The vast majority of the more than 3.5 million Ukrainians to flee the war-torn country have so far found safe harbor in neighboring European nations, particularly Poland, where up to 50,000 refugees have reportedly been crossing the border each day. A comparatively tiny number of Ukrainian refugees are already in the United States. They find themselves distressed and disoriented, navigating the bureaucratic red tape of the resettlement process while helplessly watching the horrors unfolding in their native land.
That’s life right now for Veronika Toma and Andrey Pustovoy, who were in the middle of a 12-day road trip with their school-age children to celebrate Veronika’s 39th birthday, with stops in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Florida. Just before midnight on Veronika’s birthday, February 23, as the kids slept soundly in their hotel room outside the nation’s capital, Veronika started getting frantic messages from friends and family back home: Ukraine was under attack.
Like so many people inside Ukraine and out, Veronika and Andrey had been following the news of Vladimir Putin’s colossal troop buildup along the border, but they didn’t believe he would invade. “It was beyond shock,” Veronika told me on a video call the other day. Her face beamed in from the two-bedroom townhouse apartment where she now lives in Wood-Ridge, a middle-class suburb near the Meadowlands, in New Jersey. She turned the iPad around and introduced me to her husband and kids, who sat on the couch listening to our conversation. I noticed her manicured nails, proudly adorned in the blue and yellow hues of the Ukrainian flag. Veronika speaks English conversationally, but some of her replies were translated by Mariya Lyubman, a human resources executive originally from Kyiv who has become the family’s lifeline since learning about their plight. “We all thought it was going to end by means of talks,” Veronika went on. “Obviously, if we thought this was a possibility, we never would have taken a vacation.”
In their hotel room on the night of the invasion, the family’s world turned upside down in an instant. Instead of carrying on to Disney World, as planned, Veronika and Andrey packed up and drove north to Newark Airport, hoping for a miracle. They knew it was a long shot, but maybe, somehow, they could book themselves on a plane back to Odesa, to be with their parents, friends, and extended family. Alas, no flights. Instead, they ended up at a Residence Inn in East Rutherford. Exhausted and distraught, Veronika walked up to the front desk, explained their situation, and asked about the possibility of a discount, which she said the hotel agreed to. “We had no idea how long we’d be staying,” Veronika recalled. “We basically checked into this hotel and started planning our new life.”
Veronika and Andrey, who is 43—around the same age as Volodymyr Zelenskyy—were born and raised in Odesa, where they “had a normal life,” as Veronika put it. They owned a logistics company, now suspended because freight can’t be transported into or out of the country. Their kids loved going to school, where they learned English. Seven-year-old Izabella took painting classes and vocal lessons; 10-year-old Mark excelled at judo. The family lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the French Boulevard in Odesa’s city center, a 10-minute walk from the coastline, where they often strolled the boardwalk. They own a second home right on the beach. When I asked Veronika what she missed most, she smiled and, without hesitation, replied, “The Black Sea.”
Odesa is a beautiful and historic port city, Ukraine’s third most populous, about 125 miles west of Kherson, the first major municipality to fall. Russian warships linger off the coast, menacing the local population. World War II–style anti-tank obstacles known as “hedgehogs” line the beaches and streets, as fears loom that the city will be next to incur Putin’s wrath. But Odesa’s residents are resilient. Last week footage circulated showing dozens of them filling up sandbags and loading them onto a truck while Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” blasted over loudspeakers. The band tweeted out the video with the message, “This is for the ones who stood their ground… Odessa, Ukraine.”
Thousands of miles away, in Jon Bon Jovi’s home state, Veronika’s phone regularly buzzes with pictures from friends and neighbors. Her father is staying in their Odesa apartment, which fortunately has a basement that can serve as a bomb shelter if need be. “My family is safe, but my heart is in Odesa,” she told me through tears. “I’m praying that nothing happens to Odesa, that it will continue to withstand the line of fire. My daily prayers start and end” with Odesa. Friends in other cities haven’t been so lucky. Some have lost their homes and businesses. Some have gone off to fight. At least one has died, and others are unaccounted for. “The biggest pain,” said Veronika, “is in Mariupol,” which has been leveled in a ghoulish blitz and cut off from the outside world. “We don’t know which of our friends are still alive.”
Photo Credit: Pixabay