Refugees

Kristina Sinohach looks over a message about a potential job on her phone while talking about the next day's plans with Connor Steeves and her sister Ira Sinohach.

Ira and Kristina Sinohach, two sisters from Chernivtsi, Ukraine, left their home after the start of Putin’s war, embarking on a journey through multiple countries before crossing into the United States via Mexico on foot, and safely arriving in Redmond.

The two sisters are thankful to have made it all the way to Central Oregon, and said their parents, who remain in Ukraine, are also relieved. After such a long journey, the sisters can finally catch their breath while they are hosted by the family of a new friend they met in southwestern Ukraine soon after the war began.

While volunteering for the We’re Near team, a humanitarian organization that assists refugees, the sisters met 23-year-old Connor Steeves, who had been in the country since the beginning of January, teaching at the Borys Hrinchenko Kyiv University. After first leaving the country at the start of the war, he decided to return to volunteer, and that is when he met Kristina and Ira.

Not long after meeting, Ira and Steeves began dating and are now engaged. But staying in Ukraine was not safe, so the three of them decided to leave in April and travel to Redmond, where Steeves’ parents live.

Neither of the young women can imagine returning to Ukraine any time soon.

“Only one good thing, all people all around the world know now what Ukraine is and where it is,” Ira said.

The day the Russian invasion began, Ira, 22 was sleeping in her home when her mother loudly and abruptly opened the door. “The war has started!” she told her daughter.

“I started crying, because it was a super bad surprise,” Ira recently recalled. “Honestly for me, it was a big, bad surprise. I didn’t know about it, and I didn’t think about it.”

Her sister, Kristina, 20, heard about the start of the war while texting with coworkers.

“It was maybe 6 a.m. and I wake up, because my phone has a lot of notifications,” Kristina said. “Everyone texted, ‘the war has started.’ At first I didn’t believe…I was so calm.”

What shook her into action is when her father called in a panic and told her to pack a bag and leave Chernivtsi at once.

“He was so scared, because he heard the bombs and he saw the war planes…he was so scared. I was not,” Kristina said.

Heeding her father’s words, she grabbed documents, electronic devices and anything she knew she couldn’t live without, knowing she may never return.

Soon afterward, her uncle picked up her and her sister and took them to a family home in a small village called Nedaboyivsy, about a half an hour from the Romanian border.

The sisters knew their family home was the safest place to be, at least then. The village was far enough from where most of the war was taking place and there was no major infrastructure, airports or military bases for the Russians to target.

“They don’t have reason to attack our village,” Kristina said. “It is a more safe place, and we have a basement in our house.”

Their journey to Redmond took them first to Poland. After a delayed flight in Poland due to a blizzard, they were able to fly out 24 hours later, reaching the Netherlands. From there the group flew across the Atlantic to Bogota, Colombia. From South America, they flew to Mexico City and then to Tijuana near the border with California.

Because of the sisters’ visa status they were not permitted to fly directly to the U.S., so the group had to find a different flight path, and then cross into the U.S. at the border with Mexico. At the time, it was common for Ukrainians fleeing the war to cross into the United States via Mexico, and the group figured they would take their chances before it was too late.

In late April, the United States announced Ukrainian refugees were prohibited from crossing from Mexico as part of a new policy to cut down on the number of Ukrainians seeking to enter the country via the informal route on the southern border, the Associated Press reported.

After masquerading as tourists and then making contact with volunteers stationed in Mexico to assist refugees from Ukraine, the sisters crossed into California via Calexico.

Once successfully in the United States, they were able to arrange transportation to Sacramento, where the two sisters have relatives. After staying with their relatives for a couple of weeks, they made their final trip up to Redmond where the two sisters are currently being hosted at Steeves’ family home.

“Our parents are happy we are in a safe place,” Kristina said. “They miss us, but they are glad we are here.”

Kristina said she misses Ukraine, her family and her friends, and is not entirely sure when she and her sister will be able to return, as the war is ongoing.

Ira and Kristina said they want people in Oregon to realize the war is still happening and is in fact getting worse. They said in the beginning many people talked about the war, but now that months have past, it is not discussed as much, which leads people to believe the situation has improved.

It has not, they said. In fact, many innocent people are still dying. People are running out of food and water, and many are unable to leave the country, they said.

In the meantime, while they wait for work visas, they are taking advantage of spring in Bend and exploring some of Oregon’s bountiful outdoor beauty. Some things they love about the United States so far is the coffee, and the grand variety of different types of cuisine available. They also like how nice people are, they added.

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