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A Ukrainian mom and her three kids seek a new life in a country where even the water tastes different

“They really miss home,” their mother said. “I say, ‘It’s not safe at home. It will take time.’”

Richard McIlhenny and Marissa Vergnetti (rear) outside their Mount Airy home, where they are hosting Veronika Pavliutina (right) and her son, Yegor (left), 8.
Richard McIlhenny and Marissa Vergnetti (rear) outside their Mount Airy home, where they are hosting Veronika Pavliutina (right) and her son, Yegor (left), 8.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Veronika Pavliutina told her children to choose one special belonging. And to pick fast. They needed to go.

Explosions shook their Odesa hometown as Russia started its invasion of Ukraine.

Yegor, 8, grabbed two small toy cars.

Nina, 11, took her riding helmet. She loves horses.

And Polina, 14, an artist, packed her painting supplies.

They didn’t know if they were leaving for a week or forever.

Now, 2½ months later, a few hastily chosen possessions are the tangible reminders of home for three children and their mother, a single parent who managed to get the family to safety in the United States, to the refuge of a third-floor bedroom in the home of a friend of a friend in Philadelphia.

Neighbors in the city’s Mount Airy section have delivered meals and clothes and Target gift cards. Nina was invited to ride at a local stable.

“All normal,” the girl pronounced of this new life in America.

But of course it’s not.

If it’s difficult for a parent to stumble out of a country under attack, then it can be harder still for children, who carry not just small toys but outsize fears and worries for the friends and family left behind.

Their mom, 44, taught cooking classes at her studio in Odesa, called Plushkin, its motto “Cook. Eat. Love.” Now, with no job or government benefits and a future defined by uncertainty, she must stand strong and confident, insisting to the kids that everything will be fine, even if fine turns out to be something that no one planned.

“They really miss home,” Pavliutina said. “I say, ‘It’s not safe at home. It will take time.’”

Polina says it’s hard to make friends when you can’t speak their language. The world has changed. Even the water tastes different here. The news from Ukraine offers little encouragement.

Russia struck the southern city of Odesa on the first day, Feb. 24, blowing up warehouses along with air-defense systems and killing at least 22 people.

A couple of weeks earlier, as Europe nervously watched Russian troops and armaments mass on Ukraine’s border, friends in Serbia told Pavliutina: If it’s war, you can come to us.

She packed the kids and a few suitcases and backpacks into the car, then headed southwest, away from the sound of explosions.

“Putin actually announced, how did he say? ‘It’s not war, it’s a special military action,’” Pavliutina said. “It felt like war.”

The family crossed the border into Romania, making it to Bucharest, stopping to rest after 36 hours of travel. Then they drove west to Belgrade, Serbia, to their friends.

If the war ended in a week and everyone went home, Pavliutina thought, well, she would feel silly for having run — and upset at having spent their savings.

Of course that’s not what happened. Evacuation trains began moving civilians out of Odesa on March 2. By then Pavliutina and her children were gone.

About 7,400 miles away in Mount Airy, real estate agent Richard McIlhenny and his wife, Marissa Vergnetti, a preschool teacher, were watching the news. And distressed.

Vergnetti was talking to her sister-in-law, whose grandparents were refugees from Ukraine during World War II, “both of us feeling helpless and heartbroken over everything,” she said.

They discussed the possibility of inviting refugees to live in their homes.

Vergnetti called her husband. “Could we do something like this?”

She knew her husband had a close childhood friend who had lived in Odesa for work. Might the friend know a family who needed help?

It turned out, he did, a woman who ran a cooking studio. The cooking teacher was friends with his wife.

Richard called Marissa: “This is happening.”

Neighbors descended on the twin home to help clean, move furniture, and lay in supplies.

Pavliutina and her children stepped off a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport on March 15.

Her father is still in Ukraine. So is her brother — men aged 18 to 60 are barred from leaving. Both live with everyday danger as Odesa remains under bombardment, a port city that’s strategically important to Russia because of its position on the Black Sea.

Today, about 10 weeks after the start of the war, it’s hard to tell how many Ukrainian refugees are settling in the Philadelphia region, other than “more and more.”

Many are entering the United States on travel visas, or came north after crossing the Southern border, moving in with family and friends among the region’s large Ukrainian community, into quarters at churches or, in Pavliutina’s case, into the homes of caring strangers.

That seep of arrivals has largely bypassed the official U.S. refugee process and the resettlement agencies that agree to assist specific numbers of people, which makes reliable figures difficult to discern. Agencies like HIAS Pennsylvania continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees who arrive, after years in the immigration process, under a program first enacted in 1990 to help Jews leave the former Soviet Union.

Nearly 5.7 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries since the war started.

President Joe Biden’s plan to accept 100,000 refugees through “Uniting for Ukraine” relies on them having sponsors in the United States who will assume all responsibility. Those newcomers get none of the job, housing, or medical benefits that go to official refugees.

About 20 years ago, Pavliutina lived briefly in northern New Jersey, when her now ex-husband’s job brought them to the United States. Since they broke up she has occasionally traveled here to visit friends and see the country.

The practical effect was that on the day of the Russian invasion, she held a valid visa to enter the U.S.

McIlhenny picked up the family at the airport.

“I’m so grateful,” Pavliutina said. “What Rich and Marissa did for me and my family, I would never expect from people. It’s like, ‘Is it real?’ A room. People who cook for us.”

Cooking may hold the key to the family’s future.

Pavliutina wants to restart her cooking studio, since she’s eligible to work under the Biden administration’s designation of Temporary Protected Status for Ukraine, which allows an estimated 59,600 Ukrainians to stay here until at least Oct. 19, 2023.

She needs a car. And an apartment, so her family can have a place of their own.

So far those objectives have proved unreachable. In this country, Pavliutina has no credit score, no work history, and no job. A GoFundMe campaign stalled halfway to its $20,000 goal.

The children are taking school classes in Ukraine by Zoom. In the fall they’ll start school in Philadelphia.

Yegor likes spending time with McIlhenny and Vergnetti’s son, Daniel, a high school senior who complains only that the arrival of three younger children has meant he’s “had to give up some snacks and stuff.”

Nina has been able to ride horses through a family friend. She likes to examine the local architecture. Polina enjoyed the Art Museum.

Neighbors continue to bring food and donations.

Yegor may be having the easiest adjustment, his mother said. He loves American ice cream. And playing with the load of Lego building blocks he was given.

“I like that everything is pretty and nice,” he said.

He seems less bothered than the girls by the language differences, Pavliutina said. Polina feels she must speak perfect English, reluctant to risk stumbling over words.

She told her mom she wants to find friends, to meet kids her age, just so they can hang out.

They ask about the future. Their mother doesn’t have good answers. Russian missile strikes continue to kill people in Odesa.

“We’ll return as soon as it’s OK,” Pavliutina tells them.

She doesn’t know when that might be, when the war might end.

“The longer it goes on,” she said, “the more I feel there won’t be anything to return to.”