Kristina Kovynieva is witness to the fact that one’s life can change in an instant.
Having grown up in Ukraine, she never imagined a neighboring country would invade her own, bombing buildings and destroying people’s lives. It would be like people in the U.S. fearing that one day Canada would do such a thing, she said.
But earlier this year, in Makariv, a settlement in Bucha Raion, in the Kyiv Oblast province where she lives, there were hints that Russia might attack. Then she and her neighbors started hearing gunshots nearby, such as what we hear when hunters are in our midst.
“You don’t think it will happen with you, but it happened,” said Kovynieva, who turned 29 on Thanksgiving Day.
She was sitting Monday in a warm, safe, comfortable home in Oakland, far away from the devastation Ukraine, which she fled last summer. In September, she came to live with Mark and Tanya Stevens, who contacted her through Uniting for Ukraine, a program President Joe Biden announced in April that helps Ukrainians come to the U.S. Kovynieva is forever grateful to the Stevenses, who have embraced her and her cat, Lion, which she brought with her.
“They gave me everything,” she said.
Kovynieva’s was a long, arduous journey to get from Ukraine to the U.S.
A public school English teacher, writer, book editor and small business owner, Kovynieva was living alone in her Makariv apartment, when the reality struck that Russia was invading. A friend called her at 6 a.m. and told her she should come and stay with her at her mother’s house.
Kovynieva left her apartment with nothing but her cat, a large, fluffy orange feline that she would not abandon. She stayed with her friends until a neighbor convinced them they should leave. He drove them to another Ukrainian city and from there, they headed to the Polish border.
People with children, dogs and cats walked across the border with just the clothes on their backs. It was terrible, Kovynieva said. Some friends in Poland took them in and they stayed three weeks. Eventually, Kovynieva found an American family living in Switzerland who would host her. She traveled there and stayed four months.
“They were teachers, they had two children, and it was a great present for the children,” she said. “They played with my cat. They supported me a lot.”
Kovynieva hoped to stay but found it very difficult because people spoke German and it would be hard to get a job, she said. Her host family, who are from Michigan, suggested she come to the U.S. where it would be easier for her because she speaks English. Kovynieva heard about Uniting for Ukraine, and in June, a volunteer from the program contacted her and ultimately found the Stevenses, with whom Kovynieva communicated twice via Zoom. In July, she got authorized to travel to the U.S.
Residents started returning to their homes in Makariv after the Russians left and she decided to go back there to visit before she left for the U.S. Her apartment building was bombed out and nearby buildings had been burned to the ground. The building was near the front lines of the war.
“It was not nice picture,” she recalled.
She got to visit her maternal grandmother, but they were unable to contact her uncle, Igor, who had left for military school to serve in the war. She still doesn’t know where he is and prays he is okay. A 15-year-old student of Koynieva was killed in the war, as were friends and acquaintances.
Kovynieva’s Russian parents divorced when she was 2 and her father remarried and moved to Russia. Her mother remarried when Kovynieva was 15 and moved to Russia as well. She is in contact with her mother, but she and her father, who is in the Russian military, don’t speak.
In late September, Kovynieva flew to Boston and Mark Stevens was at the airport to welcome her. They drove three hours to Oakland, arriving at midnight. She was exhausted, weary and in an unfamiliar country.
But the Stevenses, who have two grown children, two pug dogs and a little black rescue cat, made the transition comfortable for Kovynieva, who said they are kind and generous and she feels at home now. The Stevenses, who have hosted foreign exchange students in the past, say they are the lucky ones. Mark Stevens, 47, is a former Waterville police dispatcher and inspector for the state Fire Marshal’s Office who now is a fire protection manager for Avangrid and a part-time firefighter-EMT in Oakland.
He said Kovynieva is an amazing person. “We’re very honored and blessed to have the opportunity to meet her and to make her part of our family as well,” he said.
Tanya Stevens, 48, and the owner of a pre-school, called Kovynieva a very brave woman.
“She’s a lovely person,” she said. “She’s funny and she’s fun and she’s amazing.”
Kovynieva is considered a parolee and was told she must return to Ukraine in two years. There is a lot of paperwork to be done. She has applied for a permit to work in the U.S. and is anxiously awaiting approval, though she doesn’t know how long that will take.
She has a master’s degree in management and is earning another bachelors in languages. Her days are spent helping around the house and walking a lot — cars are too expensive in Makariv and she used public transportation and walked everywhere, she said.
She appears to be upbeat, but acknowledges she cries sometimes. She looks forward to celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time, and sharing Christmas with her new family.
Asked what she wants for Christmas, Kovynieva said she has all the clothes and food she needs, and hopes only for one thing: “A work permit.”