The way home
One year ago this February, the war in Ukraine started. For millions of families that has meant leaving home to become part of Europe’s largest movement of refugees since World War II. This is one family’s story of finding a new home
The explosion cut through the storm like a clap of thunder, drowning out the rain pattering against the windows of Elvira Karnaukh’s fifth-story apartment.
“Don’t be afraid, it’s just the thunder,” residents of Pavlohrad, a small, working-class city in eastern Ukraine, wrote on Facebook.
But Elvira knew. Thunder doesn’t shake an apartment building like that. A missile exploding a few thousand yards away does. She dropped to her knees and screamed to her kids, “Go to the hallway!” as she crawled through the apartment.
About three weeks before, on Feb. 24, Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. Elvira remembered the date of the invasion vividly. She had just got out of bed, ready for a day like any other: a cup of coffee, walking her two kids to school. But then she checked her phone and saw a text from her son’s kindergarten teacher. “Do not take your kids to school,” the text read. “THE WAR STARTED.”
Her hands shook, and the room started to spin. A sickening sense of dread settled in her stomach.
The next few weeks unfolded like a nightmare. Russian forces blew up the train tracks that connected Pavlohrad to the rest of Ukraine. By mid-March, missiles and fighter jets split the air above the city. To avoid Ukrainian air defense systems, they would often fly so low that everything below them shook, including Elvira’s apartment, rattling the windows as her cookware nearly danced off the shelves.
Elvira and her husband Oleksandr, like many Ukrainians in the early days of the war, were determined to stick it out, to not disrupt their children’s lives, if possible. But now the missiles were landing so close they could smell them as they exploded, filling the air with an acrid, metallic stench.
Now, as the rain fell and the thunder of the bombs boomed again and again, Elvira realized she had no choice. They were no longer safe. They would have to leave their home.
This is the story of one family caught in war, a family that’s part of one of the largest refugee crises since World War II. Elvira is one of roughly 8 million refugees who have fled the country since the war started in February 2022. An additional 6.5 million people have been displaced inside the country’s borders.
Around 90% of the refugees are women, and at least two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have fled. Some have returned home, but millions more from the country’s far east remain skeptical that peace will ever come. Those who have stayed largely had no choice and they have paid the ultimate price — 40,000 civilians have been killed since the war started, according to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (the United Nations puts the number at 6,000). An estimated 200,000 soldiers, Russian and Ukrainian, have died.
In September, I traveled to Ukraine to document Elvira’s journey out of Pavlohrad with her children. Far from the front lines, life carried on with a surreal normalcy. The men carrying machine guns, U.N. fliers taped to bulletin boards with instructions to report war crimes and pieces of Russian planes and ordinance propped up in the city squares seemed to blend into everyday life.
But an eerie sense of anxiety also hung over the air. At night, I felt the cold seep through my coat. I shuddered to imagine the brutality of the coming winter.
Elvira is 41. She wears her jet-black hair short and favors no frills, functional clothes, which match her personality. Stoic. Determined. Utterly devoted to her children.
And yet, just beneath the surface, there’s a crackling sense of humor, usually in the form of a witty, sarcastic joke followed by a reassuring wink. Her smile lights up the room.
She has two children: Kira, 14, and Artem, 5. By the time I met Elvira, war had already made her and Kira refugees. In 2014, when Kira was just 5, they had been living in Donetsk, a region in the far east of Ukraine that had become a flashpoint for unrest, fueled by pro-Russian separatists who held a referendum to secede. Most of the international community refused to recognize the separatist government’s Donetsk People’s Republic, but little quelled what became the first hot war in Europe in years.
And so Elvira packed up and moved north with Kira. They settled in Pavlohrad, where Elvira found an apartment, a job as a school janitor and met a man named Oleksander, who she later married.
In 2017, the couple welcomed a son into the world, Artem. Blond haired, with his mother’s dark eyes, Artem is a bubbly kid with an infectious smile. He loves Batman and the Avengers and the Minions.
His older sister Kira favors black clothes in the way many teenagers do. Kira told me she dreams of becoming a private investigator or a police detective. She wears her red hair to her shoulders and loves pop music. Like many Ukrainian kids there’s an affinity for American hits, but a rendition of “Stefania” that gave Ukraine its third Eurovision victory in 2022 and often accompanies war footage and patriotic video mashups is what blares through her headphones most often these days.
When I met them, at a large brick kindergarten now serving as a refugee shelter in northern Ukraine, Elvira’s husband wasn’t with them. He was suffering from the effects of a stroke when the first bombs hit. He wouldn’t be able to accompany them on the journey out of the country. Her 79-year-old mother would also have to stay behind, fearing she was too frail for the arduous journey across Ukraine.
I asked her to tell her story from the beginning, on the night the rain pattered against the windows and the thunder rolled.
It was early March when the thunderstorm came. Earlier that day, the air raid sirens wailed above Pavlohard and the family crowded into a musty bomb shelter with the rest of their neighborhood.
Seated on the cold concrete, the family huddled together to stay warm as the winter air seeped through the walls, playing cards and singing while explosions boomed overhead. “It will all be over soon,” Oleksandr promised.
But it didn’t. As each bomb hit, seemingly closer and closer, it became impossible to ignore the voice in her head telling her to leave home.
Later that evening, the family returned to their apartment. A storm built over the city, followed by thunder and then, suddenly, a low-flying missile that dodged Ukrainian air defense systems and hurled into her neighborhood with no warning.
Elvira realized she had no choice. “We need to save the children,” she said the next day. Oleksandr, a truck driver, nodded. They both knew what it meant. Still dealing with complications from the stroke, he would stay behind.
Within five days of deciding it was time to leave, Elvira, Kira and Artem were in Dnipro waiting to board the evacuation train taking refugees from the war-ravaged east to the quiet west. For 26 hours, they stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others, some fleeing towns that in the coming months would be reduced to rubble.
Elvira slept on the floor of the train with her children, and waited in a two-hour line to use the bathroom. As the train traveled west, Elvira looked out the window at a country emptying out. Highways were crammed with cars. Trips between major cities that had once been a seven-hour drive now took days to navigate improvised checkpoints set up with steel anti-tank barriers and concrete observation points. The shelves of gas stations and grocery stores along the way were emptied of food.
It was a time of desperation and panic, but there were also signs of hope, solidarity and goodness. Donations flooded the country with winter clothes. Hotels offered up rooms for free, while local business set up mattresses in any available space. A sense of unity took shape in a country that for years was plagued by an east versus west division.
That month, March 2022, one million Ukrainians were fleeing to neighboring countries, thanks in part to the European Union agreeing to offer Ukrainians temporary legal protection to live and work for up to three years. The United States made a similar vow.
As the train rolled into Lviv, volunteers ushered Elvira and her kids into a basement gym, served them hot soup and gave them a place to sleep. A few days later, the family was on the move again, this time on a bus headed north to Chervonohrad, a small mining city to the north. The checkpoints along the way were hastily thrown together with sandbags and tires.
The journey was taking its toll. Artem, the energetic 5-year-old who clung to anything superhero related, was sick. The constant movement, loud noises, longing for his father, for home — all of it was taking its toll. He began suffering from what were likely panic attacks. By the time the bus reached Chervonohrad, he was vomiting constantly.
Elvira called an ambulance and spent the next several nights in the hospital with Artem, while Kira spent those first nights in Chervonohrad alone in a retrofitted kindergarten, sleeping on a child’s mattress next to a dozen other refugees.”
The sprawling, three-story building with its brightly colored walls adorned with drawings of animals and furniture fit for kindergartners would become the family’s home for the next five months. Kira, Artem and Elvira set up in a room with nine beds that slept 14 people, from a newborn baby to several women in their 70s.
The toll of the war started to fade, though it would never leave. Slamming doors and passing firetrucks no longer made Kira and Artem jump. But when she said “boom,” Artem still covered his ears and neck, and dropped to the floor.
The kids made friends in Chervonohrad, while Elvira busied herself sewing pillows and making jewelry for the other refugees in the shelter. She took MasterClass courses online, and spent her days making and selling intricate blankets, quilts, embroidered portraits, toys and dolls.
“It would help me get distracted,” she says. “When you do something like this, you express yourself and you don’t bottle everything inside of you.” As the war progressed and the front lines shifted, many refugees at the shelter returned home, replaced by others from regions like Luhansk, Kherson and Severodonetsk.
But in Pavlohrad, the bombs kept falling, and Elvira and the children remained in limbo.
That spring, Elvira enrolled Artem in kindergarten nearby, walking him to school every morning, while Kira resumed her online classes, hunched over a tablet in a chair made for a 5-year-old. The family arrived in Chervonohrad speaking only Russian, the dominant language in the country’s east, but now were learning to speak Ukrainian, out of practicality and pride.
Artem would play with the other children on the playground outside, running circles around the jungle gym with his trusty, red Batman hat, while Kira could be found strolling the sleepy, working-class village with newfound friends. Twice a day volunteers cooked the refugees a hot meal. In the cold, winter months all three of them would sleep in the same bed.
The months passed, the summer turning to fall of 2022, and life became so routine it almost felt normal. Yet every night, as Elvira tucked Artem into bed and kissed Kira, she longed for the balance of her old life.
“I’m worried,” Elvira told me of her husband and mother. “But I closed my heart. I’m hoping to isolate this from my emotions because if I continue to worry about them then I wont be able to do anything. I still have children, and I need to take care of them.”
When Elvira had left Pavlohrad roughly four months before, she had hoped to return home, to see her husband and mother. She had never contemplated leaving Ukraine.
But then one day in early July, a man came to the kindergarten-turned-shelter. He was from a U.S.-based nonprofit called WelcomeNST, short for “neighborhood support team.” The man told Elvira about Uniting for Ukraine, a sponsor-based resettlement program that would eventually result in nearly 124,000 Ukrainians applying to move to the United States as of September 2022.
“It’s always best to live on your native land. It’s better to be and feel at home. So the first question I asked was, ‘Can we come back?’” –– Elvira Karnaukh
The pitch was tempting — neighborhoods in the U.S. had banded together to sponsor refugees from Ukraine, with one family finding a place to live, another securing transportation and others responsible for enrolling kids in school, buying food, shopping for clothes and paying for airfare. The man was here, tasked with finding eligible refugees and matching them with U.S. families.
Not everyone in Ukraine fit the criteria for WelcomeNST. In an effort to prevent a “brain drain” from the country, the organization sought the most vulnerable families, from towns occupied by Russians, or regions on the front line. Places like Pavlohrad. Anyone who applied could receive humanitarian parole, a temporary U.S. visa. For Elvira, “temporary” was the selling point.
“It’s always best to live on your native land. It’s better to be and feel at home. So the first question I asked was, ‘Can we come back?’”
The answer was simple. Yes. So she applied.
Yurii Slepak climbs into the van and turns the key as the diesel engine hums alive. It’s September 2022, and we’re on the border between Poland and Ukraine. The stone-faced border guard watches us impassively as we cross. Slepak grins and catches my eye as he looks at me through the rearview mirror.
“Welcome to Ukraine!”
Slepak is a Kyiv native and country manager for WelcomeNST. This is his 30th time crossing into Ukraine from Poland since the war started. Then again, he says it could be 31 or 35. He’s starting to lose count.
Today he’s accompanied by Liz Davis-Edwards, the founder of WelcomeNST. I’m along for the ride with Deseret News photographer Kristin Murphy. In a few days, we’ll make the same drive back into Poland, but with three extra passengers — Elvira, Kira and Artem.
Since late July, Elvira has been in constant contact with Jason and Kristin Norby, who live in Lehi, Utah, with three of their four children. Jason served a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ukraine and speaks Russian. As the war intensified, and the White House unveiled Uniting for Ukraine, the Norbys recruited their neighborhood and filled out the application to sponsor a refugee family. Soon, they matched with Elvira.
By mid-September, their travel plans were approved by U.S. Customs and Immigration, and the family had three tickets to Salt Lake City.
As we cross into Ukraine, within seconds it’s apparent we’re in a war zone. A line of semitrucks driving in the other direction out of Ukraine spans more than 15 miles, a byproduct of all of Ukraine’s air and sea ports closing, forcing all trade to be done via the highways.
On the left, the van passes a line of cars backed up behind a military checkpoint as soldiers with bags under their eyes and AK-47s slung across their backs screen the westbound cars. On the right are bunkers of varying degrees, some an organized pile of sandbags, with turrets and hedgehogs, steel anti-tank road barriers, others no more than a stack of old tires and concrete blocks, a ripped tarp offering meager protection from the rain.
Soldiers huddle outside of a gas station passing around cigarettes, one cradling an evening cup of coffee. A few hundred yards down the highway stands a billboard that reads: “Defend independence, victory is near.” Beyond it lies a sprawling field of sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower and a symbol of resistance, now brown and dying as the first fall temperatures creep into the evening.
Slepak steers the van into the shelter the following day, met by a barking German shepherd, children yelling and a small group of women scrolling through their phones and smoking cigarettes. Standing at the end of the pavement, Elvira and Kira welcome them with a hug.
Artem is upstairs, busy fighting zombies on Minecraft.
Elvria would soon leave Ukraine for the first time, and everything she now does with her family seems to carry extra weight. She takes a final stroll through the city park; shares a final meal with her friends at the shelter; takes a final morning walk to Artem’s kindergarten.
Sandwiched between multistory, Soviet-era government housing, Artem’s kindergarten — dubbed “School No. 13” — has undergone a rapid transition since the war started.
At first glance, it mirrors a typical kindergarten found in any corner of the world. Kids walk in late, wiping sleep from their eyes; toys and games fill the cabinets on one wall, with brightly painted sunflowers decorating the ceiling. The class eats breakfast, then forms a circle to sing and play what appears to be some iteration of “duck, duck, goose.”
“Today we pray for the brother of our dear teacher, who was killed on the front line.” — Oliyannya Mariyana
But little more than an hour into the school day, the school’s principal walked into the classroom with a somber announcement.
“Today we pray for the brother of our dear teacher ... who was killed on the front line,” she announces to the class.
Mariyana and the teachers at School No. 13 didn’t explain the war to the kids when it first started, some of whom mistook explosions for thunder and air raid sirens for firetrucks. But as refugees streamed into Chervonohrad, enrolling their kids in the local schools, it became impossible to hide.
“They’re smart,” she said, “They catch on. One kid will see the news, another kid has a dad on the front lines. Then they talk to their classmates.” And on that cold, rainy Monday marking Artem’s final day at school, the reality of war came crashing down on the kindergarten 700 miles from the front line.
At 9 a.m., the kids file out of the classroom, down a flight of stairs, gathering in a hallway, a mural of the Ukrainian flag behind them. A row of teachers stand with their backs to the wall, some with red, puffy eyes, while the kids laugh and tease each other, oblivious to the day’s news.
“Let’s pray for the dead,” one teacher announces, as the children press their hands together and recite a prayer in unison, followed by the national anthem, then another prayer. After about 15 minutes, they walk single-file out of the hallway and back to their classroom.
Artem carries on through the day with nervous apprehension, as if he knows something big is about to happen, but he doesn’t quite understand the gravity. By 2 p.m., the class forms a circle around him, singing and clapping, his teacher pausing every few seconds to bring him in for a hug.
“We are losing Artem today, but this is a gift for their family,” she tells the class.
A short walk away at the shelter, Kira wraps up her online class, once again sitting in a child’s chair, hunched over a smartphone, the volume turned down to avoid waking the sleeping newborn in the next room over.
She throws on a jacket, the weather now flirting with snow, and joins her mother for one last walk through Chervonohrad to Artem’s school. There, Elvira makes the first of many tearful goodbyes.
“Thank you for everything,” Elvira says as she hugs Artem’s teacher.
The next morning a van pulls up to the shelter.
With the family’s belongings consolidated into a single roller suitcase and a plastic bag, Elvira and her children survey the room they have called home for the last seven months. With Kira wearing all black, and Artem sporting a heavy, fleece-lined jacket with Ukrainian blue and yellow around the pockets, the family steps outside into the rain.
Natalya Stefaniv, the kindergarten’s former principal who now works as the shelter’s coordinator, walks Elvira out.
“We are going to travel through Chervonohrad on our way back,” Elvira tells her.
“Everyone should come back to Chervonohrad! You know our address, our phone number … we’ll keep in touch. We’ll find each other on Facebook,” Stefaniv responds.
“I told him that we were going to be crying, but that he shouldn’t mind, because those are good tears.” — Elvira Karnaukh
Artem looks up at his mom, a stuffed animal wrapped around his neck. He sees everyone crying and follows suit.
“Artem, don’t cry!” Stefaniv says.
“I told him yesterday that we were going to be crying, but that he shouldn’t mind, because those are good tears,” Elvira tells her, laughing as her voice wavers.
“Well, this is it. I told you when you found out you were going to leave that it will be a very good day,” Stefaniv says, handing Elvira a painting of the Nativity of Mary. “She will help you to leave and come back safely.”
“Goodbye,” Elvira says in a hushed tone, going in for one more hug.
“If you left something behind, you can always come back,” the principal says, her voice muffled as she presses her head into Elvira’s shoulder.
“I left half of my heart behind,” Elvira says.
Elvira loads the suitcase into the van and the family piles into the middle seats. Yurii steers between potholes as the family takes one last look at the school.
This is the family’s first time leaving Ukraine. They nervously hand their passports to the border guard, behind him a sign bearing the Polish flag that reads “Welcome to the European Union.”
They spend their first night in a hotel, pushing their way through the revolving door of a swanky Marriott in Warsaw, their room overlooking the historic city from the seventh floor.
At 4 a.m. they walk into an airport for the first time in their lives, standing in line among business people dressed in suits and vacationers wearing novelty T-shirts.
Elivra’s mind races. Was this a mistake? Would something go wrong on the flight? Was she missing an important travel document? Would her children be OK? What about her husband? Her mother? Kira, quiet and reserved, fidgets with her phone and sends messages and photo updates to her friends in Ukraine. And Artem is sick. Again.
Standing in the line waiting to get their boarding pass, the 5-year-old looks around nervously, the blue stuffed animal still cinched to his neck, before he doubles over and vomits on the floor.
His fever hovers around 102 as he squeezes Elvira’s hand and walks onto a KLM plane headed for Amsterdam. He sips water with a thousand-yard stare as Elivra and Kira intensely study the safety pamphlet and brace as the plane takes off.
In Amsterdam, the young boy struggles while navigating the sprawling Schiphol airport, one of Europe’s largest, as the family hurries through customs and makes their connecting flight.
“Ukraine? It’s dangerous there,” the customs officer says as he hands back their passports.
Artem’s fever would not go down on the nine-hour flight from Amsterdam to Salt Lake City, and neither did Elvira’s anxiety. As the Airbus A330 barreled over Greenland, Artem’s heart rate spiked and his fever jumped back above 100 degrees as he cradled the vomit bag.
“We’re looking for a passenger who speaks Ukrainian or Russian and can translate,” the flight attendant says over the loudspeaker, as Elvira tries to communicate with them using what little English she knows.
“Artem no good,” she says pointing to her forehead then putting her finger in the air, trying to tell them that his fever is rising. Kristin, the photographer, and I do my best to serve as translators before a friendly Danish man who speaks broken Russian comes to help.
The flight attendants give him Tylenol, juice and fill plastic bags with ice to try and quell his fever. The language barrier makes it tough, but they know enough — her family is fleeing war. As they walk off the plane, one of the attendants smiles, pressing his thumbs and pointer fingers together to form a heart.
After days of travel across checkpoints and multiple time zones, the family steps off the plane and into a new beginning, met by an uncharacteristically hot September day with fall monsoons bringing little relief.
Members of the Salt Lake City Fire Department greet Elvira, the first Americans she would meet on U.S. soil. They are there at the end of the ramp to treat Artem. They take his vitals and sit the 5-year-old down in a wheelchair.
“He’s going to be fine, but if he starts to feel worse on the drive home, you can call us at any time,” one of the paramedics says, as another drops down on a knee to play peekaboo. Pale and exhausted, Artem cracks a grin.
The stress of landing, herding Artem and Kira off the plane and then trying to communicate to the paramedics for a moment overshadowed their new reality — they are in America.
“Super,” Elvira says with a smile. Super is one of the few English adjectives she knows. Walking through the Salt Lake airport, Kira gapes at the massive panorama shot of Delicate Arch.
She nearly steers Artem’s wheelchair into the wall as they pass the picture of Mount Timpanogos during peak foliage. And Capitol Reef during sunset, or Mount Superior with a fresh blanket of snow.
It takes them about 30 minutes to clear customs. The entire neighborhood support team is waiting, erupting in a cheer when the family walks into the lobby.
“Welcome to Utah,” reads one sign in Russian, as roughly 20 people from Lehi clap, holding blue and yellow balloons, and waving Ukrainian flags. After months of texting and talking over Zoom, Jason and Kristin hug Elvira like longtime friends.
The welcome party continues in the quiet Lehi neighborhood that for the next several weeks would be home for Elvira and her family. Blue and yellow — the colors of Ukraine — are everywhere; ribbons hang from windows, signs are taped to the doors and balloons fly from mailboxes. Jason and Kristin’s door is even painted yellow, decorated with blue paper hearts in preparation for the family.
Tired and a little nervous, Elvira steps into the Norby’s home for the first time as more neighbors walk over to meet them. Jason, speaking in broken Russian, walks them downstairs into the finished basement. Kira blushes as he points her toward her room, which for the first time in her life, she has all to herself.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Elvira says, before talking into the Google Translate app, then flashing her phone to Jason and Kristen: “My heart goes out to all of you.”
Elvira surveys her new room, with a comfy queen-size bed and her own bathroom down the hall, and notices a familiar picture on her bedside table — Elvira, Oleksandr, her husband, Kira and Artem are all smiling, their arms around each other.
“Super,” she says, fighting back tears. “Super.”
A week later, the family piles into Jason’s Toyota Sequoia and heads up American Fork Canyon. The steep canyon walls block out the late afternoon sun, casting a chilly shadow. But they have firewood, and a few miles up the road they pull over, filing out of the SUV carrying bags of hot dogs and marshmallows.
Kira, with the Norby kids, climb the school bus-sized boulders, while Artem, wearing a yellow “Minions” shirt and red Batman bucket hat, remains intensely focused on collecting twigs.
“We need to pick up more sticks for the fire, it will help it be bigger,” he says, still speaking Ukrainian.
Soon, flames dance in the pit. They roast hot dogs — Kira remains unsure whether she prefers the ones from Ukraine, or the U.S. ones. Artem lets out a panicked laugh as his marshmallow catches fire and chars black. The evening light fades, and Elvira cranes her neck to see the peaks of the central Wasatch.
A motorcycle roars past, echoing off the canyon walls. Artem covers his ears, like so many times before in Ukraine. But here he has nothing to fear.
Speaking into the Google Translate app on her phone, she turns it toward Jason.
“To be up in the mountains like this, it’s beautiful.”