Thompson-Gaines says. Her partner, Gaines, urged more Americans to do the same. "You should not be thinking about what sort of a hardship it's going to be for you, but rather, this is an opportunity to enrich your life," he says. "So do yourself a favor and help someone out."

The Koliubaiev family's tourist visas expire in September, and what happens next is unclear. Anticipating a possible return to Ukraine is simply "too difficult" for Koliubaieva to think about right now. "It's changed for everyone, for the whole country of Ukraine, and I understand there is no return to the way it was before the invasion," she says.

Her teenage daughter, Erika, has no plans to go back. She wants to study acting and directing at a film school in the United States. Even before the war, she imagined a world beyond Kyiv. "And with war, of course, I can't imagine myself there now," she says.

For Koliubaiev, his time in the U.S. was brief. He is back in Ukraine out of a sense of duty. "It's not a question for me because I don't want to be [an] illegal man who crossed the border and hiding somewhere out of my country," he says.

"We need to live in the moment. I don't know what will be tomorrow — nobody knows. As you see, nobody wants to fight with Putin except Ukraine." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.