JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Torn from her accounting job for a Kyiv marketing company, Ludmila Smiian and her 17-year-old daughter Valeria spent a harrowing 10 days at a family home on the city’s outskirts as Russian bombs fell nearby.
The pair’s journey from a dark cellar with no power, through Poland and finally to the warmth of a Memorial Day at a home in Johnson City is being repeated by the thousands as Ukrainian families displaced by Russia’s invasion begin arriving in the U.S. as part of the federal “Uniting for Ukraine” program.
Monday, three days after her arrival from the Polish village of Gorna where she and Valeria had spent the past 11 weeks, Smiian sat on Greg and Nelly Ostrovsky’s patio and said, with Nelly Ostrovsky interpreting, that she felt safer than she had since the war began.
“First and foremost I would like to say thank you to the United States for creating the possibility for Ukrainians to come here,” Smiian said.
“The family treated us very well and we are very thankful,” she said of the Polish couple who’d taken them in.
But they weren’t family — Nelly Ostrovsky is a first cousin to Smiian’s late mother — and many Ukrainians remain fearful of what Russian president Vladimir Putin may do in the coming weeks and months, not just in Ukraine but in other parts of Eastern Europe.
Those fears are a main reason the Ostrovskys applied to become sponsors for Ludmila and Valeria just a few days after April 21, when the U.S. Centers for Immigration Services (USCIS) officially rolled out Uniting for Ukraine. Approved families who arrive can stay with host families for up to two years, work and attend school, with 100,000 slots initially approved.
“There definitely was a need and I think it could have been implemented earlier, but once it was put in place I was pleased to see how fast and relatively simple it was,” Nelly Ostrovsky said.
With Ostrovsky intepreting, Smiian showed the few suitcases that contained all she currently possesses. A small amount of clothes, her laptop, and several files of papers related to her job back home.
“She’s continued to complete work from home even though the company can’t pay her right now because they don’t have any business due to the war,” Ostrovsky said.
Asked about work here, Smiian said she wants to get started as soon as possible. She and Valeria will begin English classes this Friday.
“I will do whatever,” Smiian said. “Ideally I would like to have something related to the accounting field.”
Meanwhile, Valeria hopes to reunite with her boyfriend, whose American relatives relocated him to Texas from Kyiv just weeks before the war started.
For now, Smiian is taking it a day at a time, working to unpack and arrange her belongings in the third place she’s laid down to sleep since being awakened at 6 a.m. by a neighbor in her Kyiv apartment to learn war had begun.
Smiian was still grieving the December 2021 loss of the grandmother who raised her when rumors of a possible Russian invasion heated up. She said most people waited on pins and needles as Feb. 21 — the last day of the Winter Olympics — came and went.
“Everyone thought an invasion would happen then if it happened,” she said. Instead, three more days passed before the 6 a.m. message from her neighbor that the invasion was underway and Kyiv was being targeted.
Smiian had packed some belongings in preparation for such an event. Within hours she and Valeria drove to her grandmother’s house in the village of Buzova, a suburb about 15 miles west of the city and barely over a mile from the village of Bucha that later became infamous after hundreds of dead Ukrainian civilian victims were found there.
“We had electricity for the first few days,” Smiian said. “We heard the bombs, the helicopters. But on the fourth day (Feb. 27) the tanks started coming into the area and the electrical substation was destroyed.”
A neighbor allowed the mother and daughter to shelter in their cellar. As they hunkered down for about five days, all without power and with freezing temperatures outside, a nearby house was bombed, its windows blown out.
On March 3 Smiian and Valeria drove away from the village, taking back roads toward Kyiv on a mission to drop two cats off to one friend, and one other feline to another. Then on March 4 they headed west to the city of Ternopil, still east of Lviv and a four-hour drive in the best of times from Krosckienko, Poland.
They drove to a checkpoint near Kroscienko March 6 and spent seven hours waiting in the cold. Finally they walked across the border, dragging their suitcases, one with a broken wheel, through the Polish countryside for several miles. Then the husband in the family that welcomed them in picked them up in his car.
That family, who live in the village of Gorna, had a relative in the U.S. who had met Anita Ostrovsky, Nelly’s daughter, at Wake Forest University. That thin thread of a connection got Smiian a safe refuge for as long as she and Valeria would need it, but both she and Nelly wanted Smiian to be able to come to America.
The Ostrovskys immediately went to work on gaining Uniting for Ukraine approval. Nelly Ostrovsky already had been very active in efforts to help war victims, and has also found a local family to sponsor a close friend of Nelly’s family.
She’s also working to help Yevjeniia Hrebenkova and her husband Vlad, who live in Johnson City, find sponsors for a family of seven who have been displaced from Kherson, the first city to be occupied by Russia.
Ready to acclimate with return date uncertain
Ludmila Smiian said she had a good life in the Svyatoshyns’kyi district at Kyiv’s western edge. A good job as the senior accountant for a company of 35 people that primarily did outdoor advertising, a daughter growing up and preparing to make her own way in the world and plenty of friends and good times.
“Everything has been taken relatively unexpectedly,” she said. “Many people didn’t think the Kyiv region would be affected even if Russia did invade.”
Now, even with the war playing out primarily in the far east of the country, Smiian said parents like her are afraid to return with their children.
“While the war is still raging no matter how far, Kyiv is not considered safe,” she said, noting it remains within reach of Russian artillery. “Kyiv could be affected at any minute.”
Indeed, after she left for Poland, a Russian shell tore through the family home in Buzova, destroying part of the inside but exiting and avoiding the kind of fire that has resulted in the destruction of numerous homes.
Smiian’s apartment in Kyiv hasn’t been damaged. She’s hopeful some hints of the war’s end will begin to solidify this summer. Even if that happens, Smiian said several things would have to fall into place before she would feel safe, both physically and financially, returning.
“I had a good stable life that was kind of routine,” Smiian said. “Nothing would have moved me to start my life somewhere else besides a war.”
She said safety is the prime motivator in her decision to join her cousin in Johnson City, along with opportunities she believes Valeria might have if her boyfriend stays in the U.S.
Smiian had a message for Americans in addition to her gratitude for the program that has allowed her to come to the United States.
“She wants United States to continue to support Ukraine,” Ostrovsky said. “Ukraine will fight until the very end but it has a chance to win if it will have the support of developed economies, developed countries such as United States.
“So she definitely appreciates the support but she also feels like we cannot step back now because it’s really important to help Ukraine to survive.”