From Ukraine to Harvard, Mass.: A family finds safety with the help of old friendsPlay
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fled the country. Ira Ostapenko was one of them.
"My husband, he woke me up at night on [the] 25th of February, and he said, 'There is no way you're staying here. You have to leave, you have to save our kid. You have to take our daughter and run.'"
Ostapenko drove her 2-year-old daughter and the family's cats first to Bulgaria, then Germany, where they spent the next eight months. After a while, her husband was allowed to leave Ukraine and join them.
Throughout this time, Ostapenko stayed in touch with a family in Harvard, Massachusetts. Years ago, she'd worked for Rochelle Greayer and her family in Harvard as an au pair. Eventually, Greayer was able to sponsor Ira's family and bring them to the U.S.
Greayer turned to a group called Welcome NST for help.
"Obviously we had never done anything like that before," said Greayer. "They gave us a mentor, walked me through the process of creating what they call a neighborhood [support] team. And so I started out recruiting some of my closest friends, who also happened to be people who knew Ira from way back when .... There's ultimately probably 30-40 people involved in helping relocate them."
Ostapenko, her husband Vlad, their 3-year-old Iryna, and their cats are living in an apartment in Harvard. Her husband has a job. For now, Ostapenko is staying home with their daughter.
"For me, it was like coming home," said Ostapenko. "I felt like I'm back to family and this helps to get through these dark times. So they saved our lives."
When it came to bringing Ostapenko and her family to the U.S., Greayer said many people stepped up to provide support and assistance.
"People were just thankful to be able to help and be given an opportunity that they could latch on to and that they could actually do something," said Greayer.
"I was nervous," Greayer added. "But without question, you know, the road did rise to meet us. And people pitched in, and we raised a healthy amount of money that has helped them with rent and getting work visas and covering the high cost of electrical heat this winter and all kinds of things."
With the war in Ukraine now more than a year old, Ostapenko's extended family is spread all around the world. Her mother is in Germany, her sister is in the Czech Republic, and she has a cousin in Poland. Only her in-laws still live in Ukraine.
"We lost everything," she said, remarking on the war. "We lost our life, where you have to start everything from [nothing]. But we are lucky that we are alive. We are losing our friends and relatives. Every day. Every day someone is dying in Ukraine."
Ostapenko said Russia and Ukraine were always linked, with loved ones on both sides. But to her, that country relationship is forever sullied.
"We are all connected, you know?" she said. "We support each other. We love each other. We are supporting our troops. We are supporting our refugees. But it's so sad ... It's just a huge impact on us. We will never forgive Russia. We were so connected to Russia. We have so many relatives, friends over there, but now we cut all relations with Russia and we will never forgive them."
After everything, Ostapenko hopes she and her family can eventually return home to Ukraine.
"I hope for peace," she said. "I hope that this war will end and we will have a peaceful life. Because even here, even staying here in safety, my heart cries every day for all Ukrainians ... I hope for peace."
This segment aired on February 26, 2023.