GULFPORT — On her Monday off, in the lobby of her fiancé's automotive shop, Ulyana Fylypovych sat at a low table calling lawyers she found on YouTube.
“Ukrainian. Refugee. Immigration,” she had Googled.
She reached out to attorneys in Kiev, Warsaw, Washington, D.C. Most never called her back.
While customers streamed in, complaining about car batteries and carburetors, Ulyana, 35, dropped her head into her hands.
She hadn’t slept much in the last week, not since she’d hugged her sister goodbye in Poland after helping her settle across the border. She kept checking news on her phone, watching rockets explode over her Ukraine, seeing streams of people struggling to escape.
She kept texting with her sister and nieces, ages 10 and 12, who had fled to Poland. The girls were scared, her sister typed, worrying about their home, their spoiled cat, their old dog – and their dad.
Ulyana is desperate to bring them to Florida, to live with her and her fiancé.
Eric Cudar, 54, had traveled with her to Poland, and was busy printing forms for visitation documents. He had added a Ukrainian sticker to the counter of his small shop, Gulfport Garage. When Ulyana handed him the phone, he helped translate.
As the afternoon wore on, a New York lawyer finally called back. Ulyana thanked her and explained. Then her face fell.
“So what do we have to do? What can we do?” she cried. “What do you mean everything we’ve done is wrong?
“That’s what the embassy told us to do!”
When air raid sirens started screaming through western Ukraine on Feb. 24, for the first time since World War II, factories shuttered. Schools and stores shut down. Thousands of people sought shelter underground.
From her Gulfport house, on TV and Ukrainian news feeds, Ulyana watched Russian forces approach her hometown of Lviv. She pictured the cobblestone streets, the walled city from the 13th century, the castle on the hill.
She kept trying to reach her sister, hoping she had escaped.
Ulyana was 5, her sister 12, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Ukraine they knew was independent, culturally rich. Safe.
Like many Ukrainians, Halyna Hamota and her husband Andre hadn’t believed Russia would attack.
But when the alarms started, they rushed their daughters into their old Chevy and started crawling 43 miles toward the Polish border, leaving everything behind.
The road was clogged with desperate drivers, swaddled in blankets. Six, seven people crammed into small cars.
Halyna and her family tried to sleep in their seats, but the sirens kept wailing. She tried to reassure the girls that their pets would be OK.
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After three days, they ran out of gas. Famished, exhausted, freezing, they started walking. Droves of displaced people trudged west with nowhere to go. The road was lined with mounds of abandoned luggage.
Ulyana tried to keep up with her family’s journey, but her sister’s cell kept running out of battery and the connection kept dropping. For days, she lost them.
Eric felt her anguish – and helped her book a trip to Poland.
“We have to find them,” she kept telling him. “We have to bring them to be with us.”
Halyna wanted to be here.
For years, Ulyana and Eric had searched for ways to get her and her family to the U.S. so they could be together. But a student visa was denied, and a reunion visa, they were told, would take 14 years.
“The door was always closed,” Ulyana said.
Their parents had visited friends in Gulfport years ago, then moved to the tiny waterfront town in 2005 after getting their green cards. They loved the quirky cafes, the shallow beach, the friendly people.
Four years later, Ulyana joined them, hoping for a better life for her young son. She studied to be a dental assistant and got a job at a practice in Seminole.
She met Eric in 2013 when she brought her dad’s car to the Gulfport Garage.
“At first she was shy,” he said, “embarrassed about her English.”
“He was patient,” she said. “So kind.”
She and her son moved out of her parents’ house and in with him. Two years later, Ulyana became a citizen. And Eric proposed.
All the while, Ulyana talked to her sister every day. But she had never met her nieces.
In late January, Ulyana and her mother went back to Lviv for the first time in 12 years.
They stayed for three weeks. By the time they flew back in February, Ulyana felt war was coming.
She told her sister, “Take the children and get out.”
After Halyna fled, when she was finally able to contact Ulyana, she told her where they planned to cross the border.
So on March 3, a week into the war, Ulyana and Eric packed the few warm clothes they had, drove to Miami and flew 15 hours to Zurich, then Rzeszow.
They weren’t afraid. They just wanted to be there.
At the airport, they learned that buses were bringing refugees to a shelter in an abandoned mall. A Bolt driver – Poland’s Uber – took them there. He called friends until he found them one of the last hotel rooms in the city.
Hours dragged by. Thousands of frightened people poured into the parking lot. Ulyana kept searching.
Eric watched streams of children coming off the buses with no luggage, no coats, no parents. He couldn’t stop crying. “People were dropping their children off at the border to let them live,” he said, “then going home to die.”
Finally, late that night – or maybe it was the next morning? – Halyna called. She and her girls were on a bus. Her husband, a factory worker, had kissed them at the border. Then he, too, turned back to join the resistance.
When Halyna stepped off the bus, Ulyana ran to hug her. Halyna barely reacted. She seemed to be in a stupor.
She had been traveling for six days, wearing the same clothes, taking food strangers offered. She had been trying not to break down in front of the girls. She was relieved to be safe, to be with her sister.
But she had no idea what to do.
The Bolt driver helped them find chips and beef jerky, then dropped everyone at the hotel. While Halyna and her girls slept in a bed for the first time in a week, Eric searched for the next place for them to stay. He decided they should get to the U.S. Embassy.
The next morning, they bought the girls clothes, then boarded the crowded train to Warsaw.
On the way, Eric snapped a photo of Ulyana’s nieces huddled in stocking caps and puffy jackets. Their mom leaned on an elbow beside them, looking lost.
In the capital city, Eric rented a studio apartment about the size of his car shop lobby. They were cramped and worried. They couldn’t speak Polish, had no zloty, or local currency.
But they knew they were lucky, Ulyana said. Other refugees had to crowd onto cots in empty stores.
The next three days, Ulyana, Eric, her sister and the girls got up in the dark and walked to the embassy. They waited hours and hours in the cold before being turned away. When they finally got inside, they were told to fill out forms for a B1B2 visitor visa.
Finally, a plan.
Ulyana and Eric flew back March 7, after hugging Halyna tight, after paying her rent through April. By then, they believed, she would get an interview and be on her way to living with them.
But on Monday, when the New York lawyer called, Ulyana learned that they would have to start over.
Your sister can’t get a visitor visa, the attorney told her, because immigration officials know she and her daughters will never go home.
Because there will be no Ukraine to go back to.
When Ulyana is not working at the dentist’s office, or spending time with her 17-year-old son, she’s on her phone studying assault maps, checking embassy updates, watching footage of missiles, tanks, open graves.
She shudders at the headlines: Since the fighting started, more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled – about the population of the Tampa Bay area. Poland has been the most generous, Ulyana said, taking in more than 1.8 million people. Hungary, Slovakia and Romania have welcomed hundreds of thousands. Canada recently opened its borders.
Here, the process is less welcoming. From March 1 to 16, as the war ramped up, Reuters reported that the U.S. admitted only seven Ukrainian refugees.
Eric called congressmen Rick Scott, Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Aides for Scott and Rubio sent him forms, he said. Jon Rowles, a constituent advocate for Crist, called him back.
In the last month, Rowles said, more than 200 constituents have called, hoping to get relatives out of Ukraine.
Crist’s staff held a seminar explaining their options at the Epiphany of our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. “We don’t give direction about what to do,” Rowles said. “But we share information, help find lawyers, and we’re a giant megaphone screaming at the world for help.”
Eric got an appointment for Halyna at the U.S. Embassy in Poland on May 10. Rowles told Eric he would try to expedite that.
Instead of a visitors’ visa, Rowles said, Halyna could petition for an ‘alien relative’ visa. As long as her family here can vouch that she and her children won’t need public assistance, her path to approval should be smoother.
President Biden said he expects most refugees to stay in Europe. But Rowles wants the State Department to create a faster route to resettle Ukrainians, “like they did last summer for Afghanistan’s refugees.”
Eric has spent more than $1,000 on lawyers and paperwork, but he wonders whether anything he’s done will make a difference.
Still, how can they not try?
He wants the U.S. to help create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to send soldiers to patrol the border to help evacuees, to demand Russia stop bombing escape routes.
“We should put nuclear subs in Alaska,” he told Ulyana. “We could shoot down cruise missiles.”
“I don’t want another world war,” she said. “I just want to bring my sister here.”
In the lobby of the Gulfport Garage Monday afternoon, Ulyana wiped her eyes.
The road her sister and nieces had escaped on had been bombed the night before. Newscasters were reporting 35 dead.
The Lviv camp where her brother-in-law and other resistance fighters were training was shelled, too.
He was OK, her sister said, last she heard.
Halyna and her girls stay hunkered in the little apartment in Warsaw, venturing out only for food.
She doesn’t talk to anyone and is reluctant to reveal she is a Ukrainian refugee.
She tries to hide her tears but has nowhere to collapse on her own.
While Eric helped a customer Monday afternoon, and Ulyana waited for her sister to text back, she scrolled through her phone, shaking her head.
“Every morning, I check to see if my town is still there, if my sister is OK,” Ulyana said.
“But there’s nothing I can do. I’m here. She’s there.”
If you want to help Halyna Hamota and her daughters, Eric Cudar has created GoFundMe page: Displaced Ukrainian family needs help.