February 16, 2023 | At the first-floor offices of the International Institute of Minnesota, case workers meet with newly arrived refugees who speak at least 20 combined languages from around the world. Maryna Kyrylkova – a recent arrival herself – adds to the mix in Refugee Services, speaking to her clients in Ukrainian as she helps them apply for work authorization and other support services.
Since the war with Russia began one year ago, almost 300 Ukrainians have found safety and support at the Institute.
Maryna, one of the Institute’s Ukraine Case Managers, arrived with her family last summer knowing just one person here. While pieces of her heart remain in Ukraine, she and her family have built a life here – and she’s helping others do the same.
“Working here makes me stronger because I can help people who are feeling the same experiences as my family,” Maryna says.
Deciding to leave
Two days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Maryna and her husband had seen enough. A bombing of the nearby military airport woke her family of six to sights and sounds of fires and helicopters.
Two hours north, closer to Kyiv, Maryna’s aunt filmed fighting and destruction. She texted the video to Maryna with a message, “You should leave. Some kind of hell happened around us.”
There was no decision to make. Keeping her children safe was all that mattered to Maryna.
Within two hours, her four children – ranging in age from 5 to 12 – filled one backpack each. Maryna’s husband carried one suitcase for the entire family. They climbed into their car, prepared to carry their belongings if needed. Then they left, driving away from their home and the scenic, rural town of Pylypcha, built along the Ros’ River.
“Where were we driving? We have no idea – just to the west. Far away, far away,” Maryna says. Her parents, grandparents and sister stayed behind, along with many of their friends.