A Marin business owner and his Ukrainian wife celebrate their family’s safe extraction from Odessa, Ukraine – a journey that took them from their home country in Poland, across the world to the Mexico and then California.
Alyona and Rick Cooper own Cooper Alley Salon and Barber Lane at Marin Country Mart in Larkspur. They say they spent nearly two months working to get Alyona Cooper’s family to safety.
Rick Cooper said that when the invasion of Ukraine began, he and his wife begged his family to leave Odessa by train for Poland.
His parents resisted for weeks. But when missiles started hitting their town, they finally agreed to board a train to Warsaw, their daughter said.
While her parents, Olha and Oleksandr Rachynska, and her sister, Svitlana, spent three weeks in a hotel in Poland, Alyona Cooper worked from Marin to get them a Canadian visa for an expedition to Vancouver. She said her family volunteered every day in Warsaw, helping people at the train station, handing out “water, cards, sandwiches, everything.”
“My wife worked very hard for two weeks,” said Rick Cooper, describing how his pregnant wife worked tirelessly to print and email documents with the Canadian Embassy and the hotel housing her family.
“We were so proud of Canada, because Canada was really trying to get Ukrainians out,” he said.
The family was five days away from obtaining the Canadian visa when Alyona Cooper received a text from a friend who had safely crossed the Mexican border into the United States. They discovered that President Joe Biden had opened the border to Ukrainian refugees for a limited time. .
Rick Cooper said they decided it would be easier to send his family to Mexico so they could pick them up and bring them back to Marin. They convinced the family to embark on a 28-hour trip, flying to Amsterdam, then Mexico City and finally Tijuana.
Rick Cooper said he met his wife’s parents at the border. The taxi driver refused payment, because “he just wanted to help a Ukrainian family”.
He said they expected a 36-hour wait to cross the border with at least 150 people ahead of them. But once authorities discovered that Alyona Cooper’s mother was Ukrainian and had recently had a heart attack, they were immediately let through.
“It’s kindness. It’s just real kindness,” Rick Cooper said.
“He (the supervisor) walked us through and said, ‘I know you’re American, I know you did a good thing, take care of your mother-in-law. “”
Rick Cooper said the compassion continued when they reached Los Angeles International Airport hours later, where they nearly missed boarding.
He said airport staff “really went out of their way to help Ukrainians”. Once he mentioned the Ukrainian refugees, they were brought past the processing and security lines.
“It’s like a community of people who were really trying to help us get his family across the border,” Cooper said.
As her family was transported to Marin, Alyona Cooper found her own way to help other families in need. She joined the Telegram app, which helps connect refugees to transport and shelter. After helping a Ukrainian family, she was linked to others trying to get to safety from their country.
By the time her family arrived, they had helped seven families cross the border in six weeks.
“We have a guy who will voluntarily drive ordinary people to the Moldovan border,” said Alyona Cooper. “It’s just about trying to connect people, trying to get families across the border.”
The couple also worked with a San Jose initiative to collect pallets of goods to deliver to Ukrainian refugees. They delivered 220 pallets in two weeks, including 20 pallets from Marin, transporting items to San Jose as people donated time and money to help.
Alyona Cooper said finding these ways to help people in her country helped her overcome fear for her own family’s safety.
“It’s not just a Ukrainian problem, it’s a problem of the whole world. I hope people will see that Ukraine is really showing how to fight for its own rights,” she said.
The family organized a GoFundMe at tinyurl.com/3n7ar7cx to get Alyona’s parents on their feet. Olha and Oleksandr Rachynska only brought two bags of clothes, along with a suitcase of baby clothes for the family’s baby. Rick Cooper said the fund has already raised over $30,000.
Joan Dauria, a client of the Cooper salon, said she had known Rick Cooper for about 20 years. She told him that their story shows “there are Ukrainian refugees here among us, and we don’t know that. I think we should help them as a community.
Another client, Blair Shane, also said she contributed to the family’s relocation costs.
“So many of us want to help,” she said. “It was a no-brainer to contribute to their family’s living expenses and education as they stand tall in the American community, generosity and openness to all is what our country is built on.”
Client Nancy Maymar said she has known Rick Cooper for almost 30 years.
“He’s a great friend. He and Alyona are really good, down-to-earth people,” she said. “I am delighted that his family has arrived here.”
After his wife’s parents’ journey, Rick Cooper said, “I would say they are traumatized.”
“His mother crosses the border, then starts to cry. I tell her she’s in America and the tears stop,” he said.
“They cry every day, they miss their home,” Alyona Cooper said.
“They’re happy to be alive but… there’s so much trauma,” she said. Of her mother, she said, “Every time she tries to smile, she feels guilty.”