Each day the war grew closer and more ferocious, said Tatiana Poladko, a local woman living in Ukraine. And on Friday she set out with her husband, their three small children, and her elderly father to seek safety in Poland.
A stranger with a car offered to drive them most of the way. Then they started to walk.
The kids, Zoryana, 7, Nazariy, 3, and Taras, 2, kept their winter hats pulled low against the cold. Her father, 81, struggled to keep up, and at one point fell down.
They crossed the border on foot.
Authorities put them on a bus to a refugee center in the southern Polish city of Przemysl. It looked like an empty mall, crowded not with shoppers but with people sleeping on mats.
“So many people, babies, children, elderly, everyone,” Poladko said. “Ukrainian people with just a suitcase or two who never thought they’d be in such a predicament.”
Nor did she.
Poladko and her husband — Wilmington residents who run a Delaware-based college-access program — never imagined that when they decided to spend a couple of years in her homeland, they would be a dangerous, frozen trek to the Polish border as Russia shelled Ukraine.
They only wanted their kids to experience their Ukrainian heritage, to see the country and learn the language.
Now, as war rages, Poladko, a Ukrainian national, can’t return to the United States because of federal immigration laws. And her husband and children, all US citizens, won’t leave without her.
They plan to apply for emergency visas that could permit Poladko and her father to enter the United States, but it’s uncertain if those will be approved.
Their next steps in Poland?
“Really hard to tell,” she said. “We’re making decisions day to day.”
They already evacuated once, from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, away from the worst of the fighting. But in recent days the perception of safety evaporated. Civilians who lived around Lviv were undergoing weapons training.
The Russians shot into a civilian car, killing a woman, on a road that Poladko and her family had recently traveled. Missiles have blown up residential areas around the country.
In Lviv, life became an exhausting daily calculation of danger, chance, and risk, the equation changing with each new piece of information.
“Initially, the terror of it all made it hard to think and act strategically. It was so devastating and surreal,” said Poladko’s husband, Atnre Alleyne, 37. “I’ve since gained such strength and resolve from the bravery and collective spirit in Ukraine.”
By the end of the last week, the couple were worried that if they didn’t leave soon, they might not be able to leave at all.
Poladko, 38, was born in Kryvyi Rih — it means “Crooked Horn” — in south-central Ukraine. In 2005 she came to the United States to study for a master’s degree at Rutgers University in Camden. And she didn’t plan to stay.
In Ukraine, Poladko worked for the United Nations, coordinating youth-empowerment efforts around the country. She was active in the Orange Revolution, the protests that shook the nation in the aftermath of a 2004 presidential election marred by corruption and voter intimidation.
But life took its turns. She and Alleyne met and married, and they created a life together in Camden, in a home behind Cooper University Hospital.
He worked on a doctorate at the University of Delaware. After her master’s degree, Poladko took on an internship, then started studying for her own doctoral degree at Temple University.
In 2009 the couple created TeenSHARP, a nonprofit that prepares Black, Latino, and low-income students to attend top universities. The couple saw those degrees as potentially life-changing, and knew that wealthier, upper-tier schools could better afford to provide financial aid.
On average, African Americans graduate with $25,000 more in student-loan debt than whites.
For their family as for others, life changed when the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Poladko’s mother died in Ukraine. And Poladko couldn’t go to the funeral, the borders closed by travel restrictions.
A year later, as limits relaxed, and with Poladko’s father growing older, the couple thought the time had come to spend an extended period in Ukraine. Their nonprofit moved online during the pandemic, and they could work from Kyiv as easily as from Wilmington.
The rules of the US immigration system also played a role. Some visas based on scholarship and study require holders to return to their home country for at least two years before seeking other immigration benefits.
That’s not nullified by being married to a US citizen or even by having citizen children. In January 2021, the family headed to Kyiv.
Last month, on the first day of the invasion, Poladko was outside with the children when helicopters swooped low, nearly at roof level. One threw out what looked like fireballs — Poladko later realized they were flares, intended to misdirect heat-seeking ground arms.
But in the moment, she and the children froze. Then the kids started screaming and running.
“Mommy,” her 3-year-old told her later, “we can never leave the house again.”
She and her husband started searching for a way immediately out of the city. They had no car. The trains were jammed.
She’s the main caretaker for her father, whose health has been poor. A serious case of COVID-19 weakened his heart and inflicted dementia-like symptoms that lasted for months.
The family seemed stuck, until the mother of one of their children’s preschool classmates approached them.
“I have a little car,” she said.
Initial plans to leave were squelched when Ukrainian forces began setting up local roadblocks, as word spread that Russian troops were drawing closer.
Instead the group left at 7 am the next day, a Saturday, as soon as curfew lifted: four adults and four children crammed into a car. They brought sandwiches and clothes. There was no room for anything else.
The roads were so empty it was eerie.
At one point, they saw a lone tank blocking the route ahead. It was close enough to frighten, but too far to determine if it was Russian or Ukrainian.
The driver and passengers sat and watched. Finally, the tank turned off the road and into the woods.
Poladko’s friend dropped them off in northwestern Ukraine and continued on toward Poland. From there, the family managed to travel south to Lviv, where a friend lent them an apartment.
Air-raid sirens were going off. Restaurants were closed and store shelves half-empty, but the electricity was on and the internet working. Within days, even Lviv no longer felt safe.
The throng approaching the Polish border was enormous, a segment of the more 2 million people who have fled Ukraine for surrounding nations, the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
Poladko carried her 2-year-old, while her 3-year-old clung to her dress. Her eldest child walked aside. Her husband helped her father go forward.
They walked more than four miles. Ukrainian men — those between 18 and 60 may not leave the country — were escorting their families to the border, staying with them until the last moment, then turning back toward the war.
Finally Poladko and her family crossed the line. Volunteers were distributing snacks and cups of tea. She made sure her father got something to eat. A police officer pulled out a package of Gummy Bears and gave it to the children.
Polish authorities were putting arriving families onto buses for Przemysl, where thousands of refugees have been arriving.
Poladko and her family climbed aboard. She took her husband’s hand. It was then that the tears came.
In Przemysl, Poladko and her family were able to board a train that was taking refugees to Warsaw.
They found a hotel. Now they’re trying to figure out where to go and what to do.