Opinion: A Ukrainian mother shares her story of fleeing war — and how an Iowa family stepped up to help

·8 min read

Kateryna Matlakhova moved to Des Moines on June 5, 2022, under President Joe Biden's Uniting for Ukraine program. She shared with me how she got here from Bucha, Ukraine. Several times in telling her story, Matlakhova’s voice cracked and she cried. Several times, I told her we could stop. Every time, she wanted to continue.

“When I talk to people here, yes, of course most people know, but they do not know exactly what is happening,” Matlakhova said. She believes that people in the United States don’t really understand the extent of the destruction, that whole Ukrainian cities are now near rubble, and that hundreds of deaths occur daily. She referenced Mariupol as an example, where the Russians have killed 20,000 or more, according to unverified government statements.

Not only does Matlakhova want people to know what’s happening, she also wants people to help.

Kateryna Matlakhova stands for a photo with her children, Milana Matlakhova, 4, and Mark Matlakhova, 11, outside a  home in Des Moines, June 23, 2022. The family was living in Bucha, Ukraine, when Russia invaded and is resettling in Des Moines.
Kateryna Matlakhova stands for a photo with her children, Milana Matlakhova, 4, and Mark Matlakhova, 11, outside a home in Des Moines, June 23, 2022. The family was living in Bucha, Ukraine, when Russia invaded and is resettling in Des Moines.

Her story begins in Luhansk

Matlakhova knew that Russia was going to invade Bucha, a town about 15 miles west of Kyiv. She had a feeling — just like she had eight years earlier when she and her family lived in Luhansk. In 2014, separatists with backing from Russia fought Ukrainian forces for control over Donetsk and Luhansk (also called Donbas).

“I had a feeling that something is not correct." Matlakhova said. There were demonstrations in the street, which worried her. She convinced her family to leave. So they moved to Bucha 10 days before that war started.

She urged her family to leave Bucha, but nobody listened

In Bucha, the signs of war were more subtle. A month before the war started, Matlakhova had been watching the news daily and saw the Russian military presence increasing along the border with Ukraine.

“I had the same feeling (as in Luhansk), and I was telling this to my family and was asking them to leave," Matlakhova said. “Nobody listened to me.”

Then, she noticed that the embassies were being evacuated.

More: Mapping and tracking Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Again, she urged her family to leave, this time with a compromise. "‘Let us go for a month, you know, just to stay somewhere else. And if everything is good, it's OK. If not, then we will come back.’”

Again, nobody would listen. Her husband, Oleksander, a car reseller, wanted to wait until he wrapped up deals in progress at work.

Then, Russian helicopters attacked the military airport. Matlakhova was awakened by a call from a friend at around 5 a.m. on Feb. 23. Rising from bed, she rushed to the window to look and saw the helicopters. She and her family — Oleksander and their two children, Mark, 11, and Milana, 4 — immediately went to the cellar.

Her friends told her not to worry, that everything would be fine.

But Matlakhova was done listening. She wanted to leave immediately, just jump in the car and go. But she made herself pack. By 2 p.m., they’d loaded the car and were on the road.

Cars filled with other families desperate to escape clogged the streets, their progress stalled by the numerous checkpoints where Ukrainian military reviewed documents and looked through cars. Though it took them hours instead of minutes to evacuate, they made it out.

As they left Bucha, Ukrainian military tanks were entering. Long lines of them.

The Russian occupation began immediately — and so did the atrocities

“Unfortunately, my parents, my brother, even though I told them many, many times to leave, they told me, ‘We will not,’” Matlakhova said.

Her parents and brother, like many others who stayed, believed that whatever was happening would last only for a few days or weeks, then things would be back to normal. It wouldn’t be too bad — or if things did get bad, there would be some warning.

Instead, there was little warning.

A body's hands are seen in a mass grave in Bucha, near Kyiv on April 9, 2022.
A body's hands are seen in a mass grave in Bucha, near Kyiv on April 9, 2022.

Within days after the Matlakhovas left, the Russians took over Bucha, making it nearly impossible for others to leave. Days after that, there was no power, no water, no internet, no ATMs. It was cold, with temperatures dropping below freezing. Some people had run out of food, killing chickens and rabbits they found in the area and using fire to cook and melting snow to drink. Those with cash on hand were afraid to leave their houses to shop, provided they could even find a store still open.

Russian soldiers were shooting those that did, mostly men from 18 to 63 years old, but women and children, too.

“Once my mom was trying to go to store to buy bread. Russians stopped her." They ordered her to take off her jacket and they went through her pockets. Matlakhova’s mother didn’t have anything they wanted, so they let her go.

Elderly residents hide in a basement for shelter with no electricity, water or food in the center of the town of Irpin, some 25 km (16 miles) northwest of Kyiv, Friday, March 11, 2022. Kyiv's northwest suburbs such as Irpin and Bucha had endured Russian shellfire and bombardments for over a week, prompting residents to leave their homes.
Elderly residents hide in a basement for shelter with no electricity, water or food in the center of the town of Irpin, some 25 km (16 miles) northwest of Kyiv, Friday, March 11, 2022. Kyiv's northwest suburbs such as Irpin and Bucha had endured Russian shellfire and bombardments for over a week, prompting residents to leave their homes.

Russian soldiers went door to door, asking people for food and clothing — and indiscriminately killing them. Before she left, Matlakhova had stocked the shelves in her home with canned goods in case her family or friends needed any and had instructed her mom to do the same. Fortunately, her mother had — an action that likely saved their lives.

“My mom daily put food for soldiers outside the house,” Matlakhova said. “We knew if they will come inside the house and see my brother and even my dad, they will kill them. My parents hid my brother in the attic in the paper boxes.” At least one of Matlakhova’s neighbors wasn’t so fortunate. Russian soldiers shot him, leaving his young daughter, who was Milana's age, fatherless.

Russian soldiers also killed people who tried to leave town. “Even people who put signs, little kids,” Matlakhova said, “put some white flags or, I don’t know, white piece of cloth to show they are civilians. It did not help.” The Russians shot them anyway.

About three weeks after Matlakhova left, her family made it out of Bucha. They are now in France.

After the Russian forces withdrew from Bucha on March 31, 2022, evidence of their brutality emerged. Media captured survivor reports, along with photos and videos of the massacres.

More: Ukrainians begin grim work of investigating 'absolute horror' near Kyiv: 'It is a hell'

How to help those in Ukraine

When war breaks out in other countries, as cities are destroyed, as women and children are raped, as people are murdered, as survivors struggle to live and rebuild, we ask ourselves what we can do to help. Sure, we can donate to organizations like the Red Cross and not know where our money goes. Or we can search the internet, looking for other options.

Darrin Johnson did the latter. Matlakhova and her family were friends whom he had visited several times in Bucha. As the war progressed, they kept him up to date on how they were doing and told him they'd escaped to Spain.

“We found out about this program because I’d been trying to figure out a way to help,” Johnson said.

The program Johnson found was Uniting for Ukraine, which was started on April 21.

“I started filling out the forms online and we started making progress,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, the process isn’t difficult, just a bit time-consuming. It requires information such as bank letters, employer letters and property value assessments.

“They want to know that if you sponsor somebody, that you have a way to support them,” Johnson said.

It took about two weeks to get the required documents and about another two weeks to get the approval after he submitted the application. After that, the Matlakhovas, who'd also had to complete paperwork on their end, were granted authorization to travel.

Matlakhova is extremely grateful to the Johnsons for their help. She recently bought a car and is anxious to begin working. In anticipation, she is completing applications for work visas for her and Oleksander. Just this week, she had an informational interview.

She hopes that more people like the Johnsons will help Ukrainians. I asked her if there was anything else that we could do: “Maybe I'm wrong, but my opinion is that U.S. can stop this war in one day. You know, you can simply send your armies there.”

More information on sponsorship and Uniting for Ukraine

For those looking to help in other ways or explore sponsorship opportunities, there's Welcome.US: ukraine.welcome.us. For those who know a Ukrainian family and would like to sponsor them in the United States, there's the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Uniting for Ukraine information and application: www.uscis.gov/ukraine. For Iowans with questions on Uniting for Ukraine, check with the Iowa Department of Human Services' Refugee Services: dhs.iowa.gov/refugee-services. For Ukrainians already in Iowa and/or sponsors requiring assistance, Catholic Charities is one organization that can help.

"Right now because things are kind of changing constantly with that and in the world," said Kelyn Anker, refugee program services manager of Catholic Charities, "we are, right now, helping as requested." As things at the federal level stabilize, Anker says, Catholics Charities will update its website. In the meantime, Ukrainian refugees or sponsors can call, email, or stop by at www.catholiccharitiesdm.org.

With so many options, it should be easy to do as Matlakhova asked: Help.

Rachelle Chase is an opinion columnist at the Des Moines Register. Follow her at facebook.com/rachelle.chase.author or on Twitter @Rachelle_Chase.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: Ukrainian refugee in Iowa shares horrors in Bucha