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An ISU doctoral student describes her family's harrowing escape from Ukraine

The majority of refugees leaving Ukraine crossed into Poland or Moldova, said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, with many more expected to follow in the coming days.
Wojtek Radwanski
AFP via Getty Images
The majority of refugees leaving Ukraine have crossed into Poland or Moldova, said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, with many more expected to follow in the coming days.

As news of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine broke two weeks ago, Ukrainians outside of the country scrambled for news about family back home. At the time, WGLT sat down with Maryna Teplova, a doctoral student at Illinois State University. Teplova is originally from Dnipro, a city in central Ukraine. At the time, Teplova reported that her family was safe and planning to stay in the country.

But the situation in Ukraine has grown increasingly treacherous for civilians. Since the invasion began, 1.5 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes. Teplova now says her daughter and granddaughter are among them.

Teplova’s 30-year-old daughter, Maria, whom she calls Masha, and her 3-year-old granddaughter, Aphrodite, left their home in Dnipro last Monday. They left behind clothes, toys, and Aphrodite’s very first big-girl bed. They left behind a piano that’s been in their family for generations. They left their pet cat with family who chose to stay in the city.

Teplova said it took some convincing to get Masha to evacuate. It can be difficult to maintain a sense of what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine because of how quickly things change. Masha was disoriented and overwhelmed. But she was finally convinced by her father, a journalist, that the time had come to leave.

Getting Masha and Aphrodite to the train station was one thing, Teplova said. Getting them on the train was another.

“You have to understand how many people want to take this train,” Teplova said. “All women and children.”

Train carriages that typically seat 36 passengers are being packed with as many as 200 people, Teplova said. There are no tickets and no timetables. Ukrainian officials don’t want to run trains on regular schedules for fear they will become targets for the Russians.

“Because those monsters are bombing everything they see,” Teplova said. “And a train is also a target, of course. Everything is.”

The chairman of the state-owned Ukrainian railways has reported that Russian forces are in fact bombarding parts of the country’s railway network, making it more difficult for civilians to flee the conflict. So, even when Teplova received word that Masha and Aphrodite had made it onto a train, she struggled to find any sense of relief.

Masha boarded a train headed for Lviv in western Ukraine. But as they began the 20-hour journey, Masha had no idea where she and her daughter would go once they arrived. Teplova was frantically scouring social media to connect with aid groups when, “like a miracle,” a former student popped up in her feed.

His location was Lviv.

The student agreed to take in Masha and Aphrodite, promising to retrieve them from the station. Teplova said once the train arrived, Masha and her daughter were exhausted. “The train was 20 hours and nobody slept,” she said.

On top of that, Masha is a single mother who made the journey alone. Once in Lviv, she didn’t have the strength to carry Aphrodite so she had to clutch the little girl’s hand as they joined thousands of people funneling through a small passageway out of the station. Masha was terrified she would let go and her daughter would be lost.

But they made it, eventually collapsing on a bed in the apartment of Teplova’s student for some much-needed rest. The question then became how to get Masha and Aphrodite to the Polish border. Masha couldn’t do another train, she said. It was too much. So Teplova continued scouring the internet to find aid groups that could transport the two on a bus.

Over the course of two days and several bus transfers, Masha and Aphrodite finally lined up with scores of other refugees to cross the border with Poland on foot. An anxious Teplova finally received word from a relative who’d just heard from Masha: she was preparing to hand her passport to a border guard.

“Get the brandy ready” the message read.

But Teplova couldn’t celebrate until she was certain her daughter and granddaughter were safely within Polish borders. Finally, she heard from Masha. She was on the other side.

“OK, let’s open brandy,” Teplova said.

Maryna Teplova's family
Five generations of Maryna Teplova's family. Maryna is in the center. Aphrodite and Masha are on the left, and Teplova's great-grandmother is on the far right.

Masha and Aphrodite eventually will travel to the Netherlands to live with relatives. But for now, they’re in Warsaw, in the home of another person who has agreed to help them on their way. Teplova calls these helpers “angels” and says they are springing up all over the world to help the people of Ukraine.

“I’ve never felt so united before. So connected to so many people,” Teplova said. “We all are one family, everyone.”

Teplova hopes this unity in the face of struggle portends a greater good.

“Maybe Ukraine is the country that will bring some big change to the whole world. I hope. I hope it will be,” Teplova said. “I just don’t want it to be at the sacrifice of Ukraine.”

Much of Teplova’s family remains behind in Ukraine, including her great-grandmother. “There is no way she can either take a car or train. There is no way. She just can’t,” Teplova said. Though her great-grandmother survived World War II, Teplova believes there’s no way she would survive the dangerous trip out of the country.

So, Teplova's great-grandmother will stay in Ukraine.

But those who do leave Ukraine will eventually return, Teplova said. Despite Russia's efforts to destroy her country, Teplova said Ukrainians are resolute.

“They will not be able to destroy all of us. Don't forget that Ukrainians are everywhere. And if you need, we will all come back to our country and help restore it. Anything you do, we will make our country beautiful again.”