Ukrainian family in Austin shares story of escaping war

Tonya Levchuk’s mom, sister and niece left their home in February. Their travel to Austin took more than two weeks.

AUSTIN, Texas — Just more than two weeks ago, Tonya Levchuk’s mother, sister and niece got in their car and drove 19 hours from Kyiv to the Poland-Ukraine border. Normally that’s a three- to four-hour trip.

Larysa Levchuk, Liudmyla Levchuk and Viktoriia Vyshnivska escaped their home in the Ukraine capital and met Tonya in Poland. Tonya, who moved to Texas in 2007 from Ukraine, bought a one-way ticket to Krakow to help her family leave the growing war in their home country.

On Sunday night, the family arrived back in Austin after days of tension that seemed to never end.

“Talking about this without tears is impossible,” Tonya said on Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t get scared of many things, but this was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.”

Tonya’s sister Liudmyla did the majority of the driving from Kyiv to Krakow, not knowing if she would be able to come with her daughter and mother to the US She had never visited before and did not have a proper visa. Tonya signed her up for an emergency appointment in Krakow and Liudmyla had her visitor visa within a week of leaving home.

“It’s really hard, especially considering that our father is still there and he’s in Lviv, which is kind of a better place, probably,” Liudmyla said with Tonya translating.

“I want to see my grandfather and my father,” Viktoriia, who’s 9 years old, said.

“Our day doesn’t start with coffee, you know; it starts with checking in with everybody,” Tonya said.

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Tonya emphasized the men in her family have not been able to leave and have wanted to defend Ukraine against Russia. Her mother, Larysa, still breaks down in tears when talking about the military efforts.

“[I’m] doing today better than yesterday and much better than, you know, being terrified and trying to run from the war,” Tonya translated for Larysa.”Those 19 hours, you know, driving from Kyiv to [Poland] was very scary for, you know, especially for the kids because she was in the car. And it was just, like, terrifying. When they got to Krakow, you know, she’s very grateful for the people of Poland who have been so kind and generous and help them out there.”

Now, Larysa and Liudmyla are faced with new challenges: learning English, finding work permits, school for Viktoriia and figuring out how to extend their stay beyond the six months afforded by their visitor visas.

Before flying to Poland, Tonya recalled her and her husband setting up every laptop and mobile device in their home tuned to different Polish border cameras waiting to see their family arrive. They would each take turns sleeping two hours at a time, then waking up and checking in with family.

Liudmyla shared she had been taking night classes to learn computer programming. She had finished up a class, celebrated with a glass of champagne, then woke up at 5 am the next morning to the sound of the Russian invasion last month.

Tonya still contributes her own efforts to help people in Ukraine. She donates to nonprofits and is still trying to send medical supplies to her father and Viktoriia’s father.

According to staff from Refugee Services of Texas, the organization has not been given any directives from the federal government yet on how to handle a possible influx of Ukrainian refugees.

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