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Fear, hope and relief. One couple's journey from Ukraine to St. Charles

About a week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Viktor and Svitlana Zribnyak got a phone call from their son in St. Charles that would change their lives.

Volodymyr Zribnyak told his parents they had an hour to pack what they could and leave their home of 40 years.

“We realized there was an opportunity to avoid death,” Viktor said. “I had to act immediately. We collected all of the necessary documents that had been selected in advance, medicine, and left literally within an hour.”

It’s a decision neither expected they would ever need to make.

“It was very difficult for us to decide to escape from here,” Svitlana said. “Everything is there, our life we lived. Everything there we left as it is.”

Viktor, 69, and Svitlana, 72, were like many Ukrainians in not expecting their neighbors to the east to actually invade.

“Deep in my heart I did not want to believe that Russia would attack, because Russia had given assurances of fraternal help, in relations,” Viktor said, in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. “It all turned out to be a hoax.”

They did prepare, stocking extra food and medicine, while hoping the shelling wouldn’t target Kharkiv.

But it did. The Russian military bombarded different districts of Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is only about an hour from the Russian border.

“War had broken into my house,” Viktor said. “We were terrified of each attack, realizing that each or the next shelling could hit our house. There were several nearby that had already been destroyed.”
They stayed in close contact with Volodymyr, 37, who worked with his sister to find a way to help their parents escape. They scoured for people who could drive them or families that could put his parents up for a night as they traveled west.

KHARKIV_PROVIDED-1.jpg
Courtesy
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Anzhelika Zhuravlova
A man sits in front of an apartment building that has been damaged by Russian strikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

“I never experienced such a situation before when I was calling and contacting just random people and trying to arrange their evacuation,” Volodymyr said.

On their way out of Kharkiv, Viktor described seeing the result of Russia’s assault: buildings reduced to rubble and burned-out cars. He said the most challenging parts of the journey were the many military checkpoints they passed through on the way west.

“Documents were checked very carefully, and this, of course, slowed down our movement and introduced some nervousness,” Viktor said. “Armed people were inspecting our documents and the trunk.”

They were almost turned away at one, until the family they were staying with that night confirmed his and Svitlana’s identities, he said.

It took four days to make it from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine to the border with Hungary, four times longer than usual. They felt relief the moment they crossed the border. 

“We had saved our lives, escaped from the shelling,” Viktor said. “We already began to think about what lies ahead. It was no longer fear; it was hope.”

Four days later they were in Frankfurt for a flight to Chicago, where their son would be waiting to pick them up.

Their escape was also hard for Volodymyr, a naturalized U.S. citizen and the executive of a Ukrainian draft beer equipment manufacturer who’s been living in St. Charles with his wife since 2011. He said his experience evacuating his parents is one he wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“It is mentally draining,” Volodymyr said. “You want to be there and do something physically, but you simply cannot be there. As soon as I saw my parents here, that was the first time I was able to sleep normally.”

While he’s happy they’re under his roof now, Volodymyr explained that his parents still face challenges. The travel visa they had to visit a few years ago allowed them to get into the U.S. this time, he said.

It will expire in a matter of months, likely before it will be safe to return to Ukraine, Volodymyr added.

Typically, foreign visitors with travel visas have to prove they aren’t going to stay past their visa’s expiration, but Volodymyr said the immigration officers authorized his parents to enter when they saw the Ukrainian passports.

“People know what is going on,” he said. “The officer told them: ‘Now, you’re safe. Welcome to the United States.’”

Viktor and Svitlana Zribnyak are two of the more than 4.6 million Ukrainians who have left their homes since Russia invaded nearly two months ago.

Volodymyr said he was inspired when President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees and hoped it would mean his parents could stay longer without breaking any laws.

But those feelings have changed to frustration, because it looks like nothing has changed in the weeks since the announcement, he said.

“I don’t want to come to the point where I have to make a decision if I am a rule follower or if I am for the safety of my parents,” Volodymyr said. “We have a saying: If you said something, do it, or better yet, don’t say this.”

Tetyana Dyuk, 41, of St. Charles, waves a Ukrainian flag.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Tetyana Dyuk, 41, originally of the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil, waves her country's flag on Feb. 28 during a demonstration at the Gateway Arch to bring awareness to the Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine.

Volodymyr said he understands it takes time to set up a refugee program properly, but he adds the help is needed now. The rest of his family, his brother and sister and their families, is currently living in German refugee camps.

The situation is the same for many Ukrainian families across the country and the St. Louis region — waiting for a way to get their loved ones to safety in the U.S.

One of the most frustrating things for Volodymyr is having to tell someone locally who wants to open their home that their help isn’t needed yet. He has been getting calls like this since Biden’s announcement.

“I find it very difficult to respond this way: ‘Thank you very much, but we are waiting for our government to make this work,’” he said.

Volodymyr explained the U.S. and specifically Missouri stand to gain by welcoming Ukrainian people. The state and region’s agriculture and industrial cities closely reflect many aspects of Ukraine, he said.

“When I am in St. Louis, I feel like I’m in the same culture as I used to live,” Volodymyr said. “Ukrainians are very proud, they will never betray the team. That’s what I see with the Cardinals, with the Blues.”

His parents have found their own reasons to like St. Louis.

“The people here are very kind,” Svitlana said.

Viktor said he appreciates this, too, and the investments that he sees being made into the development of his grandson. He’s now a regular fan at his grandson’s soccer games.

“We go to competitions and see that America is doing a lot for the development of children,” he said. “This is very pleasing.”

Volodymyr said his children have become attached to their grandparents, too.

“They love it,” he said. “They started to ask, ‘Can they stay with us?’”

>> To stay up to date on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, follow NPR's Russia-Ukraine daily recap.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. 

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.

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