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A Ukrainian family with ties to Brainerd fights to stay safe

For Maryna Kyrylkova and her family, Pilipcha, Ukraine, is home. It was where she had started her own business, it was a place she felt safe. Early Friday morning, Kyrylkova sent a message saying, “Hi. We have packed some stuff and are leaving our home.”

Four kids and their mother standing next to a van
Taking a quick break after leaving their home, Friday, Feb. 25, 7-year-old Diriia(L), 11-year-old Vova, 12-year-old Sofiia and 5-year-old Ksemia, pose with their mother, Maryna Kyrylkova, on the side of the road.
Contributed / Maryna Kyrylkova

BRAINERD — Sitting in a brick-lined room just before 6 a.m. Friday, Feb. 25, the woman shuffled around, yet to make the decision that would send her and her family driving away from the place she grew up, the place Maryna calls home, the place she wanted to raise her family — Ukraine.

“Yeah, we're thinking about it, but it's a hard decision,” Maryna Kyrylkova said during a Zoom call Thursday night. “We didn’t know, maybe we could help (with) something here. But if it will be bombed near our homes, we should leave for the kids, to get them to (a) safe place.”

Three people on a zoom call
Hours before fleeing her home, Maryna Kyrylkova talks with Mark Bjorlo(UR) and reporter,Tim Speier, about what is happening with her family in Ukraine.
Contributed / Maryna Kyrylkova

In the early morning hours Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared war in a televised address to his nation, causing millions around the world to worry about those in Ukraine, including family, relatives and friends. Among them is Mark Bjorlo of East Gull Lake, former pastor of Journey North Community Church in Baxter.

Bjorlo met Kyrylkova as an 11-year-old girl almost 24 years ago while visiting the village of Kniazhyky in Ukraine on a mission trip with Grace Fellowship Church in Brooklyn Park. The two have remained in touch over all that time, and Bjorlo returned to Ukraine several times with that church as well as Journey North. The Baxter church has a long-standing relationship with the Baptist Union in Ukraine through its association with a movement of churches called Converge North Central.

“Maryna’s grandmother lived in that village,” Bjorlo said. “She would spend a big chunk of the summer with her sister Ira, in that town with her babushka. We were doing work, putting on a day camp for kids, and they were kids in the day camp.”

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Bjorlo was on edge as he thought about the difficult journey ahead for Kyrylkova and her loved ones.

“I was a little concerned, because I know that it's probably doable on a tank of gas under normal circumstances,” Bjorlo said. But these aren’t normal circumstances.

Maryna

For Kyrylkova and her family, Pilipcha, Ukraine, is home. It was where she started her own business, it was a place she felt safe. Until now.

Family standing together.
Family photo taken 10 days prior to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.
Contributed / Maryna Kyrylkova

While raising a family, one must often make tough decisions when thinking about what is best. Those decisions become harder when made in between rocket attacks and air raid sirens.

“Maybe 30 minutes earlier, it was some planes flying in the air,” Kyrylkova said. “We just could hear the voice of planes, not some attacks. Yesterday at five o'clock, maybe 5:50, it was maybe six or seven (planes that) bomb attacked the airport, which is near to us. We saw the lights ... flying fire and I was very afraid — scared.”

Two girls reading a book to a dog.
Ksemia Kyrylkova(L) and her sister, Diriia Kyrylkova read a book to their dog.
Contributed / Maryna Kyrylkova

Kyrylkova and her family live next to an airport on the other side of the Ros’ River . Sometimes used by the military, she said the attacks they are seeing made her think about the safety of her four children: Sofiia, 12; Vova, 11; Diriia, 7; and Ksemia, 5.

A few months ago, Kyrylkova was running a profitable home textile business. Delivering clothes and paying bills was no problem.

“It was peaceful,” she said.

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There's no opportunity now, Kyrylkova said. They have some groceries saved up and she thinks they can make the food last about a month with rationing, jokingly saying the “Ukrainian people, we could eat potatoes with olive oil for months.” It was the one time during the interview Kyrylkova smiled instead of crying.

Going to work Monday and Tuesday, Kyrylkova said it wasn't until Wednesday she decided to stay home with the family.

“Locked in our neighborhood, we couldn't go (outside) from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” Kyrylkova said. “Government asked us to stay at home. Use the basement for safety.”

With Russian troops moving deeper into Ukraine, Kyrylkova said about half of her family still lives in Russia. A few days ago she was no longer able to contact them, and she believes the communication loss was no accident.

Leaving?

Shortly before 1 p.m. Friday in Ukraine, Kyrylkova sent a message: “Hi. We have packed some stuff and are leaving our home.”

The previous night, on the Zoom call, Kyrylkova talked about staying in their home, explaining how her sewing skills could be useful in the coming days of the war and even how sewing could be used to trade for goods and services as the country rebuilds.

Six people in a family selfie.
Maryna Kyrylkova takes a family selfie with her husband, Vova Kyrylkova, and their children, 12-year-old Sofiia(BL), 11-year-old Vova, 5-year-old Ksemia(FL) and 7-year-old Diriia while on vacation in Kiev.
Contributed / Maryna Kyrylkova

“I care about my kids and here I have a home, I have a car, I have some food, and I have sewing machines, which I could use to make money,” Kyrylkova said.

Throughout the conversation, Kyrylkova remained steadfast in the love of her country and the opportunities it has provided her and her family.

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Growing up and having kids, Kyrylkova always believed in Ukraine. Selling clothing to make a living, Kyrylkova said they have an opportunity to have money to provide a living while working in Ukraine. “It was (a) good living, not bad. We could live here and live good.”

In a few short messages, the woman who the night before was talking about making a living by remaining to sew, was now packing up her family and everything they needed to survive into a vehicle to leave their home, not knowing where they would go.

The sudden decision to leave her home happened minutes after the Zoom call ended. Kyrylkova said a rocket attack was too close to home and they no longer felt safe.

“There aren't attacks at places like military base or army, it usually attacked private residence homes where kids (are) living, that people live in, and it's a huge danger to stay,” Kyrylkova said. “It would be good if people understand that we are in danger, we have a problem with safety in our homes, on our land.”

A few hours later Kyrylkova reported they were driving to Lviv, though it would take longer than expected.

“The traffic to Lviv is so busy, usually it takes seven hours from Kyiv, now 30 or more,” Kyrylkova wrote.

After six hours of driving, they had hardly made a dent into their drive, but the lines were moving. “Slowly, but moving,” she said.

“I hope that Ukraine will have a future, but it's hard to believe because we have a really scary enemy,” Kyrylkova said. “I don't know how much time it would be — to be finished.”

TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email tim.speier@brainerddispatch.com .

Related Topics: UKRAINEEAST GULL LAKE
Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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