Maryna Pavlenko lay awake at night, excited about the move ahead.
Maryna, 41, and her husband Volodymyr, an electrician, had poured their life’s savings into their new condo – a run-down three-bedroom unit in Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine.
They had taken out a small loan to fix it up with new windows, appliances and flooring.
Their sons – 8 and 5 – couldn’t wait to get their own rooms.
March 1 was supposed to be the big move day. But as the date neared, rumblings from Russia grew louder – rumors of war filling airwaves and streets.
Like many residents close to the border, Maryna dismissed the talk.
She and her husband never believed it would happen – until, instead of moving furniture, they had to drive south in their Skoda auto, their sons and their clothes packed inside.
And, eventually, forced to say goodbye.
A happy life
Maryna had known of Volodymyr for years – a kind man at the pharmacy factory where she was in charge of quality control.
But Maryna, who was one of 15 siblings from a small village near Kharkiv, was too focused on work and her studies at the Polytech University to notice.
A dinner invitation changed that, and soon the two were married.
Their first son, Pavlo, arrived the year Maryna graduated with a degree in economics.
She stayed home to care for him and their second son, Nikita, born three years later, while Volodymyr got a better job with the electric company.
By then the four had outgrown their one-bedroom condo.
Maryna and Volodymyr decided to sell it, finding a larger, three-bedroom unit close to the boys’ school, daycare, friends and karate classes.
Maryna loved Kharkiv – its majestic libraries and grand cathedrals. And every weekend the family set out for an adventure – fishing in one of the many rivers, or taking trips to the lush parks, the boys never missing a local soccer game.
“They were very happy,” Maryna would recall later, looking down at her hands.
The worst moment
One week before their expected move-in date, on Feb. 24, Russian forces invaded Ukraine on several fronts, including over the northeast border, toward Kharkiv.
Within days, as air strikes hit close to the home of their friends, Maryna and Volodymyr moved with the boys to his mother’s house outside the city.
Planes roared overhead, explosions thudded in the distance.
Maryna tried to keep the boys occupied, but they were restless. Where were their friends? When could they go back outside? Why must they wear their clothes and shoes to bed?
“They had to be ready to go at any minute,” Maryna would recall.
Outside their presence, Maryna and Volodymyr whispered and worried about their next move.
ATMs weren’t working. Stores had no food. Gas stations were out of fuel. Soon they learned a building across from their condo had been hit, killing a favorite teacher’s son. The blast shattered the windows in their unit. Neighbors helped board up the holes.
When Maryna and Volodymyr saw bodies in the streets, they knew they had to go.
“The first instinct was to save the children,” she said. “When you see people die around you, your first thought is that you need to protect your children.”
Friends and neighbors shared information through the Viber messaging app.
Go to Dnipro, one of the boys’ karate teachers told Maryna and Volodymyr.
“You will find gas along the way.”
He was right.
Maryna’s stomach was in knots as Volodymyr steered their car southwest – a sign they placed on their car reading “children” – “just in case,” she said
From Dnipro, the family and numerous relatives took a train west to Lviv, near the border with Poland.
They knew there was a risk that Volodymyr, who was 42, would not be able to cross. Men younger than 60 with fewer than three children had to remain on hand to fight, they had learned.
Maryna held out hope. With them were Volodymyr’s mother and his brother’s two children: they were a total of two women, four children and one man. Surely officials would relent.
But the answer was no.
Later, with all that would come to pass, Maryna counted this next moment as one of the hardest to endure.
Her husband reached into his pocket, handing to her and the boys three prayer cards in their Orthodox Christian faith.
“I will see you soon,” he told them, hugging them all goodbye.
The boys, crying, did not understand why their dad was staying behind.
Nikita, the youngest, turned to Maryna:
“Are we not a family anymore?”
In Poland, welcomed by social workers and volunteers, they stayed in a house in a rural village.
Maryna tried to keep in daily contact with Volodymyr, but the connection was often down. At night the boys cried for their father, but during the day, they kept busy playing outside with their cousins.
Maryna, meanwhile, worried what to do next. Their stay was stretching into a month and a half, and the one-time compensation they received was about to run out. It was now her responsibility alone to provide for the boys, she knew.
But surrounded by farms, jobs were scarce. She didn’t know where to turn.
The U.S. government had announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war, with special focus on those with families already in the country.
Maryna had one sister in North Port who was desperately trying to help.
By late April, Maryna and the boys – along with a second sister and her husband – were flying across the ocean.
They eventually landed in Tampa and her sister drove them to North Port – where the next chapter of their struggles began.
Crammed in with her sister at first, they soon needed a bigger place to stay.
But where – in the middle of a housing crisis afflicting thousands of families?
Maryna had started working for her sister’s cleaning company, but she didn’t have enough savings to pay for a place on her own.
Maryna’s sister and a friend from Latvia found a three-bedroom house to rent in North Port, for $2,000 a month.
But there was no way to afford the security deposit and first- and last-month’s rent.
Maryna turned to JFCS of the Suncoast for help.
Through an online translation, Susan Schoengold, the agency’s coordinator of Jewish Financial Assistance and Jewish Care Management, read her inquiry, written in Russian.
When she saw the family picture, and the faces of the two boys, the impact of their plight hit her hard.
“And I knew I had to do everything I could,” she said.
Schoengold and JFCS helped Maryna, the women and the boys move into the rental house that June. In the fall, Pavlo started school.
But with childcare too expensive to afford, Maryna often had to bring Nikita to her cleaning jobs with her or stay home when he was sick. She eventually fell behind.
This time, Schoengold helped them through Season of Sharing, which covered a month’s rent to get Maryna caught up. Meanwhile, the school district assisted with gift cards for clothes and food.
Adjustments came hard and fast – beyond the finances.
Pavlo made friends quickly. But he struggled with the new language.
“He is sad sometimes, he doesn’t understand,” Maryna said through an interpreter.
He missed his friends back home, as well as his teacher, who sent him homework every day.
“It was his decision. He wants to feel connected,” Maryna said.
“Maybe we will be back someday,” he tells her.
And then – on top of everything else – there was Hurricane Ian, which they rode out in the home of family friends with a generator.
“It was very scary, maybe even worse than the war,” Maryna said joking, her face briefly relaxing with laughter. But for the boys, it was an adventure – making videos of the wind and rain to show their dad.
Volodymyr was back at the electric company, restoring severed power connections and despondent about his family. Maryna’s biggest worries were about her husband, especially that he might be called into military service.
But there was hope. Volodymyr suffered from a chronic health condition. His doctors agreed to document it for his passage out of the country.
A new U.S. program called Uniting for Ukraine could provide a Ukrainian person fleeing the war with humanitarian parole and eligibility to work. It required a U.S.-based sponsor to agree to cover living costs for two years.
In the fall, a family friend agreed to sponsor Volodymyr, and by early November, the U.S. paperwork was approved. Now he just had to get here.
When Volodymyr messaged Maryna from Poland, at last she could start to relax.
When he finally arrived in North Port, after almost nine months of separation, the family crashed into each other’s arms, crying and laughing.
Their finances immediately improved – with Volodymyr finding work in construction.
Maryna has more time with the kids between her cleaning jobs. She hopes to begin English classes once Nikita starts school.
They continue to make small payments on the loan for their Kharkiv condo, so as not to lose their life’s savings.
There is no hope of going back to their city, at least not anytime soon. But someday they may sell the condo.
For now, they are focusing on building a foundation for the kids, who remain scarred by the separation, asking Volodymyr if he really is staying or if he will leave them again.
On the morning of Dec. 19 – St. Nicholas Day – the parents awakened the boys with gifts.
Maryna hopes to get a real Christmas tree in time for the Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
She is grateful to the United States for their safety, for their jobs, for a safe haven for the boys. She’s also thankful to Schoengold at JFCS and Season of Sharing.
Though her main worry is over now that her husband is at her side – she fears for their family and friends in Ukraine, and what will become of her country.
“The only thing I wish for this New Year is peace in my homeland,” she said. “I wish the war to be over soon.”
See the story, as it originally appeared in Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jan. 1. 2023, here.
Written by Saundra Amrhein; header photo by Mike Lang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.