Ukrainian Anya Yakovetsk and her daughter, Ira, are safe now in her sister’s Hampton home. What brought them here was a harrowing experience.
Yakovetsk’s sister is Iryana Patterson, owner of Pour Girls Restaurant and part owner of Fika Coffee House and Café in Downtown Hampton.
When Russia started bombing on Feb. 24, they stayed home in Ukraine. “We thought we could stick it out,” she said through her sister as interpreter.
Then her daughter, 11, began having health issues, mainly nose bleeds. “It was like a waterfall,” Ira said.
About four to five nights a week they sheltered in a basement with four other families, to avoid the bombs. Then on March 3, about 300 Russian tanks rolled right outside their home.
“That’s when we got scared,” Yakovetsk said.
The pair left for Italy, where the sisters’ mother lives. Her husband cannot leave the country because the government requires all men to stay in to defend their country. When the Ukrainians fought off the Russians in Kyiv, the capitol, they were hopeful for peace and returned home.
“But that was not the case,” she said.
There were sirens eight to ten times a day warning people to take shelter from falling bombs.
That’s when Patterson went to work to have her sister and niece come to Hampton. She sponsored her them by completing the federal I-134 form. Within six days she had a response.
Then began Yakovetsk and her daughter’s four-day long journey to Hampton.
Getting out of Ukraine started with a 14-hour train ride, completely in the dark on the train. No one was allowed to use cellphones for fear of the Russians tracking the GPS. The train was crowded. Yakovetsk said seating meant for four people sat six to 10 people.
The hardest part was the orphans.
“They were crying most of the time. Wanting their parents,” she said. And they were afraid in the dark.
Following the train ride was a three-hour bus ride to the Romanian border. That’s when they got relief at a refugee village set up by Romanians.
“Everyone was so welcoming. There were tents with air mattresses,” she said.
They travelled from Romania to Italy, where they boarded an airplane for New York.
Meanwhile, Patterson was flying from Richmond to New York to greet them and escort them to Virginia.
Once in New York, Yakovetsk was stopped by immigration. That’s when the sisters lost all communication. A few hours went by. Patterson sought help from airport employees, who were not much help.
“I just kept trying not to break down,” Patterson said.
Finally, they were united. Because of the delay with immigration, they missed their flight to Richmond. They booked another one for the next day and stayed overnight in a hotel. Ira was exhausted by this time.
“She could barely walk,” Patterson said.
They hailed a cab to take them to the hotel. When the cab driver realized the trip was just over a mile, he ordered them out of the cab.
Patterson protested. The cab driver again told them to get out of the cab. Meanwhile airport security was telling the cab to move, she said.
They continued to argue. Patterson was adamant.
“I said shut the expletive door. We are leaving!”
Her persistence paid off. It was a $10 ride from the airport to the hotel. Patterson gave him $50, remarking he could buy some compassion.
After a good night’s sleep, they flew out of John F. Kennedy Airport to Richmond.
While Yakovetsk and her daughter are safe in Hampton, her husband is in Ukraine helping with war effort.
A welder by trade, he now brings food to the fire department. He does so by traveling by scooter at night, with no lights, she said.
His wife and daughter being so far away has taken a toll on him, although he knows it is a good decision, Yakovetsk said.
He’s managed to do some home remodeling, she said. They communicate through Facebook.
Ira is trying to adjust, but has a hard time with American food. She told her aunt Americans eat weird food. Although she does like chicken wings, hot dogs and Slurpee. She calls the beach “the big sea.”
For familiar comfort food, they visited Kielbasa Euro Store in Williamsburg.
When asked about the future, Yakovetsk gave a blank stare for a moment.
“I want the war to stop. It is heartbreaking that children are getting killed. I want to pretend like the war didn’t happen,” she said.
“We had a good life. I had a job I loved (physical therapist). My daughter misses her pets. She was in a good school and was about to receive her next level belt in jujitsu. We were busy with running errands and lots of activities. Sometimes, I would complain about it. I wish I could complain about what I used to complain about now,” Yalovetsk said.