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Leaving Ukraine: The Ochkur Family

The Ochkur Family – Slava, Iryna and three-year-old Olivia – had been working on their immigration to the United States from Ukraine for four years. Slava needed one last stamp on his documents, and then the airline tickets could be issued. They expected to get the call any day. Instead, on February 24, 2022, they woke up in Kyiv to discover that Russia had invaded Ukraine from Belarus just to the north of their home. Slava decided they needed to leave immediately. They packed their car, leaving much behind, and headed for Slava’s parents’ house which was closer to the Polish border and somewhat removed from the fighting.

Slava and Iryna had been working with the US Embassy in Kyiv through the Lautenberg Program, which allows members of religious minorities who are living in countries associated with the former Soviet Union to join their families already in the United States. However, when the unrest began, staff from the US Embassy were evacuated from Ukraine. No one was left to help them with their tickets.

“We stayed at his parents’ and just wait,” Iryna said. “We don’t know how long we need to wait. When we called, they just said, wait until the war is finished or just try to cross the border to another country, and we will try to help you. So we decide to try to move to another country.”

They spent about two weeks living with Slava’s parents in Western Ukraine. “It was a really hard two weeks.”

Slava added: “It was the beginning of the war. Nobody knew what to expect. If Kyiv will be taken or not. If government will still be there or not. And, also, Russia started to bomb, not just Kyiv, but all around Ukraine and even closer to where they were staying.”

Slava’s parents were in the same situation as Slava and Iryna. They were also in the process of immigrating to the US and waiting for tickets. They all knew they needed to cross the border and get to a place of safety.

However, Slava’s missing stamp created a problem. Everyone was able to cross the border except him. Iryna, Olivia and Slava’s parents had to cross into Poland without him, uncertain whether or not he would be able to rejoin them. (When the war began, all men from the ages of 18 to 60 were summoned to join the war effort. Slava had an exception because he was already slated to move to the US, but in war, things do not always go as they should.)

Separating was a very difficult decision for them. They cried and prayed for two days. “It is emotionally hard when all family goes and someone is left behind,” Olga explained. They were unsure when they would see him again.

Olga Symonenko was helping to translate during this interview. She also played an important role in the Ochkur’s story. Olga is the mother of World Relief Spokane employee Erika Symonenko, our housing coordinator. Olga had escaped a war in Tajikistan when she was 18 and then in 2008, she had to run again, resettling with her family in Spokane through World Relief. When the war broke out in Ukraine, she and her sister, Katya, who lives in Germany, began to plot how they could help friends and family seeking to flee Ukraine. Olga helped numerous families, including the Ochkurs, get to her sister’s in Germany.

When Olga called about the Ochkurs, Katya and her husband were already headed to Poland to pick up another family. Even though the two families had never met, Katya and Andreas agreed to pick them up, as well. Andreas ended up sleeping in his car at the border for three days, waiting for their arrival, and their church provided a place for the Ochkurs to stay while they waited for word about their immigration to the US, as well as warm clothes since they were not able to pack any.

The great news is that Slava was able to join his parents, Iryna and Olivia after 20 days, but, Iryna explained, that was a hard 20 days. “We can’t move without him to the USA. We must move together.” And they did not know when their tickets and authorization to move would come through.

In the end, the Ochkur Family stayed in Germany for four and a half months. They arrived in Spokane in July, where they were welcomed by Slava’s brother and family. World Relief helped them to find an apartment, and now they are studying English. They have their Social Security numbers and are waiting for work authorization.

Slava said they are doing well. “I am very glad that we are here together, that we can live together. I think it’s really good that we can study right now, very important for us to study right now and be together.”

However, Iryna is concerned about her parents who are still back in Ukraine: “They are still in Kyiv. They were in Kyiv all this time. They have electricity problem. They do not always have lights. We are not sure if they will have heat. The heating system also experiences lots of problems.” She speaks to them by phone, but sometimes the connection is not good.

“My parents, my family, they are in constant danger.” Iryna broke down in tears. Slava explained, “She is very worried about her parents… The last eight months show us that the things we were hoping for, or things we usually hoping for, they may not work, and so, we must rely on God and his providence.”

The Ochkur Family’s story reflects the pain of so many refugees. Even when they reach safety, their hearts are still breaking for the loved ones they left behind.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.”

– Frederick Buechner

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