Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Feb. 7, 2023

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‘We weren’t rich, but we had everything’: As a Ukrainian family adjusts to life in a Spokane hotel, a longing persists for the one left behind

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SPOKANE — A small house nestled a few blocks from the sea with a workshop out back. Two young children running around, keeping their parents blissfully exhausted. Family nearby to help out in times of need and share in moments of joy. The Kurilovas had everything that mattered.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Kurilovas now live in a Spokane hotel where a bathroom serves as a makeshift kitchen, a dresser as a pantry and a corner near the bed acts as a playroom.

Anna and Mykhailo Kurilova wake up each day and think, “What are we going to do?”

They’re in a strange country in a city where they knew no one just months ago, trying to navigate daily life in a new language, all while worrying about their homeland and grieving the life they lost.

“We weren’t rich, but we had everything,” Anna, 30, said with tears in her eyes.

The Kurilovas are among more than 3.5 million refugees who have fled Ukraine in recent months. More than 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the United States as part of the country’s Uniting for Ukraine program that allows American citizens to sponsor refugees. The Kurilovas are among more than 10,000 people who came to Washington as part of the program.

Despite finding a safe place to settle, the future remains unclear for the couple. The kids are struggling to adjust to Spokane’s climate while battling persistent runny noses and frequent fevers. Anna misses the sea breeze. Communicating with those around them is a constant struggle. And watching the war back home is heartbreaking.

So for now, they wait, make the best of each day, and don’t plan for the future.

The invasion

It was love at first sight when Mykhailo spotted the sweet and smiley 18-year-old Anna on spring break more than a decade ago. Five weeks later, they decided to get married.

A stone mason, Mykhailo, now 33, built his new bride a home just blocks from the sea in Mariupol, where they were both born and raised.

It took years to build both the home and his workshop, where after a long stint working as a contractor he planned to open his own business creating elaborate headstones.

Despite the 2014 invasion of nearby Crimea and ongoing military conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine, the Kurilovas were excited to start a family. They had grown accustomed to the sounds of shelling and news of nearby skirmishes, but they didn’t believe the conflict would spread.

“We got used to it, ever since 2014,” Anna said through a translator.

They welcomed Yelysei six years ago and baby Habriel in 2020.

Early this year, like many times before, rumors and reports of a Russian invasion began to circulate.

On the evening of Feb. 23, both Anna and Mykhailo’s mothers called asking if they planned to flee before the fighting started.

“We laughed and said the war is beginning already for eight years,” Anna said. “If we were worried about war, we wouldn’t have the two kids. Because why would you give birth when there is war?”

The next day, Russia invaded.

Russian troops landed in Mariupol and began launching missiles at airfields and Ukrainian military installations. By the end of the day, at least three civilians were reported dead in Mariupol.

The couple’s pastor called and said they could hide in the church’s basement. But the thought of leaving the home they worked for years to build was too much, Mykhailo said through a translator.

Mykhailo went out to try and stock up on food, but there was little available in stores except rice and beans. They bartered with their neighbors for five live chickens to butcher.

The next day, all the stores closed in Mariupol. On the third day of the war, electricity was cut off for the entire city. Two days later, it still wasn’t on.

“I realized that they’re probably not going to turn it on anytime soon,” Mykhailo said.

The food in their refrigerator began to sour, and the couple grew concerned about feeding their two young boys. Without power, there was no internet and mobile phones weren’t working, so they didn’t know what was happening in other areas of Mariupol, Anna said.

By March 1, the situation was becoming untenable.

“By a mere miracle, we get a call,” Anna said. “It was just God, it was our salvation, that call.”

Their neighbors, who had fled the city days earlier, told them half of Mariupol had already burned and that they needed to leave.

“They call us and they say, ‘You’re still in Mariupol? You have to flee,’ “ Anna said.

By that time, about a fourth of the city had fled. The neighbors had barely been able to get out of the city, stuck in a miles-long traffic jam of fleeing families.

The next morning, Mykhailo went to his brother’s house. When he arrived, he was surprised to find that his other brothers had just arrived.

“We all decided that we’re going to meet up at his house the next day at 6 a.m. and we’re all going to drive out,” Mykhailo said.

When her husband returned, Anna was shocked Mykhailo was willing to go.

“I was born there. I lived there all my life. I never really traveled anywhere,” Mykhailo said. “It was my home. This was my life, because I was building my house. I was building my business. So my life was there in Mariupol.”

The decision was between losing their home or losing their lives, the Kurilovas said.

“If we stayed put and waited, you wouldn’t see us,” Anna said through tears.

On March 3, the family of four piled into its unreliable Soviet-model car, with barely enough gas to get out of the city.

They had to cross a series of security checkpoints. The first, manned by Ukrainian soldiers, was easy to cross but came with a warning not to proceed, Anna said. Not far up the road was a Russian stop that Ukrainian soldiers and their neighbors had said was treacherous.

With those warnings in mind, the group continued on, but was terrified by the time it arrived at the checkpoint, Anna said.

Russian soldiers screamed at Mykhailo. On the other side of the car, a solider with a German shepherd knocked on Anna’s window and told her not to cry.

“Don’t cry, we came to set you free,”’ Anna recalled him saying.

“In my heart, I was so upset,” Mykhailo said. “I was just enraged. Who are you to ask me for my documents?”

The convoy, including Mykhailo’s two brothers and their families, made it through the Russian post, with most of the occupants in tears.

On their dayslong journey to western Ukraine, the family slept on the floor of churches, took in a pregnant mother after a car accident and had their own car break down, all while functioning on little sleep, with even less food and water.

Beyond exhaustion, the Kurilovas were in a daze when they arrived at their pastor’s friend’s home in Chernivtsi.

Anna was so tired, she had to be led to the bathroom, incapable of following simple directions.

“They bathed us, they fed us,” Anna said. “I was so dizzy, that I wasn’t even able to understand or accept anything.”

The family tried to cheer them up and be friendly, but Anna was too overwhelmed to even engage.

“Nothing was funny to us,” Anna said. “Our mind was just so focused on the war, we accepted everything as serious.”

After a few hours of sleep, new problems came to mind. Mykhailo had just invested most of their savings in his business, so they didn’t have a lot of money. Men were not allowed to leave the country, and the family had no place to stay long term.

Then the couple’s pastor told them he sent his family to Germany, and he could arrange travel for Anna and the children as well. But Mykhailo would have to stay behind, due to that Ukrainian government restriction on men of fighting age leaving the country.

The hardest begins

When Anna left Mariupol, she told herself she would never separate her family.

“I will sleep in a shed, but I will not cross the border alone,” Anna said.

But two days after arriving in western Ukraine, Anna — baby in one hand, suitcase in the other and their son walking behind her — crossed the Ukraine-Romania border, leaving Mykhailo behind.

“I sent my wife,” he said, then he went back to the car. “I cry, and again I’m thinking, ‘What to do next?’ I don’t know the next time I’ll see my wife and my family.”

That’s when “the hardest began,” Anna said.

She connected with various aid groups in Romania before boarding a bus to Germany. The first day on the road, Anna learned a group of their friends that stayed in Mariupol died. A few families had been hiding in the basement of a church but eventually ran out of food and water, so the men left to find essentials. A bomb hit their car, killing them all, Anna said tearfully.

“I’m traveling as if I’m a widow,” Anna said of when she heard the news. “I don’t know if my husband will be next in such a car that’s going to be bombed.”

The Russians laid siege to Mariupol in the days after the Kurilovas fled. They bombed schools and hospitals, killing thousands of civilians. One of the worst attacks came on March 9, when a Russian attack seriously damaged a maternity hospital, killing three people and injuring 17, including a mother and baby who later died from their injuries, according to a report detailing Russian war crimes from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. By April, the mayor of Mariupol estimated more than 10,000 civilians had been killed.

As reports of the devastation began to emerge, Mykhailo felt he couldn’t “just sit there” and began volunteering to help shuttle refugees from war-torn areas to safer parts of the country.

At his age, Mykhailo would seem to be a good candidate for military service, he said. But he hadn’t served as a young man and had no experience. He was told he wasn’t needed, Mykhailo said.

While volunteering, he ran into an acquaintance, the nephew of his pastor, who had flown from Spokane to Ukraine to volunteer. After a few weeks working together, the acquaintance offered to sponsor Mykhailo and his family if they wanted to come to the United States.

By this point, volunteering had slowed, there was nowhere for him to work or live and he missed his family dearly, Mykhailo said.

“I was just lost,” he said. I decided … I’ll just go. I’ll run to my wife.”

Anna and the boys had been staying with a Russian-speaking family in Germany for two weeks when Anna got a call from her husband.

“Do you want to go to America?” he asked.

It seemed like a great opportunity in horrific circumstances. Still, Mykhailo was scared of getting caught or killed while crossing the border, and of not being able to return to his homeland after the war.

The couple decided if there was a chance for Mykhailo to get out of Ukraine safely, he should take it. He learned of a place to cross the border into Moldova, where volunteers helped reunite him with his family.

“For me, when I first saw her, it was like my wedding day,” Mykhailo said.

“We didn’t have hope that we would ever see each other again,” Anna said.

After their reunion, the Kurilovas still had to make their way to the United States. Each step of the journey was marked by God’s hand, Anna said.

Bus, train, plane, a night slept on the airport floor in Tijuana, Mexico, and the family finally crossed the border.

“We’ve crossed the border, we’re standing here with our luggage and we don’t know what to do because we don’t know when we’re going to be picked up from San Diego,” Anna said.

The acquaintance who sponsored the family planned to drive down and pick them up right away, but members of his own family planned to cross a few days later, so the Kurilovas had to wait.

The family didn’t have much money left and didn’t want to use it all on a hotel in San Diego. The aid groups at the border were out of families with whom to place them.

Exhausted, overwhelmed and anxious, the family just sat down, hoping something would work out, Anna said. Thirty minutes later, a volunteer from Samaritan’s Purse said a family had offered to take them in.

The family only spoke English, leaving Anna’s “brain boiled” at the end of a long day trying to communicate in a language she barely understood. After a few days, the family bought the Kurilovas flights to Spokane, telling them a 24-hour car ride with a baby and toddler was too much.

The Kurilovas landed in Spokane, where another family from a local church took them in. For two months, they lived there, trying to adjust to a new country, language and way of life. They connected with other refugees and enrolled in English courses but without work visas, they were unable to afford an apartment.

‘Something of our own’

In June, the Thrive Center, a former Quality Inn near downtown run by the nonprofit Thrive International, began taking in refugees.

The Kurilovas were the first family to move in.

It had been three months since they left Mariupol when Anna and Mykhailo put their children to sleep, then laid down in a real bed all alone for the first time since they fled their home.

“Oh, finally something of our own,” Anna said she remembered thinking. “Even something small, but our own.”

The family of four lives in a two-section suite, joined by a set of French doors. One of the suite’s two bathrooms functions as a makeshift kitchen, with a hot plate and a Crock-Pot.

At 6, Yelysei is the social butterfly of the family, often running down to the center’s playroom or dashing off to his friends’ rooms to hang out.

Beyond the daily tasks of motherhood, Anna has been wading through a series of bureaucracies and the related paperwork, all in English. Each form requires different documentation and multiple sessions on Google Translate.

One morning, the family awoke early, piled the young children into the used van they purchased with some of their savings and drove to the Spokane Social Security office. Arriving 30 minutes before opening, the family expected to be first in line.

As they approached the building, a line of people already waiting came into view.

Nearly two hours and a few toddler tantrums later, the Kurilovas were called up to the window to hand over their paperwork, only to be told, in English, they needed to fill out more forms, also in English. A translator wasn’t available. Anna filled out the same form for each family member, interrupted by cries of “mama” and “papa” from Habriel and quiet questions from Yelysei.

Nervous, Anna handed over the paperwork to the processor. After a few questions and lots of waiting, their applications were submitted for residency and the whole family was ready for a nap, Anna joked.

The ordeal was just one of many the family completed to register for aid and residency.

While living at the Thrive Center was free for the first three months, now the Kurilovas have to pay rent. At $575, it’s far below market rate, but with a limited savings and no work visas, the number is daunting for the young family.

They get most of their necessities from local nonprofits, like the used clothing bank Ukrainian Closet and local food banks. In their rush to evacuate and with limited car space, the Kurilovas left so much behind, even essentials like Anna’s glasses, which she was eventually able to replace in Spokane.

Despite the continued turmoil and uncertainty in their lives, moments of normalcy emerge.

Most Sundays, the family drives to Spokane Valley for a service at Valley Harvest, a small church made up of mostly Ukrainians and immigrants from other Slavic countries.

In a pink dress and kitten heels, Anna grabbed her purse while Mykhailo unbuckled Habriel one day. Yelysei, eager to get inside, already was out of the van and headed to the door of the church.

The couple chatted with friends before heading into the sanctuary. They passed Habriel back and forth as he fussed during opening hymns. By the time the service started, Anna had taken Habriel into the nursery, where she was welcomed by other moms tending to their toddlers.

At church, the couple finally made close friends in their pastor and his wife, people they could confide in and ask for advice. They made other friends through a small group and now go to their house frequently to hang out or do laundry. It’s just one step toward stability.

“I would like to go to Mariupol,” Mykhailo said. “It all depends on when the war ends.”

Now that Russia has claimed Mariupol as part of its territory, the Kurilovas are thinking about what it would mean to return to a home that’s no longer in Ukraine.

Both Mykhailo and Anna’s parents were Russian, and all the couple wants is to return home, no matter the country.

“It doesn’t matter for us,” Anna said. “Russia or Ukraine, if it has stopped war, we go back.”

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