LOS ANGELES — When her daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Tetiana Shatokhina didn’t hesitate to make the trip back to Ukraine to help her recover from surgery and care for her grandson. 14 years old.
But the 75-year-old disabled US citizen found herself trapped alongside her family in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, targeted by nighttime bombings and bombs after the Russian invasion just over a year ago. week.
Their underground shelter was not big enough for all three of them, so Shatokhina, her daughter Olena Yarova and Yarova’s son stayed above ground despite the risk. Two were lying under a table; Shatokhina, nearby, on the ground. They took turns sleeping and keeping the lights off and their voices low, hoping that the Russian army would think the house was abandoned and walk past them.
“Every time we go to bed, we don’t even sleep,” Shatokhina said quietly in Russian over the phone before the family left town and headed west towards Poland in the hope to cross the border.
The family is one of many people stranded in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, including US citizens caring for family members who are Ukrainian citizens. The closure of the US Embassy in Kyiv has postponed many visa interviews and limited the services the country can provide for people seeking to leave Ukraine. Families have contacted congressional and immigration lawyers in the United States asking for help.
There is no known estimate of the number of Americans remaining in Ukraine after weeks of warnings urging them to leave ahead of the invasion.
The State Department has been “completely useless,” said U.S. Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican whose office worked for several days to push through the visa application of a Ukrainian woman whose husband lives in the Malliotakis district. “I know some of my colleagues are going through the same experience, and it’s really reminiscent of what happened in Afghanistan when we tried to evacuate families and help people out of Afghanistan.”
The department has support teams near the Ukrainian border in four neighboring countries to assist US citizens and has opened a “welcome center” in Poland. But people seeking an immigrant visa trying to transfer their case to another U.S. embassy should contact that specific embassy for a list of requirements, the department said this week.
After several emails from Malliotakis’ office, the State Department agreed to transfer the woman’s case to Moldova and the couple have now reached that country.
Thousands of miles away, in a hilltop house in Los Angeles, Shatokhina’s son and daughter-in-law were also sleepless. They called their representative in Congress and the State Department, desperate to get the family out.
They want to take them to the border with Poland – a stretch for Shatokhina, who recently had surgery herself and needs walking assistance – then to a US consulate for a long-awaited green card interview. for Yarova, for which she was sponsored years ago.
“I actually called the State Department and was told there was nothing they could do until she was in an EU country or a country outside of the EU. Ukraine,” said Galina Blank, Shatokhina’s daughter-in-law. “The State Department can’t do anything. They do nothing for American citizens.
“She sold. She’s sick. She’s a citizen,” she said.
In 1990, then 21-year-old Edward Chatokhin left his hometown of Kharkiv in what was the Soviet Union to try to make a living in the United States. Years later, he married Blank, who had moved to Los Angeles as a Soviet refugee as a child.
After Chatokhin became an American citizen, he sponsored his mother, Shatokhina, for a green card and she went to live with them in California. Once she too became an American citizen, she asked Yarova to join them.
Although US authorities have approved her application, Yarov still needs a consular interview to obtain a green card. Since the coronavirus pandemic, many of those interviews have been delayed, and Blank said she doesn’t know how long it would have taken before the invasion. She said the State Department told her that if Iarova could go to another country, it would expedite her interview.
The situation in Kharkiv is dire, the family said. They lacked food. Their water has been cut off. The weather is extremely cold.
When the invasion started, they thought the Russians were trying to scare them away. But it only got worse, Yarova said.
“There is no pity, not at all for anyone. We could imagine anything, but not that they would drop bombs on us,” she said. “I just want to save my child.”
In Los Angeles, Blank, a lawyer, and Chatokhin, an internet entrepreneur, worked on the phone, trying to find someone to help the family flee. Initially, a friend offered to drive them to the border, but a nearby bridge blew up and he couldn’t reach them, Blank said.
When his mother left Los Angeles about two months ago, Chatokhin said he was not worried about the situation in Kharkiv. Even as talk surfaced of a possible attack, he said he and his friends saw it as nothing more than media bluster, adding that the two countries had a common language, history and culture.
Last Wednesday, his nephew went to school, as always. A day later, it was war.
“We are the same people. It just doesn’t make sense,” Blank said. “That’s why no one ever believed something like this could happen.”
Merchant reported from Washington. AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee and AP reporters Padmananda Rama and Lynn Berry in Washington contributed to this report.