Yana Molot had a very stable life. Good work as an accountant, a house she loved, two wonderful young sons, and a strong community in her peaceful village in the Poltava region of Central Ukraine.

She never imagined she would be making Molotov cocktails with her children, sheltering from shelling in her basement, nor sleeping on the floor of a Tijuana church. But seemingly overnight the life she thought was certain evaporated and soon she was crossing border after border to bring her family to safety.

“I did not believe it was possible, even right before the invasion started our grandma was saying there will be a war and we were just laughing it off,” said Yana, through a translator. 

Safety for them ended up being over 10,000 kilometers away in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, where Andy and Melissa Lauer and their son Kai volunteered to house Yana and her family. 

Yana, who is 33, fled Ukraine with her 16-year-old son Mark and 11-year-old son Lev. They traveled to the US via Poland and Mexico with Yana’s 28-year-old brother Vladyslav Nalisnyi and his 23-year-old girlfriend Anzhela Marchenko. 

The five of them are temporarily living with the Lauers as they figure out their next steps. This is challenging as they don’t speak English, aside from the little Mark learned in school, and are still waiting for work permits, so the Lauers are trying to help them raise money through a GoFundMe.

“This is something unimaginable, yet it’s very possible to become a reality,” said Yana, through a translator. “We are very grateful to the family who provided this housing to us. They didn’t just open their house, but also opened their hearts.”

Even with the harsh reality of war, the decision to leave Ukraine was not easy. The Molots left so much left behind — their home, their two dogs, and many friends and family members whose future is uncertain.  

Anzhela, who is dating Yana’s brother Vlad, left every member of her family in Ukraine and worries constantly about her three brothers, two of whom are of military age and therefore banned from leaving the country. Yana and Vlad’s cousin is in the army fighting on the frontlines in Mariupol, which according to Yana he describes as “hell on earth.” Mark’s godfather is serving in the volunteer army and due to supply chain disruptions is unable to access appropriate protective armor.  

Despite the pain of leaving, Yana made the call to take her children out of their village in early March after it was shelled four times and she feared that the devastation seen in Bucha would come to her doorstep. She traveled with Mark and Lev to the nearby city of Kremenchuk, where they boarded an evacuation train to Lviv by the Polish border.

The train was overcrowded, with eleven people crammed into a section that was only designed to transport four. While the trip normally takes around 12 hours, their journey took about 35 as they continuously changed direction based on reports of shelling. 

“It was very scary because we could be attacked. At any moment shelling could start, so because of that the train had to go in complete darkness at night. The road took much longer than was expected, so we ran out of water,” said Yana, adding that she was very grateful for the local people who came to bring water to the train as it stopped at different stations along the way.

Once they arrived in Lviv there was a several day wait for buses to cross the border, so they decided to take a taxi to the farthest point possible and walk to Poland from there. The border crossing took twelve hours by foot, not because of the distance, but because the route was so crowded with other families. It was a cold and tiring journey, but a great relief when they arrived in Poland and met up with Vlad and Anzhela, who are all from the same hometown in Ukraine.

Vlad and Anzhela had been working short-term contracts at a LG factory in Poland, due to the lack of work in their Ukrainian village. The family stayed together for a month in Poland, but soon realized it would be very difficult to sustain a life there as the country’s resources were already greatly strained by the influx of 2.5 million refugees and there was no work available.

Yana said this was the hardest point of their journey. Mark and Lev told her they felt homeless and kept asking to go back to Ukraine, yet she knew in her heart that this was not a viable option.

Yana decided to look further afield for shelter and try to get to California as her mother lives in Reseda. The earliest visa appointment she could get was in June, so she figured their best bet was to attempt an entry through the Mexican border.

It took them three days to get from Poland to Mexico by plane as they purchased the cheapest tickets and had transfer times of up to 23 hours. Once in Tijuana they joined the many Ukrainian and Russian families requesting humanitarian parole to enter the US. Yana’s group was given the number 2022, which she took as an auspicious sign, and after three days waiting at the border they were allowed to enter. 

“I am still small so of course I was worried and I was a little scared when we flew, but it also seemed time flew away so quickly and I only wanted this whole trip to be over and I wanted to see my grandma who I missed a lot,” said Yana’s 11-year-old son Lev, through a translator. 

Yana found the Lauers through a website called Ukraine Take Shelter, where people who are willing to host families can list their house and match with refugee families. This is Lev, Yana, Mark, Anzhela and Vlad’s first time in the US and they said they have been blown away by the beauty of Santa Monica and the kindness of local people. 

Mark is very excited by the skating culture in the area. He is a scooter enthusiast and loved doing tricks with his best friends back home. He and his friends recently won a grant to build a skatepark in their village, which was meant to break ground this spring. He said he wants to go visit the iconic Venice beach skatepark, but doesn’t feel like he’s a part of the community yet. 

Lev loves music and plays the piano and the drums. Through an Easter party he attended he met his first American friend and they now play the same online game. 

Yana is very busy trying to figure out next steps for her family. She still has some remote work as an accountant, but it is not enough and she hopes her work permit will get approved soon, although she has heard it can take up to six months. She is considering trying to work as a truck driver. 

Yana sorely wants to enroll her sons in LA schools, so they can continue their studies and get the best education possible. She hopes that one day they can take this education back to Ukraine and use it to help rebuild the country. While they are grateful to be in Santa Monica, they all want to return home as their hearts are heavy with homesickness. 

The family said being in Los Angeles feels like being in a movie as they have seen the city in many films. At the same time, knowing what’s going on in Ukraine and fearing for the safety of their friends and family prevents them from fully enjoying the experience.

“It feels like a dream,” said Yana. “Physical bodies are here, but the emotions are not fully here.” 

Growing up Yana’s grandparents always repeated a common saying to her ‘Тільки б не було війни’, which roughly translates to ‘if only there would be no war’ and carries the sentiment that the most important thing in life is to have peace. Yana never took the saying seriously or thought it would apply to her in the 21st century.

Now she knows that it is untrue. And so she keeps repeating it to herself… if only there would be no war, if only there would be no war. 

To donate to the family’s GoFundMe visit https://gofund.me/c191bbe8.

Translation services provided by Ksenia Tolmazin. 

Clara@smdp.com