Every day the war was getting closer and fiercer, said Tatiana Poladko, a local woman living in Ukraine. And on Friday, she left with her husband, their three young children and her elderly father to seek safety in Poland.
A stranger with a car offered to drive them most of the time. Then they started walking.
The children, Zoryana, 7, Nazariy, 3, and Taras, 2, kept their winter hats down against the cold. Her father, 81, struggled to keep up and at one point fell.
They crossed the border on foot.
Authorities put them on a bus to a refugee center in the town of Przemysl in southern Poland. It looked like an empty mall, crowded not with shoppers but with people sleeping on mats.
“So many people, babies, children, old people, everyone,” Poladko said. “Ukrainians with just a suitcase or two who never thought they would be in such a situation.”
Poladko and her husband — Wilmington residents who run a Delaware-based college access program — never imagined that when they decided to spend a few years in his native country, they would embark on a dangerous and frozen to the Polish border as Russia bombed Ukraine. .
They just wanted their children to experience their Ukrainian heritage, see the country and learn the language.
Now, with war raging, Poladko, a Ukrainian national, cannot return to the United States due to federal immigration laws. And her husband and children, all American citizens, will not leave without her.
They plan to apply for emergency visas that could allow Poladko and his father to enter the United States, but it is unclear whether these will be approved.
Their next steps in Poland?
“Really hard to say,” she said. “We make day-to-day decisions.”
The family has evacuated once before, from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to the western city of Lviv, far from the worst of the fighting. But in recent days, the perception of safety has evaporated. Civilians who lived around Lviv were undergoing weapons training.
The Russians fired on a civilian car, killing a woman, on a road that Poladko and his family had recently traveled. Missiles blasted residential areas across the country.
In Lviv, life has become a grueling daily calculation of danger, chance and risk, the equation changing with each new piece of information.
“At first the terror of it all made it hard to think and act strategically. It was so devastating and surreal,” said Poladko’s husband Atnre Alleyne, 37. such strength and determination through bravery and collective spirit in Ukraine.
At the end of last week, the family feared that if they didn’t leave soon, they might not be able to leave at all.
Poladko, 38, was born in Kryvyi Rih – it means “Twisted Horn” – in south-central Ukraine. In 2005, she came to the United States to study for a master’s degree at Rutgers University in Camden. And she hadn’t planned to stay.
In Ukraine, Poladko worked for the United Nations, coordinating youth empowerment efforts across the country. She was active in the Orange Revolution, the protests that rocked the nation in the aftermath of a 2004 presidential election marred by corruption and voter intimidation.
But life took its turn. She and Alleyne met and married, and they created a life together in Camden, in a house behind Cooper University Hospital.
He worked on a doctorate at the University of Delaware. After completing her master’s degree, Poladko completed an internship and then began studying for her own doctorate at Temple University.
In 2009, the couple created TeenSHARP, a nonprofit organization that prepares black, Latino and low-income students to attend top universities. The couple viewed these degrees as potentially game-changing and knew that wealthier, higher-level schools could better afford to provide financial aid.
On average, African Americans graduate with $25,000 more in student loan debt than whites.
For their family and others, life changed when the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Poladko’s mother died in Ukraine. And Poladko was unable to attend the funeral as borders were closed by travel restrictions.
A year later, as the limits loosened and Poladko’s father grew older, the couple thought it was time to spend a long time in Ukraine. Their nonprofit moved online amid the pandemic, and they could work from Kyiv as easily as from Wilmington.
The rules of the US immigration system also played a role. Some scholarship and study-based visas require holders to return to their home country for at least two years before applying for other immigration benefits.
This is not negated by being married to a US citizen or even having citizen children. In January 2021, the family traveled to Kyiv.
Last month, on the first day of the invasion, Poladko was outside with the children when helicopters descended low, almost to roof level. One of them launched what looked like fireballs – Poladko later realized they were flares, meant to deflect Earth weapons in search of heat.
But at the time, she and the children froze. Then the children started screaming and running.
“Mom,” her 3-year-old later told her, “we can never leave the house again.”
She and her husband immediately began looking for a way out of town. They didn’t have a car. The trains were blocked.
She is the main guardian of her father, whose health is poor. A severe case of COVID-19 weakened his heart and left him with dementia-like symptoms that lasted for months.
The family seemed stuck, until the mother of one of their children’s preschool classmates approached them.
“I have a small car,” she said.
Initial plans to leave were snuffed out when Ukrainian forces began setting up local roadblocks, as word spread that Russian troops were closing in.
Instead, the group left at 7 a.m. the next day, a Saturday, as soon as the curfew lifted: four adults and four children crammed into a car. They brought sandwiches and clothes. There was no room for anything else.
The roads were so empty it was strange.
At one point they saw a lone tank blocking the road in front of them. The machine was close enough to scare, but too far to tell if it was Russian or Ukrainian.
The driver and passengers sat and watched. Eventually the tank pulled off the road and into the woods.
Poladko’s friend dropped them off in northwestern Ukraine and continued on to Poland. From there, the family managed to travel south to Lviv, where a friend lent them an apartment.
The anti-aircraft sirens went off. Restaurants were closed and store shelves half empty, but the electricity was on and the internet worked. Within days, even Lviv no longer felt safe.
The crowds approaching the Polish border were huge, a segment of the more than 1.8 million people who have fled Ukraine for surrounding countries, the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
Poladko carried her 2-year-old, while her 3-year-old clung to her dress. Her eldest son walked alongside. Her husband helped her father get ahead.
They walked more than four miles. Ukrainian men – those between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country – escorted their families to the border, stayed with them until the last moment, then returned to war.
Finally Poladko and his family have crossed the line. Volunteers handed out snacks and cups of tea. She made sure her father had something to eat. A police officer pulled out a packet of Gummy Bears and gave it to the children.
Polish authorities were putting arriving families on buses to Przemysl, where thousands of refugees have arrived.
Poladko and his family boarded. She took her husband’s hand. That’s when the tears came.
In Przemysl, Poladko and his family were able to board a train taking refugees to Warsaw.
They found a hotel. Now they are trying to figure out where to go and what to do.