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We meet one of the first Ukrainian families to arrive in the U.S.


More than 4 1/2 million Ukrainians are now refugees. Most have fled the fighting to neighboring European countries. President Biden has pledged the U.S. will welcome a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees. So far, though, only about 500 have navigated the long journey and the paperwork and arrived in America. Over the weekend, I met a Ukrainian family that made the trek.


MARTÍNEZ: On a sunny Saturday afternoon, their American hosts, Susan Thompson-Gaines and her husband, David, are serving pastries in their backyard in Alexandria, Va. There are cinnamon buns and a cake from a local bakery. Susan was told it was a traditional Ukrainian dessert.

SUSAN THOMPSON-GAINES: It's called a Kyiv cake. And a neighbor brought one saying, I have a Kyiv cake. They will be so happy. It's their cake.

MARTÍNEZ: But it didn't look like any Kyiv cake that Eka Koliubaieva had ever seen.



E KOLIUBAIEVA: Ukrainian cake (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Eka is a 42-year-old jewelry designer and mother of two from Kyiv. And while the cake looked a little odd, she said it tasted better than the Kyiv cake she grew up with.

E KOLIUBAIEVA: Here, is chocolate. I love chocolate. It's better because in Kyiv, the cake (non-English language spoken).

ERIKA KOLIUBAIEVA: Is no chocolate. It's just cream and some - I don't know how to say that. But it's not good.

MARTÍNEZ: That's her daughter Erika. She just turned 16. She also liked the American Kyiv cake. But her favorite American food is hamburgers.

ERIKA: Yeah, burgers.

THOMPSON-GAINES: David made burgers one night and brought them down, and Erika was excited.

ERIKA: And I can't say no to the burgers (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Erika's sister, Amira, sits quietly in a chair. She's 11 years old. She stares down at her phone. Her hair covers her face. She's not sure what to make of our microphones.

Eka, Erika and Amira arrived in the U.S. in March and found their American hosts through social media. Late last Wednesday, a surprise guest knocked on the front door. The whole family speaks English, but for this part of their story, they needed the help of our translator.

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They couldn't figure out who it was. They didn't expect anyone to come.

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Laughter) Then (non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Then just comes in and says, I'm Artem. And I stared back. It was totally unexpected.

MARTÍNEZ: The surprise guest was Eka's husband and the girls' father. Artem Koliubaiev is 34 years old. He's a filmmaker. He was able to use his filmmaker's visa to leave Ukraine temporarily to come to America to celebrate Erika's 16th birthday.

ARTEM KOLIUBAIEV: So I have the same map in Google with my daughter...

ERIKA: So, yeah, he's got the...

A KOLIUBAIEV: ...So it was easy to find.


MARTÍNEZ: How difficult was it for you not to just tell them what you were about to...

A KOLIUBAIEV: It was difficult. But I want to make the surprise because if I tell them that I have a flight for them, they will be worried about - they will counting the time. So they leave their life here, and then I just, like, appears.

MARTÍNEZ: While his family was safe in America, Artem has been working back home with volunteers from the Ukrainian film industry. They've been delivering medical supplies, clothing, diapers and other necessities throughout the country. Artem says the family had not planned to leave Kyiv, but then the fighting broke out.

A KOLIUBAIEV: It was Wednesday, 23 of February. It was late night. And then we go sleep, and we just woke up because our friends was calling us because they was close to where was the first bombs. And then we say, just, oh, no.

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) At 5 a.m., I got a phone call from a friend and she said the war began. I didn't want to believe that. Our first desire was to stay, not to go. 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.

MARTÍNEZ: You said you were shocked. You were surprised. I was in Kyiv, and everyone that I spoke to was not concerned, it seemed, about Russia. Why weren't you worried? Why weren't you afraid of what was going on with Russia at the border?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) It was unthinkable to imagine that in the 21st century, somebody would come and bomb a European city. That was impossible to accept.

MARTÍNEZ: They all hustled to pack their car and drove hundreds of miles to the Hungarian border. When they arrived, they were behind a long line of cars attempting to get through a checkpoint. When they were two cars away from crossing the border, they realized that Artem would have to stay behind. The Ukrainian government requires men under 60 to stay and fight, and the family knew they would have to split up.

A KOLIUBAIEV: We understand that it's no way to cross the border. And I understand there's no way to stay in Ukraine for the girls. And I said, this is the only way. I know that they are (non-English language spoken).


A KOLIUBAIEV: They are strong. They could do with themselves.

MARTÍNEZ: Eka, what about for you, when you said goodbye to him without guarantees that you'd see him again?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) There wasn't much time for parting and leave-taking. This was a column (ph) of cars going through the borderline checkpoint. So everything was very quick, and that's how it was. I understand you are trying to sort of pull some emotions out of me. But honestly speaking, at that moment, I was still in that shocked state and did not have any feelings at all. You have to understand that after all these experiences, I sort of pulled myself together. And it will be very difficult for you to extract any emotions out of me.

MARTÍNEZ: Why? Why would it be difficult?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) I said everything I could, and that's how it is.

MARTÍNEZ: Eka and Erika avoid watching the 24/7 television coverage of the war in Ukraine. Instead, they keep up through social media and what they hear from family and friends back home. Some of the stories are gruesome. Artem told them about reports of Russian soldiers eating neighborhood dogs because the soldiers had run out of food.

You're here in the United States. You're safe. And you hear these stories about what's going on in the place that you live. Do you feel relief that you're here or any guilt that you're away from maybe family and friends that are dealing with this?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) 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. What I do feel is just despair. I just want to add that if they were doing that to dogs, I don't even want to think about what they have been doing to humans. And I understand there is no return to the way it was before the invasion.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you see yourself going back?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I don't know, and I am trying not to think about it for now.

E KOLIUBAIEVA: It's too difficult for me now.

MARTÍNEZ: Erika, what about for you? Do you see yourself going back?

ERIKA: No, I, like, didn't see myself in Kyiv, like, future at all. And with war, of course, I can't imagine myself there now. And so...

A KOLIUBAIEV: How you say this about your name?

ERIKA: Yeah. You can't spell America without Erika. So, yeah.


ERIKA: That's, like, a rule.

MARTÍNEZ: Erika plans on going to college in America. She wants to go to film school like her dad. The family is in the U.S. on a tourist visa, which means they can stay until September. But Artem is leaving the U.S. to begin the journey back to Ukraine, not just because he has to, but out of a sense of duty to his country.

A KOLIUBAIEV: I was born in Kyiv. All - my parents was born in Kyiv. The parents of my parents was born in Kyiv. So I have, like, four or five generations from Kyiv. And I like my city. But now it's not my city. You know, a lot of checkpoints all around the Kyiv. A lot of people with weapon - all the people with weapon.

MARTÍNEZ: As we sat in the host family's quiet backyard, Artem held his youngest daughter, Amira, in his arms and kissed her forehead. He knew in a few days he would be back in the ruins of Ukraine.

A KOLIUBAIEV: I think that everything will be a memory one day, and we need to live in the moment. I don't know what will be tomorrow. Nobody knows. We trying to stand for Ukraine. We trying to save our country. But nobody knows. As you see, nobody wants to fight with Putin except Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it not even a question for you that you are going to go back?

A KOLIUBAIEV: Is not a question for me because I don't want to be a illegal man who crossed the border and hiding somewhere out of my country. No, it's not for me.

MARTÍNEZ: Eka, what about for you? Is - would you rather him stay?

E KOLIUBAIEVA: (Through interpreter) I certainly would love for him to stay, but I cannot force him to do what he cannot do.

MARTÍNEZ: Erika, what about you? Would like your dad to stay?

ERIKA: Yeah, sure. But it's something he must do, so...

MARTÍNEZ: You're OK with it?

ERIKA: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering that Russia is still Ukraine's neighbor, right next door - that life could ever, ever go back to what it used to be.

A KOLIUBAIEV: It's - no, it never come back what it used to be. But as you mentioned, they are our neighbors and they will be our neighbors years in future.

ERIKA: Yeah, we can't do anything.

A KOLIUBAIEV: You know, when I go sleep now in Ukraine, I'm hearing alarms. And it's OK for now because you know that each day could be the last day, each day is the war day. But the worst thing, when the peace will come out, the fear is not come out. You don't hear the alarm, but you hear this alarm in your heart or in your soul, you know? There's - the peace in the papers, not peace in the minds.

MARTÍNEZ: So is that worth staying in Ukraine once this is all over? Is it...

A KOLIUBAIEV: It's worth to fight. If we broke this regime, yeah, it will be pleasure for everybody, I hope.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Artem Koliubaiev and his wife, Eka, and their daughters, Erika and Amira. Artem says the next time he sees his family, it will be because something has changed for the better.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported incorrect dates for when A Martínez was in Kyiv.]

(SOUNDBITE OF PALOMO WENDEL'S "NO SHADOW WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: April 28, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story reported incorrect dates for when A Martínez was in Kyiv.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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