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Ukrainian family escapes war to live with Okemos couple

 Chris and MaryJo Eberhart stand in front of their Okemos home with the Kotyks, Hanna, Kostia and Macksym. The Kostyks arrived from Odesa, Ukraine about four weeks ago. They're wearing traditional Ukrainian shirts.
Scott Pohl
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WKAR-MSU
Chris (L) and MaryJo Eberhart (R) stand in front of their Okemos home with the Kotyks, Hanna, Kostia and Macksym. The Kostyks arrived from Odesa, Ukraine about four weeks ago. They're wearing traditional Ukrainian shirts.

The world has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with countless offers to help, everything from global sanctions against the Kremlin to financial donations aimed at helping the war’s innocent victims.

One Okemos couple is helping some Ukrainians on a personal level. They’ve welcomed a young family from Odesa into their home.

Chris Eberhart is the great-grandson of Ukrainians who emigrated to Pennsylvania at the start of the 20th century. He traveled to Pennsylvania coal country often to spend time with relatives who had maintained their Ukrainian traditions in the U.S. over the decades.

About 10 years ago, he traveled to Ukraine with his mother. On that trip, he met a distant relative in a village in the Carpathian Mountains. Her name was Hanna Shyika. She’s the great-great-granddaughter of Chris’s great-grandmother’s sister. They’ve stayed in touch since that visit.

The war has brought a new importance to their relationship.

Hanna is now married and living in the Black Sea port city of Odesa with her husband, Kostia Kotyk, and six-year-old son Macksym. The family had stayed in Odesa, hoping the war wouldn’t last long. As the conflict dragged on, though, Hanna says their fears grew. They often had to rush to shelters as air raid sirens sounded, sometimes four or five times a day.

“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “Our children always cry, ‘Mom, why?’ He have many questions, ‘Why? Why is this happened in our country?'”

One day, while Kostia was at work, Hanna went to a store with Macksym. As scary as the sound of air raid sirens is, that day, there was a sound that was different. And scarier. 

“We look in sky and see a rocket, Russia rocket, flying on our house,” Hanna explained. “It’s noisy, very very noisy, and this rocket…after that, we learn that this rocket hit a residential building, where many people died, yes. So, it’s very dangerous, very.”

Chris Eberhart and his wife MaryJo are empty nesters with three spare bedrooms in their Okemos home, and Hanna and her family had been on their minds. 

“When all this started back in February, I contacted Hanna and said, 'You know, this would be a great time to visit the U.S.,'” Eberhart said. “And she said that they’d intended to stay. But then, about six weeks ago, she contacted me and said it was just getting too dangerous, and they’d like to come.”

The Kotyk family arrived in Okemos via Chicago four weeks ago.
Courtesy
/
MaryJo Eberhart
The Kotyk family arrived in Okemos via Chicago four weeks ago.

In April, the United States fulfilled a promise to help people fleeing from Ukraine. Uniting For Ukraine enables Americans with relatives in Ukraine to bring them here for up to two years. Chris Eberhart says Hanna sent photos of the family’s passports and other documents, and he filled out some forms, a process that amazed him with how quickly things went. 

“Basically, they wanted to make sure that we have the resources to support them,” he said. “Two days later, they were notified that we were approved as sponsors, and they had to fill out their applications to be vetted to come in. And then, it wasn’t more than four days after that they got their authorization to travel to the U.S., as long as they did so by September 1st.”

Hanna says her son Macksym was excited when he was told that they were leaving for America. 

“He want that we all will be in safety,” she stated, “and when we said to him, he said, Oh, alleluia, we go to safety place!’ Yes, yes. I cry, I cry, almost cry, when he said it.”

The Kotyks were able to cross the border into Moldova. From there, they went to Turkey for a few days before flights to Amsterdam and then Chicago, where Chris and MaryJo Eberhart picked them up about four weeks ago.

Macksym Kotyk walks the Eberhart family dog, Jagger, in Okemos.
Courtesy
/
MaryJo Eberhart
Macksym Kotyk walks the Eberhart family dog, Jagger, in Okemos.

Since their arrival, it’s been a whirlwind of activity for the Kotyks. They’ve taken steps to get driver's licenses, and obtained Social Security numbers that will enable them to get jobs once they get work authorizations.

“I cannot sit at one place. I want work. Ukrainian people is peoples who loves work,” Kostia Kotyk said.

Hanna Kotyk expands on that: “Of course, we are worried about how you will live here. The main thing for us is to find a job so that we can support ourselves and our child, who will go to school for the first time in America this year.”

In Odesa, Kostia was a lawyer with a government job, and Hanna had done graduate work studying law, and worked at a university with students from other countries like China and Turkey. While anxious to find jobs, both know that they might not find employment right away in the legal field. They both express interest in working with students, but at first will be open to most anything.

The Kotyks are big supporters of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They praise him for not fleeing the country when the war started, saying Zelenskyy is working “day and night” on behalf of the people of Ukraine.

It’s no surprise that their judgment of Russian President Vladimir Putin is harsh. Kostia Kotyk says of Putin, “You have all. You have house, you have big money, you can buy all what do you want. Why is this do? Why? Now, it’s problem all of world.”

“He’s a terrorist, I think so, yes. I hate him,” Hanna Kotyk added.

As for the future, the Kotyks can’t predict if they’ll ever be able to go back to Ukraine. It’s their homeland, and they’re hoping for an end to the war and a safe return. For now, they’re grateful for the safety, and kindness, they’ve found in Michigan.

Kostia Kotyk sums it up this way: “We very thanks this family, these great people, and we want say thank you government, America, who’s helped Ukrainians come here.”

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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