OLD BRIDGE – The words “pack quickly, we’re leaving” jolted sisters Lena and Maryna Barsukov in the early morning hours of Feb. 26.
Two days prior Russia had invaded Ukraine, which has since uprooted millions of Ukrainians from their homes.
It was their father, Zhenya, calling his daughters to meet him at the Poland border. He had been traveling when the war began.
The sisters, with Lena’s two-year-old son in tow, fled their home in central Ukraine with just their necessities toward the western portion of the country toward Poland, a 500-mile trek.
Along with them were others, including Zhanna Stetsun.
In Khmelnitskiy, Anastasia Bolbat’s mother Lidiia Matsidon and her 13-year-old nephew were embarking on the same trek.
It is now a month later. All have safely fled their home country. Lena, Maryna and Zhanna are staying with Stetsun’s son, Misha, and his family, which include three children, in Old Bridge. Misha and Lena and Maryna’s father are friends.
Bolbat has taken in her mom and nephew with her husband and daughter.
Lena and Maryna are waiting to reunite with their parents, who stayed behind to help their parents get U.S. visas to eventually also make their way to the States.
The sisters and Zhanna, in Ukrainian, shared their ordeal to flee Ukraine with Newspaper Media Group on March 31. Misha and Ana Stetsun helped translate for the interview.
Bolbat shared her mother’s and nephew’s ordeal by phone.
During their trek, they had to wait to get on trains, which were overpacked with people, mostly women and children. Once on the train, they rode in the dark and were told to put their heads down.
“I never saw so many people in my life,” Stetsun said of how many people were traveling on the trains. “We were very scared. It was tight. People were everywhere on the train.”
Bolbat’s mother started counting her steps in relation to the length of the train door and determined the best spot to be able to get on the train. She said her mother and nephew missed the train three times before her mom started counting her steps.
Once on the train, the cars had 8-11 people in cars meant for four people, she said.
Trains were not stopping at normal stops and the train conductor was scared to open the doors in fear of being knocked down, Lena recalled.
And what normally would be a two-and-a-half mile walk to cross over to Poland took 11 hours for Lena, her son, Maryna and Zhanna. The weather was cold and snowy.
It took Matsidon and her nephew 12 hours to cross over to Poland.
When they finally made it across the border, they were cordially welcomed by the local people in Poland with hot tea, coffee, food, as well as toys and strollers for the babies. Matsidon said she was so grateful for their hospitality.
On March 2, Matsidon and her nephew arrived in America.
Zhanna arrived in the U.S. on March 3. Maryna, Lena and her two-year-old son arrived on March 13. They had to wait to get a U.S. visa for Lena’s son.
As the families continue to watch the news around the clock and essentially wait for peace, all are living as “normally” as they can.
“I feel safe in America,” Lena, 20, said. Although, it is hard for her and her sister knowing their parents and other loved ones are still in Ukraine.
They said when they speak to their parents, they can hear the bombing in the distance.
Maryna, 15, is enrolled as a freshman at Old Bridge High School (OBHS). Ana Stetsun said she was impressed about how quickly – three business days – the school district was able to welcome and accommodate Maryna, who said her peers have been supportive.
Bolbat’s nephew is enrolled as a seventh grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School, who he said has welcomed him with open arms. With support, he is also taking judo classes.
Ana Stetsun said the community and their neighbors have been supportive bringing over bags of clothes, a stroller, a high chair and car seat for the baby.
Bolbat with Anna Mauvet, who is Russian with family in Ukraine, organized “Humanitarian Support for Ukraine,” which they initially began in Bolbat’s residence in Old Bridge.
As donations continue to come in, they partnered with Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, which offered space to be the drop off for donations.
Lap Tapestry Project in East Brunswick supported their mission and created warm goods for Ukrainian children.
Bolbat said they are in touch with her mother’s boss in Ukraine who is helping in the medical effort. Her mom had worked in a veterinarian office.
They have listed items that are currently needed on their Facebook page, including medical, gear and clothing, food, and items for children. Monetary donations for shipping costs are also welcome. They have set up an Amazon QR code for the donations.
Bolbat said they are sending the donations directly to people on the front lines.
So far they have sent one ton of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and have helped 60 orphans placed with the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lodz, Poland.
Collection of diapers, toys, crayons and coloring books were sorted at St. Joseph’s Senior Home Monastery in Woodbridge. The monastery is directly cooperating with the monastery in Poland.
Bolbat said they not only are shipping items overseas, but they are also collecting items to help other refugees who are coming to the United States.
Temple B’nai Shalom is located at 15 Fern Road in East Brunswick. For more information, to volunteer and/or donate, visit www.facebook.com/centraljerseydonationcenter.