It’s 4:30 a.m.
Outside – maybe 5 below. Maybe a foot of snow.
Inside – pitch black. Dead quiet.
Except for a young mother scurrying softly about. The one who loves jazz, who plays the accordion, who teaches classical music and conducts the children’s choir.
But, on this morning, in the dark and the cold and the dead quiet, she has but one purpose. She is trying to save the life of her only son, gently breast-feeding him in the stillness of the frigid winter morning.
The baby boy is only 3 months old. At birth, COVID-19 and pneumonia kept him in the hospital, kept him on a ventilator, kept him slipping in and out of a coma.
And now baby Erik is struggling to breathe on his own, to take the food his mother tenderly offers his tiny mouth. They sit face to face in an upstairs bedroom. She watches his breathing, watches his eyes, rubs his tummy, runs her fingers through his hair. The little boy smiles.
Suddenly, a loud boom. Then another. The bedroom windows shake and shudder. The little boy starts to cry.
The mother runs to a window and looks out and all she can see is that all of the sky draped above all of their beautiful homeland has turned a deep and dark reddish-orange. She runs downstairs and flings open a bathroom window and all she can hear are jet engines, more explosions and the whiny whir of helicopter blades chopping through the red-orange sky.
She pulls the little boy closer and runs back upstairs and shakes her husband, a notorious deep sleeper. He’s not happy to be awoken. Another explosion. The husband jumps up and runs to the bedroom window and sees the red-orange flames fanning out across the sky. They race down the hallway to wake up his brother. “You’re hallucinating! Go back to bed! Everything is OK!”
Three more explosions. The brother rolls out of bed, runs to the window and sees what the others already know: The sky is on fire.
The two brothers and their wives and their six young children all live together in a two-story home on a lovely acreage and now everyone is awake, panicked, the children screaming and crying. The mothers and fathers race through the house, fumbling about, frantically searching for their phones. Finally, they find them and open them and they all see the same thing: PUTIN ATTACKS UKRAINE.
It’s Feb. 24, 2022.
Nine years earlier, the two Ukrainian brothers – Paul and Roman – had met two Belarusian twin sisters – Sniazhana and Sviatlana – in a coffee shop at a Crimean seaside resort. All four were on vacation and, bye and bye, the two brothers fell in love and married the beautiful sisters from a country closely allied with Russia.
A year later, in 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and seized the Ukrainian peninsula as its own. And so it wasn’t long before the lives of the madly-in-love newlyweds became entangled in the region’s increasingly complex web of political and religious warfare.
The couples and their families lived in a village in the far eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine – about 15 miles from the Russian border. They were among the few Pentecostal families in the area. The brothers’ father was a Pentecostal pastor. Not long after the Crimean takeover, Russian forces and their allies in the neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine intensified their terror campaign against some Christians – specifically targeting Pentecostals.
Russians, the brothers said, had long viewed the Pentecostal denomination as an American export and so they stepped up their intimidation: assaulting Pentecostals, threatening to kill their pastors and kidnap their children.
Before long, the brothers feared the Russian terror campaign would spread to their region. And for several days, Russian allies commandeered a key Kharkiv government building, flying the Russian flag. The brothers soon feared for their father’s life. They wanted him in a country where there was no war, in a city where he and their mother were safe.
On the afternoon of May 5, 2015, the brothers hugged their mother and father and cried and cried and said goodbye. Three days later, the parents arrived in a city where Christians were safe, where the mother had relatives: They arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Now, almost seven years later, the brothers found themselves in the same fix. The sisters remembered all the World War II stories they’d heard from their grandparents. The brothers remembered all the war movies they’d seen. And now the war was playing outside the house where they lived with their six young sons and daughters.
Soon, one thing became clear: They could all stay – and starve to death, get shot or blown up.
Not by bus, as their parents had. Russian war planes had bombed the bus station.
And not by train. Russians had blown up the tracks.
Days earlier, two cars rested peacefully on their property. One was a newer model that ran beautifully. The other a 1985 Volvo idle for two years. The brothers had sold the good one on Feb. 23 – the day before the sky caught fire.
So now, the only means of escape, their only chance to avoid bombs and missiles, starvation and bullets, to somehow get 10 people to the safety of the Polish border 700 miles away, came down to one option: a homely, gunmetal-gray, 37-year-old jalopy with no radiator, no heater, four flat tires, a crushed front end and an engine diseased with multiple afflictions.
On Feb. 24, Paul slipped the key into the ignition, slowly turned it and … nothing. No sound. No pulse. DOA.
Then the ace mechanics got to it. Working 5 a.m. to midnight, Paul and Roman feverishly gathered parts strewn about the acreage, using their automotive talents to solve one problem after another.
No radiator? No worries. They found an old one that had been lying in the barn for five years and jerry-rigged it to fit the ancient Volvo.
Flat tires? No problem. They pumped and patched until they were road ready.
A damaged alignment? No sweat. A computer program showed them how to fix it.
“We did two weeks’ worth of work in three days,” Paul said.
After extensive surgery, the car finally sputtered to life and so he and his brother limped into a nearby village where they got more engine parts, new-old tires, brake and transmission fluid and swiped a better radiator from a Russian-made Lada.
The gas stations were all closed. But luckily, the Volvo ran on diesel. So, the two brothers staggered from farm to farm, where the tractors ran on diesel, begging for a gallon here, a gallon there, some paid for, some donated, filling the tank, stockpiling as much as they could. All the while, their phones told them Russian tanks were closing in, bridges and train tracks blowing up. And in the distance, they watched bombs falling from the sky.
Five days had come and gone and the brothers and their wives and the children were all scared and tired and cold and the little boy was still very sick and sometimes the Volvo started and sometimes it didn’t. They weren’t sure what to do.
Should they stay and wait longer?
Or leave now and risk the car breaking down as they try to escape?
They had been praying for days, ever since the red dawn. And now they decided they would seek God’s advice, they would let Him speak to them through a spiritual messenger: a 37-year-old rusted-out clunker, chugging along one cylinder at a time.
On Feb. 28, with everyone holding hands, kneeling in the frigid air, they prayed together: “God, if this car starts, that’s a sign from you that we need to leave now. And if you don’t think it’s time for us to leave – then please don’t make this car start.”
Slowly, carefully, Paul inserted the key. He gently turned it and … the car revved to life.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
March 1, 2022.
Everyone’s up. So much to do.
They know many stores will be closed or blown up, so the patched-up jalopy quickly fills with diapers, blankets, clothing, waffles, cookies and water. A neighbor baked a loaf of bread, then slaughtered and roasted a goat, so in go the goat-meat sandwiches.
In the back seat, mothers and children are stacked like loaves of bread on a grocery shelf. Moms anchor each end of the bottom row, their two oldest children in between, while the four youngest pile on top, forming a second row. Up front sit pilot and co-pilot.
The dawn arrived that Tuesday in a curtain of heavy fog, obscuring sky but not sound. Yes, they were leaving beloved home and homeland but bursting bombs and screeching missiles made one thing clear: It was the right decision.
Those first two days, they can never forget. Fog above. Snow below. Minus 5. No heater. They saw where Russian tanks had left snow-packed paths alongside their roadway while all around the same steady drum beat: exploding tank shells, shrieking rocket-launchers, screaming missiles. The children were tired, hungry, frozen and scared. They cried and cried.
To calm them, the mothers said: “Hey, we’re going on a vacation! The whole family together! It will be a new adventure! We hope you’re as excited as we are.” It was a hard sell the children didn’t buy.
And yet, they also knew how lucky they were. Swathed in thick clothing, blanketed from head to toe, the little boy was struggling in the frigid car. While in the hospital with COVID, he’d also developed a bone disease — osteomyelitis. His doctor had scheduled a check-up for March 8, but the family had already left. On the appointed day, Russian war planes blew up Erik’s hospital, the largest children’s hospital in the area.
Said the father: “Had we stayed at the hospital for the appointment, we’d all be dead.”
Asking Ukrainian soldiers the safest way ahead, they zig-zagged across their country, stopping at farms to buy diesel, at stores for fruit, cookies, hot dogs and sausage, feeding Erik antibiotics they’d stockpiled from previous hospital visits, avoiding blown-up bridges, watching bombs tumbling from distant war planes.
That first night they slept at an aunt’s house. The second at another relative’s. The third, a Christian family took in all 10. On the afternoon of March 6, they knew they were getting close. Up ahead they saw a line of cars and trucks stretching a good 10 miles or more. They saw thousands more massed on foot, lugging whatever they could, all heading west. Their destination now in sight, they felt they’d gone as far as they could by car.
So, they left the keys in the ancient Volvo, gathered food and belongings, wrapped themselves in heavy blankets and began trudging toward the Polish border, husbands and wives taking turns carrying the little boy.
When they tried to cut in front of the others because Erik was freezing, struggling to breathe, the others cursed them. But they kept trying. Finally, the Ukrainian border guards said: “No – you have to wait in line like everyone else.”
At the border, the soldiers inspected documents and enforced rules: For Ukrainian men, if you had three or more children, the soldiers would wave you across. If not, they’d force you to go back and fight.
Did the brothers feel guilty about leaving?
“Yes,” said Paul. “A part of me felt bad about not staying and fighting. But if we stayed back and died, the mothers would have a tough job taking care of our three kids. It would have been selfish of me not to put my family first, my children.”
It had been 11 days to remember: Feb. 24-March 6. From the red dawn to the Polish border. They had driven more than 900 miles, forsaken their country for reasons beyond their control. They now stood on foreign soil – freezing, starving, sick, scared and exhausted.
In short order, they found themselves on a bus, then in a large auditorium filled with portable metal beds, clean sheets, heat and hundreds of other desperate, stranded – but alive – Ukrainian refugees. “The Polish people opened their hearts to us,” said the little boy’s mother, Sniazhana.
Soon, they learned of a small Polish village 80 miles away with private quarters for stranded families. So, they went and stayed for 3 ½ months. And it was here they initiated the plan. They knew it would be a long, difficult process – a long shot. But they did it anyway: They applied for documents they hoped would get them to the United States.
While in the Polish village, a wealthy childhood friend invited them to join his family in Germany. So, in July, the Ukrainian brothers, the Belarusiansisters and their six children arrived by bus in the city of Bremm, where they soon began plowing through paperwork that would allow them to stay.
One morning a few weeks later, Roman’s phone rang. It was good news: The two families had been approved to stay and work in Germany for two years. They were all ecstatic. That same day, they signed up to take German language classes. And they couldn’t wait to share the news with their parents in Lincoln.
That afternoon, they were playing in a public park, too excited to stay home, not quite believing the good news they’d gotten just hours earlier. Then Paul’s phone rang.
“Guess what? We’ve got great news,” said a voice on the other end.
“What is it?” asked Paul.
“You’re coming to America!”
All along, it had been their dream: To reunite the families in America.
The brothers were overjoyed. They hadn’t seen their mother and father in seven years. But for the sisters, it was more complicated.
Their parents begged them to stay in Germany. The daily Russian news reports, they said, predicted the war in Ukraine would soon be over and then the girls and grandkids could all come to Belarus. But the daughters told them the Russian reports were propaganda, were all lies – the war could grind on for years. The parents and daughters did not believe one another and finally they all stopped talking about the war and what the future held.
Said Sviatlana: “In our hearts, we both wanted to stay in Germany. It was safe and closer to our parents. But in our minds, we knew that going to America was the smart move.”
But soon, a problem developed. A major obstacle. One with no easy answer.
Little Erik’s osteomyelitis had flared up. Bacteria had severely infected the 9-month-old’s hip and leg.
His German doctor in Koblenz pulled no punches with the parents. The boy is too sick to travel, he told them. He needs to stay on heavy meds, for six weeks, in a German hospital.
The mother wondered if a nurse could travel with them on the plane.
The doctor said no. He needed to stay in Germany.
“If you stay, we can cure him,” the doctor said. “If you go, he might not make it.”
Enter Oleg Stepanyuk, the godfather of Lincoln’s Ukrainian community. Oleg arrived in Lincoln in 1996 and started a successful trucking business. He became assistant pastor at House of Prayer, an evangelical church in north Lincoln. Along the way, he also developed a vast network of contacts – including several in the Lancaster County Health Department.
When Oleg found out how worried the little boy’s parents were, he reached out to local health officials who quickly lined up a Lincoln doctor to help coordinate the overseas travel plans. Again, the German doctor minced no words to the boy’s parents: “I will only authorize his departure if I see evidence that you have everything organized on the Lincoln end.”
Almost immediately, German and Lincoln doctors launched a flurry of emails to map out a precise medical game plan. The Lincoln doctor arranged to see the boy the day after their arrival and for him to see a trio of specialists soon after at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. The German doctor signed off on the plan and gave the parents a powdery medicine to mix with water for Erik to drink on the long flight.
They landed in Omaha on Aug. 23, 2022 – almost exactly six months after the red dawn.
A Lincoln church provided a bus to take the large welcoming party to Omaha, where the parents arrived in traditional Ukrainian dress. The mob of mother, father, family and friends rushed to the gate which soon dissolved into a frenzy of hugs, kisses and tears. Lots of tears. And the same recurring thought, over and over: Is this really happening? Are we all really back together? Can this be real?
The next day, a Lincoln doctor examined Erik and set up an appointment at Children’s Hospital. For five days, Omaha doctors did blood work, thoroughly evaluated his hip and leg, pumped him full of antibiotics. Medicaid covered the expenses.
Soon, Catholic Social Services in Lincoln jumped in, helping with paperwork, lining up shelter, food, medicine and clothing. Before long, apartments opened up in a large complex and the two families moved in.
Almost eight months later, it still doesn’t seem quite real: that these two families somehow endured a harrowing journey dodging bombs and missiles and blown-up bridges and now their parents are 10 minutes away, now the brothers and sisters can sit on facing balconies, waving to one another, 6,000 miles from home, from the spot where they resurrected the deceased Volvo.
The two brothers who managed to get that 37-year-old Volvo with no radiator, four flat tires and a crushed front end across war-torn Ukraine in the dead of winter have opened two apropos businesses in Lincoln – they now work on cars at Paul’s Body Shop and R&S Body Shop.
The two sisters are staying home with the children, hoping to get driver’s licenses so they can drive their kids to the park, make new friends and get more involved with their church.
“This is a good, safe, calm place,” says Sniazhana. “The people are so nice and friendly. There are good schools, good food and good medicines. We are so happy here. We are living … you have a word for it, but I forget.”
Her husband remembers.
“The good life.”