Editor’s Note: More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge from Russia’s invasion, crossing the border to Poland and other neighboring countries. A top UN official called it “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.”
The decision to leave was harrowing for Roman Panivnyk, a Knight from Kyiv, and his wife, Olga. Torn between loyalty to their country, concern for Olga’s elderly parents and responsibility for their three children, they ultimately left to Poland. From there, they received assistance from Roman’s brother Knights, and the family was able to continue to Olga’s sister’s home in Pennsylvania.
Below, Olga describes their decision, their journey from Kyiv and their determination to speak for those they left behind.
I love my country. I was asked many times why I didn’t stay in the United States after working there in 2017. But it was my conscious choice to come back to my country and to contribute to its growth and development. It’s heartbreaking to find ourselves leaving it.
However, at 5 a.m. on Thursday [Feb. 24], I heard a blast. We have a tram road next to our apartments in Kyiv, so at first I thought it was probably a tram. But my friends called me and told me that the Russians were bombing us all over Ukraine.
I woke Roman up because he didn’t hear it. Our kids woke up, though. My heart was broken when I had to tell my kids it was war. Immediately, my husband went to my parents’ home to pick them up and bring them to our place so that we would be together. We initially hoped to stay in Kyiv. We always knew there was the possibility of war, but we wanted to stay there because it’s our land, it’s our home, and we didn’t want to flee.
I was not afraid to sacrifice my life, but I was afraid for my kids’ safety. We had to make a decision on how we would go and where we would go. My parents are elderly though; my dad has troubles with his heart and has had a few operations, so it would have been difficult for him to travel. When we asked them to come with us, they told us to go. Making this decision, I had to sacrifice my parents in a way, leaving them behind.
When we started the journey, our first question was who could help us. Would we cross the Romanian, Hungarian or Polish border? Roman said, “We have to go to Poland because the Knights of Columbus are there. I have brothers there who will be able to support you.” Some of his best friends in Ukraine are in the Knights of Columbus, and I became close to wives of Knights as well. In a way, they are our extended family. So we decided to head toward Poland.
Once we were packed, we started our trip at 3 p.m., and then it was a 23-hour drive to the border in western Ukraine. People were using all four lanes on the road instead of just two. Our radio was on all the time, and we were listening to what was happening and where the Russians were bombing. After each siren and each bombing, I called my parents, hoping that they would pick up the phone, so I could check how they were.
Many people were fleeing. There was this huge line stretching 31 kilometers toward the border control points. You would see clothing along the road all the way toward the border. People who were walking to the border instead of driving would stop and unload their luggage, their bags, because they were too heavy. Since the line was moving very slowly, Roman joined some people in a field kitchen. He also joined a troop to prevent people from cutting the line. It gave me comfort that, wherever we ended up, we could still find ourselves serving others.
But during the entire journey, we were unsure of whether Roman would be allowed to leave or not — since the government banned men between 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
Roman told me that he wanted to get us over the border and if he needed to stay, he would go back to become part of territorial defense troops. And he would be helping the Knights of Columbus in the region provide humanitarian help. If he was allowed out of the country, he would go with us to support me and the kids.
I was ready for anything. If I would have to carry this cross alone with the kids, I would carry it. While we neared the border, I was praying to the Lord to allow us to cross as soon as possible because, for my kids, it was like a nightmare.
Thankfully, we finally crossed the border on Tuesday, March 1, and Roman was allowed through because of our three children. The first thing I did was call my parents, who said they were praying for us and they just hoped we were safe. After the call, the new question was “OK, we made it, what’s next?” We had plans for our lives, we had dreams. But they’re so irrelevant today, and these days I just hope that the people who I love will be alive.
The faith is something which has sustained me through all my life, and, in this particular situation, it is the cornerstone. God is with us. When we were on the road, I was praying the rosary the whole time. We were praying together with the kids in the car. What is left with us after fleeing home is our faith and love we have for each other. This is it. I believe that the Lord will sustain us, he will guide us and protect us.
We will find a way to serve the Lord wherever we are and to serve the Ukrainian people wherever they are.
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