GULFPORT — It was dark, the middle of the night, when they finally arrived. The girls unfolded from the backseat, rubbing their eyes.
They didn’t know what day it was, or where they were, really. Only that this was the last stop.
A month after escaping Ukraine — after walking across the border to Poland, catching taxis and trains, flying through Turkey and Mexico — they were in Florida.
Their new house was small, blue, with a garage and screened porch. Their grandparents opened the door, wrapped them in their arms.
Now, Yulia Hamota, 12, and her sister Alina, 10, could put down their backpacks, stash their puffy coats, start a new life where they didn’t have to shudder as air raid sirens screamed through their city.
The girls tried not to think about those awful days — or their dad, who had to stay behind.
That night in early April, they were relieved to be able to stop running.
Warplanes had rumbled over their house in Ukraine, waking the girls, like a train racing out of the clouds.
Through their bedroom window, they saw fighters streak through the sky.
Soon, across their city, they saw shops shuttered, stained glass windows boarded, drivers waiting two hours for fuel.
The girls didn’t know what was happening. Not really. Yulia, quiet and serious like her mother, was scared. Alina, usually upbeat, was mad.
They heard Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was trying to take over their country. But they couldn’t imagine what that meant.
Their Ukraine had always been independent, as it was for most of their parents’ lives. When the Soviet Union dissolved, their mom was the same age as Yulia.
The girls had always lived in Lviv. An ancient city near Ukraine’s western border, its cobblestone streets lead to a walled center. Angel statues guard towering churches.
When Russia invaded from the east in February, thousands of people fled to Lviv. But as planes streamed overhead, and a World War II-era bomb shelter opened by the playground, the girls’ parents decided to leave.
Now! Quickly! their mom told them.
Yulia and Alina stuffed clothes and mittens into their backpacks. No room for laptops or stuffed animals. They hugged their old dog and climbed into the family’s battered Chevy.
From the back window, they watched their house shrink, the white picket fence fade, their sprawling garden with its berries and lilies disappear.
They shivered on the road toward Poland. The air was 27 degrees and they couldn’t waste fuel on heat. It took three days to crawl 40 miles.
Their parents barely talked. The car slid past piles of broken-down vehicles, abandoned suitcases, tired, cold, hungry people slogging west. Sometimes they paused for beet soup ladled from strangers’ steaming pots.
When they ran out of gas, they walked the last few miles to the border. The girls didn’t cry when they kissed their dad. But as he turned back alone, to wait to be called to fight, they saw him wipe his eyes.
The girls’ mom, Halyna Hamota, 43, didn’t have a plan. But she had family in Florida.
Her parents live in Gulfport. So does her sister, Ulyana Fylypovych.
Ulyana and her fiancé, Gulfport Garage owner Eric Cudar, scrambled to bring Halyna and the girls to the U.S. In March, the Times wrote about their journey.
Ulyana and Eric flew to Poland, where they learned buses were shuttling refugees to an abandoned mall near the Ukrainian border. For hours they watched weary people climb off, among them scores of children, alone, without luggage or coats.
Then they saw the girls.
Alina, Yulia and Halyna hadn’t slept, had barely eaten in six days. The girls seemed dazed. Their mom, shocked.
A driver found them one of the the last hotel rooms in Rzeszow. The next morning, they all took a train to Warsaw.
It was freezing. Time stalled. Every morning, the girls and their mom got up early and hiked to the U.S. Embassy to fill out endless forms. Other than that, they stayed inside their Airbnb.
While their mom wasn’t watching the war on YouTube — buildings collapsing, bodies dragged from the rubble — the girls shared the phone. Alina escaped into anime. Yulia taught herself to crochet.
Every night, they called their dad. Andriy Hamota, 45, was still working in the metal factory, when it was open. Still waiting to fight.
Russians had just bombed the site where he trained.
How long would they be here? the girls asked their mom.
What can we do? their mom asked her sister.
Yulia and Alina heard talk of lawyers and immigration. They learned they were refugees now. Whatever that was.
Their aunt wanted to bring them to America with a visitors’ visa, but an official said no. Because there would be no Ukraine to go back to.
That was the first time it hit the girls: They might never return home.
Most of their friends had scattered across Europe. By April, when they had been in Poland almost a month, more than 3 million Ukrainians had fled — the population of Tampa Bay.
Their Aunt Ulyana heard about Ukrainians crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. So Uncle Eric booked $13,000 in tickets from Poland, to Turkey, to Mexico City.
The girls never had been on a plane. Their mom was so stressed. They followed her through checkpoints, down long halls of signs in other alphabets.
In the Mexico airport, finally, something familiar: A Ukrainian flag. And hundreds of people, who shared their language, sleeping on the floor.
The girls and their mom didn’t speak English. Eric, who was coming to gather them, didn’t speak Ukrainian. None of them spoke Spanish.
By the time Eric found them, “the girls were freaking out,” he said. “And their mom was panicking.”
He taught Halyna how to tell immigration officials, “We need humanitarian parole.” He had to prove that he could support the girls and their mom, that they wouldn’t need public assistance.
Finally, the Hamotas got the papers to cross into the United States.
But they couldn’t stay forever. They would need to find a lawyer, see a judge, ask for asylum — like millions of other refugees.
The air was sticky. The girls had never sweated so much. The sun was so bright it hurt their eyes.
Everyone in Florida seemed so tan and friendly. In Ukraine, people had been pale and solemn — even before the war.
Not many houses in Gulfport have gardens, they noticed. Everyone has cars.
Pizza beat even their grandmother’s pierogies. And hot dogs! How had they not known about hot dogs?
Then there was Walmart, where you can buy pancakes, T-shirts and skateboards in the same store.
Yulia picked out sundresses and sandals. Alina chose baggy jeans and sneakers.
Their grandparents got a mattress for the living room, for their mom. Bunk beds for the guest room, for the girls.
“You are so lucky,” their mom kept reminding them. So many of their friends were still in shelters. Seven civilians had just been killed in Lviv.
Yulia crocheted a baby Yoda to sit on their dresser, painted sunflowers and flamingos to brighten one wall. Alina pinned anime art on another.
They stuck clouds on the ceiling, hung lacy curtains, put up a poster their aunt had given them in English they couldn’t read:
“The best is yet to come.”
Just before sunset, the girls followed their family onto Gulfport Beach, where hundreds of people were playing volleyball, lighting sparklers, spreading out blankets.
Yulia knew it was America’s birthday. Alina was drinking a warm Pepsi, waiting for the fireworks. She had seen fireworks only on YouTube.
The girls had never been to a beach before coming to Florida. Sand, sunshine and saltwater felt like freedom.
Their hair had lightened. Their cheeks were sunburned. They had started to smile.
“It’s such a difference,” said their Uncle Eric.
“They seem happy. But they worry about their dad,” said their Aunt Ulyana, as the sky darkened. “You never know what will happen tomorrow, or how long this will go on, or whether they will see him again.”
When the first fireworks exploded, Yulia gasped. Alina grabbed her mom’s phone and started filming.
“I want to show dad,” she said.
He was home, with their dog, listening for rockets.
The new alphabet was hard. After three months in Florida, they still struggled to understand.
Their aunt had signed them up for tutoring at Kumon, where her son had studied when he moved to the U.S. at age 5. “It’ll take you a year or two before you get it,” Andriyan told his cousins. “But you’ll be better than your mom or even mine.”
At 17, the Boca Ciega High School senior had no accent, was excelling in advanced studies, applying for college.
Watch TV, Andriyan told the girls. Watch movies. Listen, and you’ll learn.
“OK, now, can you say deer?” the tutor asked Yulia one afternoon, standing beside her. She pointed to a drawing. “Deer? D?”
Yulia tried. But Ds were difficult. So was TH.
“Tooth,” said the teacher, tapping her smile. “Try it. Tooth.”
Yulia repeated it slowly, looking at her lap. Alina laughed.
The older sister worked hard, said the teacher, Misa Franklin. “The younger one just wants to play. In her mind, she’s out riding her bike.”
While the girls practiced vocabulary, their mom waited in the lobby. She was taking English lessons too. But Halyna was too embarrassed to try in public, and hadn’t learned enough to get a driver’s license or permit to cut hair. So her sister, who worked full-time as a dental hygienist, drove them everywhere.
Things were bad in Ukraine, Halyna told her sister that afternoon. The sirens never stopped. Andriy had to keep sheltering underground. The factory slowed so much, he was working only part-time. Grocery prices were crazy high. And he couldn’t get any salt. Could you imagine?
Every day, she checked to see where the bombs dropped, how many people had been killed.
Her nightly call with Andriy was her only solace. Her videos of the girls were his only bright spots.
On a sweltering summer afternoon, the girls and their cousin Andriyan rode bikes to a playground.
They leaned them by the fence and ran to the swings, pumping higher and higher, squealing.
Their cousin laughed. The girls were usually so reserved.
They were old enough to worry about what was happening, he thought. Too young to really understand.
School would start soon. Yulia got a scholarship to the Walden School, a small, private middle school nearby. Alina enrolled at public Bear Creek Elementary. For the first time since leaving Ukraine, they would be separated.
The grown-ups had given them so many summer adventures: The zoo. Busch Gardens. Roller coasters!
But when they were with their mom, they sensed her sorrow. The girls’ favorite escape was a few hours with Andriyan, out of the shadow of the adults.
“It’s normalcy,” he said, watching them. “They don’t have to think about the war, or what they left behind.”
“OK, everybody find a partner!” called the teacher.
On her second day at school, Yulia tied a belt around her waist, threaded two red scarves through the loops and waited beneath a tree.
A dark-haired girl ran up and linked elbows. Yulia laughed and they ran to line up by the log. English still was hard, but Capture the Flag she understood.
She was in sixth grade in Ukraine when her school shut down. At Walden, all three middle school grades are taught together, so Yulia can catch up at her own pace.
Judi Jemison, who started the school, read about Yulia and Alina in the Times and shared their story with her students. Her class crafted “Stand with Ukraine” buttons and stickers, sold them in town and raised more than $3,000 for the family. “They couldn’t wait to meet Yulia,” the teacher said.
Yulia’s hair had lightened to a honey color. Her mom had given her a new bob. She had ditched her dresses for a cropped tee and track pants. Almost the exact same outfit as her new friend.
“OK, if I underline something, it’s probably important,” the teacher said later, outlining the scientific method on a whiteboard. Yulia pulled out a pencil.
While other students tattooed their thighs with magic markers, Yulia took notes. In English.
“I think she understands more than we know,” the dark-haired girl, Sophia, said later. “But she’s so shy. I wish she would talk more.”
When a teacher read from the novel “Nevermoor,” Sophia whispered the plot to Yulia. While their classmates ate snacks, the girls played rock, paper, scissors. No words needed.
The church smelled like candles and incense — like Ukraine. The priest walked through the pews fanning smoke, greeting everyone by name.
A choir sang in Ukrainian. Women tied lace scarves around their hair.
Everything felt familiar.
“Bless Yulia, keep her healthy,” the priest said, offering her a golden Bible to touch. “Bless Alina, keep her strong.”
The girls sat by their mom and aunt, halfway back. Yulia kept picking her nails. For some reason, Alina couldn’t swallow the giggles. Their mom kept narrowing her eyes.
Andriyan, an altar boy, wore a gold robe like the priest. He and his mom had been coming to St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Pinellas Park since they moved to Florida.
A few members, like the girls, joined recently — they also had fled the war.
After reading scripture, singing hymns and offering communion, Father Stephen Siniari looked across the 39 people who filled his tiny church and prayed in English: “Remember, oh Lord, our homeland, Ukraine. Our fathers, husbands, children who are still there. Remember all the people who fled. The countries who took them in: Poland, Canada, the United States.”
He sounded so earnest. Somewhere between asking and begging.
The priest continued: “And Lord, please return to the Russian aggressors the love of Christ.”
The girls bowed their heads.
After eight months of YouTube, TV, music and movies, Yulia could translate for her mom and sister.
Alina didn’t really try. At school, she had an aide to help. But the things she cared most about didn’t require speaking: riding bikes, skateboarding, soccer. She had plenty of friends she had fun with, but didn’t need to talk to.
“Instead of learning English,” said her uncle, “she’s teaching them all Ukrainian.”
In November, Alina turned 11. Ten fifth-graders came to her party at a trampoline place. One girl slept over.
Yulia toasted frozen waffles for breakfast. She had gotten an easel, moved from watercolors to oils. Her teacher told her she was spelling better than her classmates.
She wanted to tell her dad, but the internet was out in Lviv and she hadn’t been able to talk to him in days.
The last time the girls reached him, he had no electricity or heat. Temperatures had dropped below freezing. While they were sweating on the beach, their dad had burrowed beneath all the blankets in the house.
“He’s really depressed and lonely,” their mom said. Driving home from the factory one night, a rocket had blown up the road five minutes behind him.
But Ukraine had just run Russian troops out of the Kherson region.
“If not for the U.S.,” Ulyana told her sister, “Ukraine wouldn’t have the weapons to have fought this far.”
Like most Ukrainians, Halyna and Ulyana were sure Ukraine would win. They just didn’t know how long that would take.
Same with immigration. It seemed the rules kept changing.
A lawyer had seen their story in the Times and offered to help for a reduced fee. They had secured “temporary protected status,” which meant they could stay in the U.S. for a year, until April 3.
“Then what?” Halyna kept asking.
“You should qualify for asylum,” said attorney Nidia Borge of Miami. “You were fleeing because the government could not protect you.”
She helped Halyna file an application.
“The girls need their dad,” the lawyer said. “And there are thousands of other Ukrainians in the same situation.”
Halyna has done everything necessary to stay in the U.S., the attorney said. Then she told her client what she didn’t want to hear: Now, you must wait.
Wait, while Russians continued to bomb her town and her husband hunkered alone, and every day she worried that she and her daughters might be sent back to the country that no longer resembled home.
It was dark, the middle of the night, when he finally arrived. Alina had stayed up, watching for headlights.
She had waited so long to see her dad.
Nine months after helping his family escape Ukraine — after turning back to train to fight, waiting to be called to war — he was in Florida.
His youngest daughter opened the door, wrapped him in her arms.
Now, Andriy Hamota, 45, could stop worrying about his girls, his wife, his own safety. He could look ahead — and try not to think about all they had left behind.
“Everything happened so fast,” Ulyana said. “No one really believed it, until he was here.”
In mid-November, after Russian attacks severed power and internet connections for much of Lviv, Ulyana worried about the coming winter and started searching for a way to get her brother-in-law out.
The Ukrainian government had required men ages 18 to 60 to remain on call to fight. But after so many cities lost electricity, and so many men still hadn’t been issued weapons, Eric learned, those who had been separated from their families were allowed to leave.
He and Ulyana found a program through the U.S. immigration office called Uniting for Ukraine. If an American agreed to sponsor a Ukrainian, promising to cover all costs, the refugee could stay and work for two years while applying for permanent residence.
“It’s a better deal than his wife and girls got,” Eric said. “They’re only allowed one year, for now.”
Andriy left the dog with his parents, who live farther from the fighting. He got to Gulfport the day before Thanksgiving. “It’s just a thing where Americans eat a lot,” Ulyana explained.
He couldn’t believe how much his girls had changed. They were both so much taller. Their hair was blonder. They were tan! He had never seen them so happy.
Yulia told her “Tato” about her new school. Alina talked about her new friends. They showed him their bikes and roller skates, took him to the beach.
And on a drizzly Friday in December, just after dark, the family gathered in a Gulfport park to take photos in front of the holiday lights.
They hadn’t put up a Christmas tree at home. The girls hadn’t asked for any gifts. They already had the only thing they wanted.
The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services created a path for Ukrainians fleeing the war to come to the United States. If someone has a sponsor, and won’t need financial support from the government, they can apply to stay for two years, during which time they will be allowed to work.
Ukrainian war: By the numbers
• More than 8 million Ukrainians fled their country since the war started
• More than 100,000 made it into the U.S.
• More than 11,000 are in Florida
How we reported the story
The Tampa Bay Times learned of the Hamota family after they had fled Ukraine in March, while they were stuck in Poland. The girls’ aunt, who lives in Gulfport, told us about their journey to the United States. We met the family in April and witnessed scenes at the beach, tutoring, the playground, school, church, their home and the park. Ulyana Fylypovych, the girls’ aunt, and her son, Andriyan, interpreted interviews and conversations.