How a Ukrainian and Russian couple escaped a war zone

“We will never forget that sound. Boom. Boom,” said Valeriia Horodnycha, who has been staying in Mercer Island.

During the early hours of Feb. 24, Valeriia Horodnycha and Sergey Polyakov woke up to the sound of bombings.

The couple and their two-year-old daughter — with another baby on the way — fled from the Russian-led war in Ukraine and have since been staying on Mercer Island with friends.

To this day, the couple still trembles when hearing planes and helicopters fly over Mercer Island.

“You know, we will never forget that sound. Boom. Boom. Still sometimes when we hear something…,” said Valeriia as she nervously shook her body.

It was around 4 a.m. Feb. 24, and Valeriia laid back down in bed. Within 30 minutes, the couple heard a series of booms, and Sergey went to look out from the balcony. Initially, Valeriia thought terrorists had planted bombs in the city, but after checking the news, Sergey discovered that the loud booms they heard were from the start of the Russian invasion.

Sergey began exchanging messages with his friend Anton in Mercer Island, whom he met at the Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology, who recommended that the family should begin moving out of Odessa.

The bombings they heard on the morning of Feb. 24 were coming from nearby towns the Russian forces were shelling.

Sergey, who holds a permanent residence card in Ukraine, but is also a Russian citizen with a Russian passport, felt immense pressure to leave Ukraine when the war began. After dating for one month and parting ways, Valeriia and Sergey had reconnected in 2018 in Odessa, Ukraine, and got married.

The experience for Sergey has been painful. To this day, he still cannot comprehend why the war is taking place.

“When you are a Russian civilian in Ukraine […] you should move away from Ukraine at least in that time,” said Sergey. “It was so unacceptable for me that Russia started war against Ukraine.”

For Valeriia, a different pain has been felt. She described how her loved ones are still living in Ukraine.

“Nobody wants to leave their houses,” said Valeriia.

Valeriia speaks with her parents through video calls two times per day: once in the morning and once at night. Valeriia mentioned how she recently received parcels from her parents through commercial mail, which wouldn’t be possible if Ukrainians didn’t stay in their motherland to work and keep society functioning.

The family of three left Odessa on Feb. 25 to get to Palanca, the nearest border town in Moldova. Travelling in Sergey’s Nissan Leaf, the road was free up to the Ukrainian town of Mayaky, where they and a friend who was also in the car bumped into extreme traffic jams.

At that point, they had about 25 miles to travel to reach the border and spent approximately 36 hours in the car, during which Valeriia did not sleep. They brought with them between 3 to 5 liters of water, apples, important documents, one suitcase, two backpacks, and a bag full of diapers.

Because they were travelling in an electric car, they had to conserve energy. They didn’t use the heater or lights.

After reaching the border, they asked about nearby hotels. A man told them there was a nearby town with a daycare building that accepted Ukrainian refugees.

With little car energy remaining, the family left for Crocmaz and slept on beds that were made for toddlers — about 1 meter long. Sergey was able to charge his car at a nearby house.

Valeriia mentioned how their daughter watched many cartoons and ate cookies while travelling. At the border, there were other children with whom she played and shared laughs.

“I always told myself that I think that she’s too little to understand what happened, and still, it’s a great journey just for her,” said Valeriia.

From the daycare building, the family left to the Romanian border, where they were stopped.

“Romanian officers refused my ask to enter Romania,” said Sergey. “They said ‘All your documents is good, thank you, but you need to have a visa from consulate.’”

About an hour later, the family arrived back in Moldova, but there was no employee at the consulate in Cahul. Fighting exhaustion, they settled in City Hall for the night.

The next day they returned to the consulate and asked for a visa, which was rejected because it was believed that Sergey would idle around Bucharest since they didn’t know where they were headed next. According to Sergey, Russian passports require travel visas for many countries, even with an ongoing refugee crisis.

“We decided to move to Mexico because it’s another part of the globe […] and we will be as far as possible from this war and from [the media] because we started to refresh the news every minute — literally every minute,” said Sergey.

Coming to America

From Moldova, they were able to enter Bucharest, Romania, on March 4 after obtaining the necessary paperwork from the consulate. They then arrived in the Netherlands and flew from Amsterdam to Mexico. By March 5, the family was in Tijuana.

On the previous day, the Biden Administration had announced Ukrainian authorization to travel to the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which was valid for Ukrainians entering the country prior to March 1.

“When we were in Tijuana … and then we read news and we found that [President] Biden said that he wanted to give home to about 100,000 refugees,” said Sergey. “We think okay, we have no home currently because I’m Russian and my wife is Ukrainian, and [there are] not so many countries for us to live in safely.”

Throughout their travels, Sergey remained in touch with Anton, who connected the family with a local immigration attorney. The attorney prepared a humanitarian parole package.

“It was a really great relief for us because, you know, we saw the final point of our journey,” said Sergey.

Sergey, Valeriia and their daughter took a bus from Mexico through the San Ysidro border to San Diego. On March 19, they flew into the Paine Field airport in Everett, where Anton and Asya picked them up.

While continuing to work as a software engineer for a Ukrainian company, Sergey hopes to obtain work in the information technology field in the Seattle area in the future.

“I have a lot of experience with guidance and routing domains,” said Sergey. “I made some new features for one of the biggest European manufacturers. I implemented alternative routes.”

Sergey described how he has experience with implementing GPS features such as average speed camera support, creating alternative routes during active guidance sessions, route personalization, and the sharing of commute confidence level predictions for predictive energy optimization.

While coping with a future of uncertainty, Sergey can’t say whether his family will ever move back to Ukraine, even after the war comes to an end.

Sergey described how he unfollowed Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections, and even deleted his Instagram account because he didn’t want to see a constant stream of hateful words toward Russians. It was brought up how the war was presented to Russian civilians as a military operation to save Ukraine from the Nazis, and that the Russian government never asked Russian people whether they wanted this war.

“It will depend only on [the attitudes of] Ukrainian society because there’s really a lot of hate to Russians, and we could understand it,” said Sergey. “There are only hard words toward Russians currently and I didn’t accept this war, but I am still Russian.”

Sergey acknowledged how they are lucky to have such great friends, but that other families require even greater assistance at this time.

A local nonprofit organization, iMiracleProject, works with organizations and volunteer groups on the ground in Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. Donations to iMiracleProject go toward transporting civilians out of danger zones and into safety, and provides basic necessities such as food and medical supplies.

Traffic the family bumped into while trying to reach the Moldovan border. Courtesy of Valeriia Horodnycha.

Traffic the family bumped into while trying to reach the Moldovan border. Courtesy of Valeriia Horodnycha.

Map showing how the family reached Bucharest. Courtesy of Sergey Polyakov.

Map showing how the family reached Bucharest. Courtesy of Sergey Polyakov.