STATELINE, Nev. – For the past six months, Ukraine has been forced to wage war with Russia.
For a Ukrainian family, vacation became a salvation.
The Falko family, Oleksandr and Olena Falko, and their 3-year-old son are residents of Kherson, Ukraine. They received devastating videos and pictures on the day they were due to return home from vacation in Thailand. The disturbing news set in motion an expansive adventure they never planned.
“We wanted to return home on the 25th, but the situation was too unclear and our neighbors sent pictures and videos,” Oleksandr told the Tribune. “We saw cars and people being shot.”
The dwindling population of Kherson, the first city to be taken by Russian forces, is beset by worsening circumstances. Only four days into the war, the Battle of Cherson ended with Russian occupation. The pre-war population was around 300,000 and now the streets are empty and citizens have fled to save their lives and those of their families.
According to the Associated Press, “Those wishing to exit Kherson must pass through a series of Russian military checkpoints. Soldiers search belongings, identity papers and mobile phones, and anyone suspected of supporting the resistance is interrogated in so-called filtration camps.”
Many Ukrainians seek refuge through a program called “U for U”. Uniting for Ukraine is a US-based program that provides a temporary two-year probationary period for those fleeing the Russian invasion.
According to their website, “The first step in the unification process for Ukraine is for the US-based supporter to submit a Form I-134 Statement of Financial Support, with USCIS. The U.S. government will then screen the supporter to ensure they are able to provide financial support to the person to whom they consent.”
South Tahoe residents Cari and Brian Beetham are hosts to the Falko family.
“We knew we wanted to help a family, so we signed up on the site,” Cari said. “We had to promise to take care of the family.”
Instead of returning home on February 25 as planned, the Falkos exchanged their tickets to Kherson for flights to Bulgaria. From Bulgaria they went to Germany and continued the process of registering and finding a sponsor. Their destination before arriving in the US was England, where they stayed until the day the family arrived safely at Lake Tahoe late at night.
While the Beethams have pledged to provide for the family financially, the Falkos have so far relied on their financial reserves to travel and support themselves. In Cherson they have apartments, cars and boats, they have built a whole life for themselves, none of which is accessible. It is unclear when the war will end or what will remain of it.
CNN reported that the Russian garrison in Kherson is facing a Ukrainian campaign to throttle river and rail supply lines, which has limited the flow of munitions.
On Wednesday, August 17, the Ukrainian acknowledged Russian advances on the western side, but at the same time sent a counterattack south that killed several Russian soldiers, according to CNN.
CNN’s Tim Lister said: “The armed forces said between 10 and 15 Russian soldiers were killed in the strike against a Russian post near the town of Nova Kakhovka.”
For now, the south shore of Lake Tahoe has become a sanctuary for this displaced family of three. While their hometown is war-torn, they have focused on learning English and finding work to support themselves.
“They won’t even say his (Putin’s) name, they remain positive and I don’t know how,” Cari said.
Despite uncertainty, their son, nicknamed Sasha, has been accepted into a local preschool, online English courses are being researched and they are awaiting news on their work visa filings.
Olexandr said: “I would like to express my gratitude to the US government and the US people for their support. Please don’t be afraid to take on responsibility and take on the sponsorship.”
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services website has information for those who wish to sponsor displaced families.
Ashleigh Goodwin is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sun. She can be reached at [email protected]