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The smoldering ruins of the Chernihiv in Ukraine after Russian bombing. “They were also killing civilians,” says Olga Petrie of Guilford, whose 70-year-old mother was shepherded to safety. “The local people learned not to come out until they were allowed to board a bus to leave.”

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‘A mother can’t be in two places at once’

After enduring relentless bombing and the horrors of war in the Ukraine, one woman reunites with her daughter from Guilford after making a harrowing 10-week pilgrimage to safer ground in the United States. And her journey isn’t over.

The family has established a GoFundMe account for donations for the immigration and associated relocation expenses. For more information and to donate, visit bit.ly/664-ukraine-gofundme.

GUILFORD—Svetlana Karpenko, 50, and her 12-year-old son, Artem, live in an apartment on the 10th floor of a 12-story building in a part of Kyiv, Ukraine that has not been heavily bombed — yet.

But the sirens warning of incoming bombs are still regularly going off. They do not feel safe. They are not safe.

Another son, Andrey, 32, now a soldier fighting against the Russians, was able to bring his girlfriend, daughter, and a stepson to Poland, one week into the war, after leaving his job in finance. Once his family was safe there, he drove back to Ukraine to fight the Russians.

For one Guilford couple, Olga and Bill Petrie, the crisis on the world stage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hits home. Olga Petrie is Svetlana Karpenko’s sister. Andrey and Artem are her nephews.

“I met my husband in Kyiv when he was there visiting with one of his friends,” Petrie says. “I had graduated from university, and I was feeling that my English was getting rusty because I had little opportunity to use it. A friend of mine said, ‘I got to know this American guy. Why don’t we get together so that you can practice your English?’”

The pair met, clicked right away, and a year later, were married.

“I immigrated and arrived 19 years ago in 2003,” Petrie says with a warm smile. Many happy years followed, but at the end of 2021, life began to get very complicated for her in different and immediate ways.

“There was so much happening in Ukraine, and I was worried about my sister, my nephews, and my mother, who were all there,” said Petrie.

On the day the war began, Karpenko was scheduled to go to work but had decided not to go.

“If she had gone to work, she might have gotten stuck there. Can you imagine? If she had gone, her 12-year-old son would have been alone in the apartment, and she wouldn’t have gotten back to him for who knows how long?” said Petrie.

There are no bomb shelters in the part of Kyiv where Petrie’s sister lives. There is a basement in the huge apartment building, but it’s not supported by thick walls as a bomb shelter would be. If the building were to be hit, no one would be able to dig the people out from under the rubble of a 12-story building.

Petrie advised her sister to shelter in place in the bathroom. Her son took a pillow to the bathtub, and for many days they stayed inside those four tiny walls. Sirens wailed all night long and often during the day.

Occasionally the pair would come down to the windowless first floor of the building, planning to run out the front door if they were hit.

Artem’s school can only meet online. He’s in the sixth grade.

After their father died in 2015, Petrie and Karpenko wanted their mother, Alevtyna Semenova, 70, to move closer to Kyiv. But Semenova didn’t want to live in an apartment building, she wanted to live in a small home where she could garden. She landed in Kozelets, a northern Ukrainian village just 60 kilometers from Chernihiv, where the shelling started.

“That was the first area to be heavily bombed, as the Russians entered Ukraine from there,” Petrie says. “The bomb sirens were going off all the time. She told me that the sky was black with smoke day and night.”

It was early March, the Russian forces were advancing, and it was still quite cold. At first, Semenova tried to shelter in the house, but a friend advised her not to do so, as there was no basement, and if the house was hit, she might not survive.

The friend suggested that Semenova move into the garage, which offered a pit with boards on top of it so that people can work on their cars. Semenova lined the pit with blankets, brought out some food and water, and lived there for two days. Meanwhile, the sky was still black and the sirens warning of the incoming bombs was often nonstop.

Though food was scarce, at least cell-phone service and connections to the internet have remained strong, allowing the sisters to stay in touch regularly.

“I was consumed with worry for them and was also especially worried for my mother because she was alone four hours away from my sister,” Petrie remembers.

“Can you imagine? There is no work for my sister, there is no way to get money. Banks are closed. So far, she has been able to get some food. Americans are sending money to their churches, and those churches are sending it to Ukraine so that the local ministries come around and give away packages of food to people stuck inside, like my sister.”

Petrie and her family have texted and spoken often, the three of them staying in good communication.

For their mother, “It was so cold and damp in that pit in the garage,” Petrie says. “She had no heat, too little to keep her warm in the cold, March weather. She was wearing a fur coat and heavy boots, but that still wasn’t enough to keep her warm, so she went back inside the house.”

“It was hard even there to warm herself, and she caught a cold. She had very little food but ate what she had in the house, and she lived in the bathtub for another two weeks. Then she started to alternate between the two places, but no matter where she was, she always felt cold.”

A difficult diagnosis

Meanwhile, Petrie was fighting her own war — against cancer.

“Two days before Christmas this past December, I was having biopsies done, and breast cancer was suspected,” Petrie says.

By the time she was firmly diagnosed, “there were developments going on in Ukraine,” she says. “There was no way I was going to tell my family.”

“My plan was to have the surgery and then tell my family. I decided to wait until Feb. 24. I texted my sister and mother and told them that I needed to speak with them.”

The next morning her sister responded: “War has broken out.”

Petrie still didn’t disclose her illness, but three weeks later, her family was suspecting that something was very wrong with her. They thought she was holding something back.

“In mid-March, I felt that it was the time to tell them. I had waited to tell my family that I had been diagnosed with breast cancer for 12 weeks. That was a long time to keep important information from my family, but they were going through so much themselves,” says Petrie.

The Petries are snowbirds, living half of the year in Guilford and the other half near Orlando, Fla. While her husband remains a resident of Vermont, she had to become a resident of Florida so that her insurance would cover the chemotherapy she was about to begin.

“I would love to be in Vermont right now, enjoying the spring weather, and the green trees, but I must stay in Florida until my treatment is over. I will return there around the second week of August, if all goes as planned,” she says.

Leaving home for safety

Petrie, who has volunteered as a translator with church organizations in Ukraine, contacted some members of a church organizing transportation to help local people get to Kyiv. She asked her acquaintances, who live about an hour’s drive from her mother, if it would be possible to give Semenova a ride to Kyiv so that she could live with her sister.

Only days later, a church member called her mother at 10 p.m. and told her to be ready at 8 a.m. the following day. A small bus would pick her up and bring her to Karpenko’s apartment in Kyiv. Semenova would be allowed only one small suitcase, and she was to be packed and ready to leave quickly.

Petrie and her mother discussed the fact that she had to leave, but the night before, Semenova still felt unsure.

“My mother was so lucky that her house wasn’t damaged,” Petrie says. “There is plenty of damage all around there. Some buildings are gone [and] burned cars are in the streets.”

“Much of the fighting was 60 kilometers away in the area where the church people were located. In that city there is only one house that is still standing — all the others are gone,” she adds.

Karpenko told Petrie about the apprehension of their mother, who speaks Ukrainian and Russian but doesn’t know a word of English and was scared of the prospect of leaving her home.

What emerged was a whole other option: she would leave her village for Kyiv, but there she would make plans to come to the United States to stay with Petrie.

“She called and said that she had woken up and God had told her that she needed to come to stay with me,” says Petrie, overcome with emotion. “I was overjoyed and crying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“She didn’t even know that I would be going through chemotherapy, but God brought us together.”

The next day, the church people arrived. Four hours later she was reunited with her daughter in Kyiv.

On the way, she learned a great deal about the town of Chernihiv, in the northern part of Ukraine, where the church people lived.

“My mother was told that no one dared go out into the streets, even when the all-clear signal was heard,” Petrie says. “Russian soldiers took the clothing off dead Ukrainian civilians to disguise themselves so that they looked like local people.”

“These soldiers were raping the local women who would come out of their homes,” she continues. “They were also killing civilians. Older men, children — it didn’t matter to them who died. The local people learned not to come out until they were allowed to board a bus to leave.”

Petrie’s mother already had a tourist visa to visit the USA. When it was time to leave Ukraine, she went to the train station in Kyiv, wanting to catch a train to the western city of Lviv. But the train was too crowded, so she had to take a bus.

Petrie continues the story: “From there she tried to get a train to Warsaw, but they were also too crowded to get on, so she took another bus. That ride took 20 hours because the bus kept breaking down. It was so cold on the bus.”

The bus couldn’t take a direct route because of the continual bombing. The driver also had to hunt around for open gas stations.

After that long and harrowing ride, Semenova arrived in Warsaw, Poland and was housed in a refugee camp.

Then another issue arose: Semenova wasn’t vaccinated for COVID-19.

“That takes a lot of time,” Petrie explains with a sigh. “I told her that she had to ask for the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccination; otherwise, she would have to stay in Warsaw for 2{1/2} months.”

Sheltered amid rows and rows of beds for several hundred refugees, Semenova had to wait two weeks before she was able to get the shot.

Meanwhile, Petrie was finding it hard to schedule a flight out of Warsaw with the numbers of refugees traveling. She had another idea.

“I have a friend in Keene, N.H. who has a sister who lives outside Lyon, France. I asked my friend if her sister would be willing to house my mother until I could get her a flight out to Orlando, and she said that she would.”

Once again, Semenova was on the road. This time it was a 26-hour trip on a bus to France.

“It was a lot for her,” remembers Petrie, “She doesn’t speak any English, [and] she’d already been on the road for many weeks. She was still sick with a cold, and she’d been through so much trauma already. My mother is just awesome, and it is only with God’s help that she could have done it.”

It had been 10 long, exhausting weeks from the time the war broke out Feb. 25 to April 15, when she reunited with Petrie in Florida.

I didn’t take anything else’

Semenova picks up the story from here, as her daughter translated her words from Ukrainian to English.

“The hardest part was when I was at my daughter’s home in Kyiv. There is this sick feeling you get when you hear the siren going off and you don’t know what kind of rocket is coming or where it will hit. Where do you go? To the basement? It is a horror of panic. If you’ve never lived through a war, you just can’t know how terrifying it is,” she says through tears.

She continues, “I was able to stay in close contact with both my daughters. The Russians have destroyed 70 percent of the buildings in Kyiv. They are raping teenagers and children, then killing them. That is all happening just outside of your apartment.”

What did she put in her suitcase?

“I took my passport and paperwork. This is the most important thing,” she says calmly and steadily. “I also had two changes of clothing.”

And that was it.

“I didn’t take anything else. When you are escaping your homeland, photographs and special items are not in your head,” she says, starting to cry as she recounts leaving her home. “It was very painful that you have to leave your house, your country.”

How did she handle the language issues traveling though all those different countries and cultures? What were the three bus rides like?

“When I was in Poland, there were those who spoke Ukrainian and Russian. The first bus ride through was very difficult. There was bombing all around us. We were hearing them very close by, and we just kept driving. The scariest thing is the sky, filled with smoke and the bombs. Sometimes we had to go around different routes to be safe. There were very long lines to get gasoline.”

What about the other bus trip through to France from Poland?

She laughs. “We all helped each other. What can you do when you don’t speak the language? You just try to communicate as best you can.”

What is it like to go from war-torn Ukraine to Orlando, Florida?

She starts to cry again.

“I am very, very happy,” she says. “I came through the gate at the airport and there is my daughter. I am so happy to be with her, especially because she is so sick.”

The tears begin to come again.

“But I am anxious and worried every day because I still have a daughter and two grandsons in Ukraine, and one of them is a soldier. I pray for them every day. When I was leaving Ukraine to come here, my heart as a mother was just breaking.”

“My older daughter is staying there in Ukraine. She is still not safe. But I wanted to be with my other daughter who is sick. A mother can’t be in two places at once.”

And her house? “Yes, it is still there,” she says. “I don’t think that I can stay there to live but someday I hope to visit again. I am too frightened to think about that right now. They are still bombing in that area. I have one little suitcase. It was so scary.”

“I don’t even know yet what to say about the war. I want it to be over. I want victory for Ukraine. The worst thing is that a lot of civilians died in this war, and more will die still. Russia isn’t bombing just military targets, but houses and people. Our cities are gone. It will take years and years to build my country back.”

An uncertain future, a need for funds

Olga Petrie and their family need help from the community.

“My mother is adjusting well, and she is doing better. She has health issues that will need help when we return to Vermont in August. She won’t have any insurance available to her,” says Petrie. “Until we return to Vermont, she will be all right, but I’d like to find her some medical care for when we get back.”

The more pressing need at present is the immigration process.

Petrie has applied for a visa for Semenova under the family reunification program and has asked that it be expedited. She also needs to be able to get her sister and her son out of Ukraine and bring them to the United States.

The government fees alone to file the paperwork come to $1,800.

“I’m going through chemotherapy right now, and I don’t always think straight,” she said, noting that the immigration paperwork is specific, difficult and because of its nature, requires a professional.

The process is complicated by the fact that while her husband has returned to Vermont, Petrie and Semenova need to remain in Florida for Petrie’s cancer treatment.

Most pressing is the fact that her mother has only a tourist visa to visit the U.S.

“I worry that come October, if the paperwork hasn’t been sorted out, my mother will have to return to Ukraine. That thought frightens me. Time is going by so quickly.”

But for now, Alevtyna Semenova is safely in the U.S. with family. And after living through a war and a weeks-long journey to the United States, she is grateful.

“I am so thankful that the Lord brought me here to Olga,” she says, tears coming quickly and heavily. “I get to be with her through this difficult health journey. I am so hopeful that Olga’s sister and my grandson will be here soon as well.”

“I am so grateful for my family and hope we can all be together safely again,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #664 (Wednesday, May 18, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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