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Ukrainian refugee family reunited with relatives in U.S.

A couple and their children are among the first to officially resettle in the U.S. since the war in Ukraine started.
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WESTFIELD, Mass. — When the bombing started, they hid in the basement.

Ivan Yemelianov, 36; Liudmyla Yemelianova, known as Myla, 38; and their four young children fled their home near Kyiv, Ukraine, almost two months ago, after Russia invaded their country.

From their new home in Westfield, the couple recalled their long journey from Eastern Europe to the U.S., where they touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 6. They spoke in Ukrainian and Russian through a translator.

“When the war started, we heard explosions, when the shelling was happening. And we had to go to the basement,” Myla Yemelianova said. “At first, they [the children] didn’t understand what we were doing there, were frightened a little. It was, of course, scary. We had to hide. And when we come here, of course we feel calm, safe.”

The parents and their children — Viktor Filimonov, 11; Milana, 6; Anna, 2; and Veronika, 9 months — are among about a dozen Ukrainians who were resettled in the U.S. in March through the federal refugee program. Another 704 Ukrainian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since October through a separate State Department program.

Additionally, thousands of Ukrainians have massed at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum.

Ivan Yemelianov was a user experience designer with Kyivstar, one of the largest telecommunication companies in Ukraine's capital. Myla Yemelianova was a technical engineer at an aircraft factory before the births of Anna and Veronika.

The family spent about two weeks traveling roughly 700 miles from Kyiv to Vinnytsya, then on to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine before going to Suceava and Bucharest in Romania. They stayed there for about a month before flying to the U.S.

“Even after the war had already begun, we could not fathom that it began. There was a feeling that it could not be,” Ivan Yemelianov said. “The first two weeks, maybe longer, we could not react normally to sudden noises.”

Anna, 2, standing with her grandmother at the playground across the street from her family’s new home in Westfield, Mass., on April 7.
Anna, 2, standing with her grandmother at the playground across the street from her family’s new home in Westfield, Mass., on April 7.Julian Spath / Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service — a faith-based nonprofit organization that works exclusively with refugees, asylum-seekers and other vulnerable populations — helped the family get settled and acclimated to their new home.

The organization is among nine resettlement agencies in the U.S. that take over once a family or individual is granted official refugee status from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We’ll work to finalize their travel. We will meet them at the airport. We will usually try to find them affordable housing before they’ve even arrived,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the CEO and president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

She said her agency provides refugees with the “infrastructure, so that as they settle in — during those first few days, those first few weeks — we can be that anchor. We can be that community-based resource.”

The resettlement process is lengthy and can take more than five years, O’Mara Vignarajah said.

“It’s pretty paper-heavy. It requires a number of interviews,” she said. “And then, of course, it’s the emotional toll of the anxiety of long waiting periods, where you may not hear anything at all.”

The process for the family began in 2017, when their first refugee status application was submitted to the U.S. government by Myla Yemelianova’s mother. Their hope was to be reunited with the children's grandparents, an aunt and a cousin, who already lived in the U.S. The next year, they were invited to their first interview, Myla Yemelianova said.

Ivan and Myla Yemlianova
Ivan Yemelianov and Myla Yemelianova with their youngest daughter, Veronika, after arriving in New York on April 6.Julian Spath / Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

They were supposed to fly to the U.S. earlier this year, she said, but her husband and one of their daughters tested positive for Covid-19, so they had to quarantine. It was during their quarantine that Russia invaded Ukraine, and their home country was plunged into war.

Their eldest child, Viktor, said that when the bombs started falling, he was worried for his three sisters.

“I was scared they were going to blow up the house,” said Viktor, who added that he wants to stay in the U.S. in the long term, enroll in school and attend college one day.

After finally getting to hug her relatives in the U.S., Myla Yemelianova said: “I wanted to cry from happiness that we finally saw each other. Because it took us a long time to be here, in order to be here together.”