Antonina ‘Tonya’ Kovalenko didn’t think twice before packing her bags and fleeing Ukraine with her son, Oleksandr ‘Sasha’ Kovalenko, 12, and their cat, Zosia.
Before the war, Kovalenko said, she had a job as a reception administrator at a dental clinic in Kyiv, an apartment and she was surrounded by friends and family.
But that all changed when Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
“How is it possible in the 21st century for there to be war?” she said.
She first learned about the Russian invasion after turning on the TV. Every channel was reporting that the war had started.
“My son couldn’t believe it would last more than three days,” Kovalenko said. “I couldn’t understand what was happening, but I knew I had to pack what was most important to my son and me.”
When she went outside her apartment, she saw that people were panicking and there were long lines at pharmacies.
“People stocked up on everything they thought was necessary,” Kovalenko said. “I stood for three hours in line to buy medicine for my son.”
While she was standing in line, she heard explosions nearby.
“And I saw planes flying overhead, I didn’t know whether they were our planes or not,” she said.
As a mother, Kovalenko fears for her child’s safety and she wants the war to end as soon as possible so she can get her life back.
“Ukrainians have the right to live on their land,” she said. “My request is for people to listen to us and understand that we have a war there.”
And George Hay Kain III heard her call for help.
After Kovalenko and her son left Kyiv, Ukraine, she arrived in Poland. That’s when she reached out to Kain, their sponsor through the Facebook group Helping Ukrainian refugees in the USA.
After learning about her story, Kain agreed to sponsor them at his farm near Emigsville. Kovalenko said the moment they hopped on a plane in Poland headed to New York, she felt at peace but was also concerned about what lay ahead.
“There was fear about how life will be in another country,” she said. “How will I be able to communicate? Since this is a new country, people have their own views, own culture and I will have to learn and understand it.”
Tonya is a big city girl and was surprised to know that without a car here, you can’t go anywhere.
“In Kyiv, you are able to find transportation easily,” she said. “We always walked a lot during the day.”
Kain said Sasha told him that cars in America are big compared to Ukraine.
“And that we have real peanuts in our peanut butter,” Kain said.
During World War II, Kain said his father was an Army attorney, and in July of 1945, he was posted in Germany to start preparing cases against the Nazis that were involved in the Buchenwald prison camp.
“He quickly became aware that there were good Germans who tried to help the Jews and bad Germans who ignored the problem and allowed for terrible things to happen,” he said.
Kain said he grew up in a family that was motivated to try to help people who were being abandoned or ignored by the rest of the world.
“When the situation in Ukraine developed, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to put my money where my mouth was,” he said.
Kovalenko said she is very grateful for America and for the help she has received.
“And I hope I can return to my home country soon,” she said.
Editor’s note: Google translate was used in the interview with Antonina ‘Tonya’ Kovalenko.
Kaity Assaf is a regional news reporter for the USA Today Network. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @kaitythekite or by phone, 717-472-0960. Please support local journalism with a digital subscription.