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A family trip from Ukraine to Olathe, Kansas: ‘Any minute could be our last. It was scary’ | CUR 89.3

For many American families, a trip to see the Super Bowl would be considered a dream come true. For a Ukrainian family now living in the Kansas City area, that trip came at an almost inconceivable price.

Until six months ago, Kyrylo “Kit” Yeremenko and his family risked their lives every day, trying to escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last week, they gathered at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, as red and gold confetti fell from the rafters after a nail-biting finish to what many consider the pinnacle of American sports.

The trellis battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles pales in comparison to what the Yeremenkos have survived since the war began a year ago.

“Many normal people are living in damaged or destroyed houses and no one could help them,” said Yeremenko, who fled his home in the Kharkiv region shortly after the invasion began.

More than 5.9 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced so far. Another 8 million have fled the country to find safety, according to the United Nations. Russia’s invasion has caused Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

“When the war started, we thought that in two, maybe three weeks it would be over and everyone would go home. But that didn’t happen,” Yeremenko said. “At the moment, it’s almost a year of war, so I have no expectations about the end of this.”

The surprise Super Bowl trip was the work of Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt and nonprofit resettlement organization Welcome.US, who approached the football franchise with the idea. Hunt gave the family Super Bowl tickets following the Chief’s AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

“The Super Bowl was my second football game and – wow – it was amazing! I got to meet Paul Rudd, Eric Stonestreet,” said Yeremenko, who is 36. His amazement turned to humility after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a speech in front of more than 67,000 fans at the match.

“Some of them could (potentially) help any Ukrainian,” Yeremenko said. “He made me proud and brought a little bit of hope.”

Accompanying the Yeremenkos to Glendale were the Olathe family who sponsored their move to the United States, the Teiglands, who are die-hard Chiefs fans.

“I had a great time with them, singing and dancing,” said Abby Teigland, head of national sales at AMC Theaters.

“It was fun to watch them relax and hang out together and have a normal family vacation,” said the mother of two. “They haven’t been able to do that for a while.”

Survived the Russian assault

Before the invasion, Kit and Iryna Yeremenko headed what he called an ordinary bourgeois family. Maksym, 14, excelled in school and soccer, while Alisa, 6, trained in gymnastics and figure skating.

That changed on February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks and artillery began shelling Ukrainian cities.

Kit Yeremenko said he knew his family would not be safe in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after a Russian missile hit a building a few blocks from their home.

“We left for Kiev on the first day of the war,” Yeremenko said.

The family found refuge underground in Kiev, in the city’s network of railway stations, built in the 1960s when Ukraine was under the control of the USSR.

The stations also serve as bomb shelters and have become a haven for thousands of Ukrainians who fled their homes in the first weeks of the conflict.

“We were in cover most of the time,” Yeremenko said. “We spent five days there together as a family.”

From there, he took his family to the Ukrainian border with Poland. Yeremenko returned to Kiev to help defend his homeland.

“Everyone wants to be a military man who has (a) rifle, to go and fight with the Russians,” Yeremenko said.

Instead, he was told the enlistment was complete and ordered home. For the next few months, he worked and volunteered in devastated cities like Bucha, where Russian forces had been pushed back.

“My friends and I took all (the) money we had and bought a lot of food and clothes. We put everything into our cars and went there to help people,” Yeremenko said. “They didn’t even have a roof over their heads, so they needed a lot of help.”

In the summer of 2022, the family was reunited and returned to Kiev, but left a second time after surviving a rocket attack just days after their return.

“It was really scary,” Yeremenko said, “and that was the moment we decided to leave the country and go to Poland together.”

Finding sponsors on the prairie

At the same time, Abby Teigland and her husband Ben, a graphic designer, watched the news of the carnage unfolding from their couch in Olathe.

The couple considered going to Europe to help people get into Poland, but their two young children made the idea unfeasible. Then they donated money directly to Ukrainian families.

After watching hours of Zelenskyy’s daily news coverage, social media, and speeches, Abby Teigland was compelled to do more.

“It was heartbreaking,” Teigland said.

“So we started searching the Internet to sponsor a family around June and found Welcome.US,” she said. “The Yeremenko family was one of the first messages we received when it launched a month later.”

Welcome.US was founded in September 2021 to quickly connect Americans to allies fleeing the Taliban government takeover in Afghanistan. The Russian invasion forced them to expand. In 2022, the nonprofit designed a program where American citizens can privately sponsor refugees outside of traditional State Department channels.

“My wife found the ad on a website,” Yeremenko said.

The connection came after weeks of searching for government organizations and programs that could relocate them to the United States

“This work, at its core, is about Americans and what Americans do best, which is helping people in need,” said Anya McMurray, Group Chief Operating Officer.

The platform didn’t just put the Yeremenkos in direct contact with their potential sponsors, thanks to an automatic translation function. It also helped put a human face on the defenseless family.

“We have daughters of the same age, and looking at their profiles, it was like looking in a mirror,” Teigland said. “We knew we could help establish them here in Kansas.”

I land in a new community

On August 25, 2022, the Yeremenko family arrived in Kansas City with the full support of Teigland.

With the help of friends, family and even some strangers, they provided the Yeremenkos with an apartment and found them a car.

“The community exploded and everyone was so willing to help,” Abby Teigland said. “They donated furniture, pantry, crockery and bedding. It all came together beautifully and very quickly.

Over the next six months, Kit Yeremenko and his children learned English and he got a job in sales and marketing.

But the family’s journey isn’t over yet: Kit and Iryna have parents still in danger in Kharkiv.

“We send them packages a couple of times a month with food, lighters and other things to keep warm,” Yeremenko said. “The missiles come in every day, so it’s really hard to text and feel like no one could reply at any time.”

Still, the Yeremenkos are grateful for their second chance.

“It makes me feel really happy to give my kids a chance to be safe and an opportunity to be better than me,” Yeremenko said. “Because that’s the goal for every parent.”

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