A Ukrainian mother and her three children seek a new life in Philadelphia, where even the water tastes different

Veronika Pavliutina told her children to choose a special membership. And pick quickly. They needed to leave.

Explosions rocked their hometown of Odessa as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

Eight-year-old Yegor grabbed two toy cars.

Nina, 11, took her riding helmet. She loves horses.

And Polina, 14, an artist, packed her painting supplies.

They didn’t know if they were leaving for a week or forever.

Now, two and a half months later, a few hastily chosen possessions include tangible reminders of home for three children and their mother, a single parent who managed to get the family to safety in the United States, at the shelter of a third-bedroom downstairs in a friend of a friend’s house in Philadelphia.

Neighbors in the Mount Airy section of town delivered meals and clothes and Target gift cards. Nina was invited to ride at a local stable.

“Everything is normal,” she said of this new life in America.

But of course not.

If it is difficult for a parent to stumble out of an attacked country, it is even more difficult for children, who carry not only small toys, but also outsized fears and worries for friends and family left behind. for account.

Their mother, 44, gave cooking lessons at her Odessa studio, called Plushkin, whose motto is “Cook. Eat. Love.” Now without a job or benefits and a future defined by uncertainty, she must stay strong and confident, insisting to the children that everything will be fine, even if it turns out to be something no one planned. .

“They really miss home,” Pavliutina said. “I say, ‘It’s not safe at home. It will take time.'”

Polina says it’s hard to make friends when you don’t speak their language. The world has changed. Even the water tastes different here. The news from Ukraine is not encouraging.

Russia struck the southern city of Odessa on the first day, February 24, blowing up warehouses as well as air defense systems and killing at least 22 people.

A few weeks earlier, as Europe watched nervously as Russian troops and armaments massed on the Ukrainian border, Serbian friends told Pavliutina: If it’s war, you can come to us.

She put the children and some suitcases and backpacks in the car, then drove southwest, away from the sound of explosions.

“Putin actually announced, how did he say? “It’s not war, it’s special military action,” Pavliutina said. “It was like war.”

The family crossed the Romanian border, traveling to Bucharest, stopping to rest after 36 hours of travel. Then they drove west to Belgrade, Serbia, to their friends.

If the war ended in a week and everyone went home, Pavliutina thought, well, she’d feel stupid for running—and upset for spending her savings.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Evacuation trains began evacuating civilians from Odessa on March 2. By then Pavliutina and her children were gone.

About 7,400 miles away in Mount Airy, real estate agent Richard McIlhenny and his wife, Marissa Vergnetti, a preschool teacher, were watching the news. And in distress.

Vergnetti was speaking to her sister-in-law, whose grandparents were refugees from Ukraine during World War II, “we both feel helpless and heartbroken about everything,” she said.

They discussed the possibility of inviting refugees to live with them.

Vergnetti called her husband. “Could we do something like that?

She knew that her husband had a close childhood friend who had lived in Odessa for work. Does the friend know a family that needs help?

It turned out to be a woman who ran a cooking workshop. The cooking teacher was friends with his wife.

Richard called Marissa, “It’s happening.”

Neighbors descended on the twin house to help clean up, move furniture and drop off supplies.

Pavliutina and her children got off a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on March 15.

His father is still in Ukraine. So was his brother – men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave. Both live with daily danger as Odessa remains under bombardment, a strategically important port city for Russia due to its position on the Black Sea.

Today, about 10 weeks into the war, it’s hard to say how many Ukrainian refugees are settling in the Philadelphia area, other than “increasingly.”

Many enter the United States on travel visas or have come north after crossing the southern border, moving with family and friends into the region’s large Ukrainian community, into neighborhoods at churches or, in Pavliutina’s case, in the homes of caring strangers.

This flow of arrivals has largely bypassed the official US refugee process and resettlement agencies that agree to help a specific number of people, making reliable numbers difficult to discern. Agencies like HIAS Pennsylvania continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees arriving, after years in the immigration process, under a program first adopted in 1990 to help Jews leave the former Union Soviet.

Nearly 5.7 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries since the start of the war.

President Joe Biden’s plan to accept 100,000 refugees through “Unite for Ukraine” hinges on having sponsors in the United States who will take full responsibility. These newcomers do not get any of the employment, housing, or health care benefits enjoyed by official refugees.

About 20 years ago, Pavliutina lived briefly in northern New Jersey, when her ex-husband’s job brought them to the United States. Since they broke up, she has occasionally traveled here to visit friends and sightsee.

The practical effect was that on the day of the Russian invasion, she held a valid visa to enter the United States.

McIlhenny picked up the family at the airport.

“I’m so grateful,” Pavliutina said. “What Rich and Marissa have done for me and my family, I would never expect from people. It’s like, ‘Is this real?’ A room People who cook for us.

The kitchen may hold the key to the family’s future.

Pavliutina wants to restart her cooking workshop, as she is eligible to work under the Biden administration’s Temporary Protected Status designation for Ukraine, which allows about 59,600 Ukrainians to stay here until at least October 19, 2023. .

She needs a car. And an apartment, so that his family can have a place of their own.

So far, these goals have proven unattainable. In this country, Pavliutina has no credit score, no work history and no job. A GoFundMe campaign stalled halfway to his goal of $20,000.

The children are taking lessons in Ukraine via Zoom. In the fall, they will start school in Philadelphia.

Yegor enjoys spending time with McIlhenny and Vergnetti’s son, Daniel, a high school student who only complains that the arrival of three younger children has forced him to “give up snacks and stuff.”

Nina was able to ride thanks to a family friend. She likes to scrutinize the local architecture. Polina enjoyed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Neighbors continue to bring food and donations.

Yegor may have the easiest adjustment, his mother said. He loves American ice cream. And playing with the load of Lego building blocks he was given.

“I like everything to be pretty and nice,” he said.

He seems less bothered than the girls by language differences, Pavliutina said. Polina feels she must speak perfect English, reluctant to risk tripping over the words.

She told her mom she wanted to find friends, meet kids her own age, just so they could hang out.

They wonder about the future. Their mother has no good answers. Russian missile fire continues to kill people in Odessa.

“We’ll come back as soon as it’s ok,” Pavliutina told them.

She doesn’t know when it might be, when the war might end.

“The longer it goes on,” she said, “the more I feel there will be nothing to go back to.”

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