Fleeing Ukraine, a mother joins her son in Columbus, welcomed by a local host family

When Ivan Bondar came to the United States as an exchange student in September 2021, little did he know that his life and the lives of those in his native Ukraine would be turned upside down.

Bondar recalls the night in February when he received a call from his mother Oksana. The Russians were bombing her adopted hometown of Odesa.

“I stayed up later than usual doing my homework here,” Ivan said. “There’s a time difference between here and the Ukraine, which is seven hours ahead. I received a call about 12 a.m. She called me, and I was like ‘Why are you up so early? What’s happening?’ and she was telling me she was hearing the bangs, like the bombs falling. Of course, it was a shock. It was a complete breakdown right away. I started checking the news with my shaking hands on my phone, and I received calls and texts from my friends, as well, who were also waking up because of the bombs because of that first big launch that Russia did on my country all over the infrastructure in all of the main cities, including Odesa.”

Ten months later, the Russians and Ukranians are still at war. But now, Oksana is in Columbus with her son, who stayed here for his senior year at Columbus East High School and helped bring her to America.

Fleeing conflict

The Bondars’ move to the United States wasn’t their first to get away from conflict.

The Russians and Ukranians began fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. Seeking a more stable environment, the Bondars, who were living in Krasnyi Luch in the Luhansk Region, moved to Odesa, a southern port city on the Black Sea, in 2018.

“It is not our first time running and starting our life again because in 2014, we ran out from the war and actually traveled all across the Ukraine in order to try to do something and start a new life, and eventually, we did end up in Odesa,” Ivan said. “After living there for two years, I decided to go for the exchange program and came over to the United States, and then the war happened. So this is our second time starting a new life.”

Ivan remembers being in ninth grade in Ukraine when one of the alums of an exchange program who had been in the United States came back to Ukraine and talked to his class about opportunities to travel to the United States and experience their culture for a full academic year.

”I just thought it would be a great opportunity to try,” Ivan said. “I wasn’t paying too much serious attention, and my mom was working two jobs at the time, so she was very busy with everything. I was just doing it by myself, passing all of these tests and submitting all of my documents. It was a lot of paperwork. I was having interviews with U.S. representatives who were working with my exchange program. Then one day over the spring of that year, I received a call from the director of the program who told me that I’m coming over to the U.S. It all started with, ‘I would just give it a shot. I would just like to try.’ But then when I was passing more and more periods of the program, it was getting more and serious, so I started treating it more seriously, and eventually I ended up coming over.”

Things were going smoothly for Ivan until that Feburary night when he got the call from Oksana.

“I needed to go through all of my everyday actions here in the U.S., going to school, going to practices and stuff, but all of that was through the constant thinking of, “Oh my God, they’re over there. It is all happening to them. People who I know are dying. They’re in danger. My mom is in danger,’” Ivan said. “It was a madness honestly for the first couple of weeks, then we all started getting used to it and we started to build decisions like setting some solutions for her to run away because simply being afraid of her state. Then after a couple of weeks passed, I started thinking from the helper position. I needed to start raising up some money for that. I wanted to help the community. I wanted to try to do something over there.”

Bringing Oksana here

Oksana moved to Lithuania for a couple months this spring. In July, she and Ivan decided that the time was right to get her to the United States.

Through the United for Ukraine program, an American citizen can sign a document acknowledging that they will support a Ukranian refugee. So Ivan talked to his host family, the Machavarianis.

“Since this is not the first time when I am burning the book of my life and opening a new one basically from the start page, it’s not this hard-to-complete decision at that point in time,” Oksana said through Ivan, who played the role of interpreter. “Since me and my son were affected by the Russian war for such a long period of time, we needed to start a new life renewing them completely. My son basically was the main influencer for me to come over here since I raised him up all by myself. He didn’t have a father. I believe that this is where he belongs; therefore, I belong in the same place.”

So on Sept. 12, Oksana flew to Chicago, and Ivan and the Machavarianis went to pick her up.

“I was having a big relief, of course, because this whole time, I was thinking I might not be able to see my son at all for the rest of my life, which might have been a very short time because of the madness over there,” Oksana said. “People are dying over there and suffering and so on. The U.S. developed the process of finding all of the documents and eventually flying here. I was so much worried about language barriers in the airports since I do not know any English. I was worried about documents that might not be eligible, or something might happen or my flight might get canceled. But then as soon as I saw my son, I was bursting in tears. I was very happy about seeing him.”

Ivan, too, was thrilled to be reunited with his mother.

“It was amazing,” Ivan said. “It was everything that I had hoped for. I was able to live here for a year almost all by myself and experience a completely different country and distractions from everywhere. But then, I needed her, and I still need her, and I’m so happy that she’s here.”

Oskana, however, has not yet been able to able to fully experience all of the things that new immigrants to the United States usually experience.

“One of the main difficulties is the language barrier because I believe the people in the younger age are able to learn a new language and catch up more easily than my age,” she said. “Then as well, the documents for my work, since I’m waiting for my Social Security number that I’m eligible for through the United for Ukraine program, those difficulties were the main ones. They’re still going. Everything is ahead. I will be able to experience more good stuff in the United States. I’m very happy to finally be safe and finally be together with my son.”

Twist of irony

The Machavarianis hail from the same part of the world as the Bondars. Alex Machavariani is a native of the country of Georgia, while Arina Machavariani is a Russian native.

Given the nature of their native countries’ conflict, the fact that a native Russian is helping a couple of Ukranians isn’t lost on the Bondars.

“These people have proven to me and to my family complete opposite from the general Russian atmosphere by their actions and not only their words,” Ivan said. “They’re trying to do lots of stuff for us, and I understand how much significant work and patience that takes.”

The Bondars and Machavarianis have become involved in a Slavic community in Columbus that includes immigrants from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

“I have never heard bad stuff about Ukraine from them, even though some of them are Russian, some are Belarusian,” Ivan said.

The Machavarianis have seven kids, including three sons who are swimmers. The oldest of those sons, Misha, is a standout sophomore at East.

Last year, Ivan joined the swim team at East. He ran track last spring and continued swimming in the offseason with Club Olympia Swim Team.

“Being able to distract myself with practices and grow up in the sport that I love and really have a passion for has been very significant to me,” Ivan said.

Ivan, who is back swimming for the Olympians this season, is grateful for all the support he and Oksana have received from not only East, but the entire Columbus community.

“I have been raising money for her and for the Ukranian people who are suffering from the war,” he said. “I cannot appreciate enough how much Columbus East has helped us from the material standpoint. I’ve always felt emotional support, as well, from all of the students and all of the teachers. All of them are still trying to check in with me, asking about her. They’re really interested, and they really care. Me and her really appreciate how much they have done for us and still are doing for us.”

Eye on the homeland

Ivan and Oksana haven’t forgotten about their friends and family in Ukraine.

Ivan has been texting all of his friends and communicating with them as much as he has been able to. Unfortunately for them, Odesa has been on the receiving end of attacks the past couple months and has experienced electricity problems and Internet shutdowns.

“So communication has been interrupted, which has been worrying me so much about their safety and stuff,” Ivan said.

Oksana, meanwhile, has been communicating with relatives back in Ukraine.

“I’m trying to communicate with the rest of my and Ivan’s family that are over there and with all of my friends that are partly in Odesa and partly all over the world because of what war brings,”she said. “I’m happy, even though Odesa has a lot of communication problems right now because of the Internet shutdowns, I still appreciate the things and the ability to carry on communication that we have right now and try to check in with them as much as possible.”

Christmas in Ukraine is not until Jan. 7, so their New Years celebration is bigger. The Bondars are looking forward to their first Christmas together in America.

The future

Ivan, who speaks almost fluent English, is set to graduate from East in May. He has been applying to colleges and for financial aid and wants to study finance.

“I’m trying to get my education over here in the United States,” he said. “I would like to travel to the Ukraine later to do some volunteering and see all my relatives. I was trying to do some fundraising for the Ukranian people and get them as much help as I could. I still would like to my country after I’ll be able to settle down in the US and get citizenship and get an education and obtain a degree in the field of study that I love. That’s been my goal for the next couple of years.”

Having moved three times in the past eight years, Oksana is ready to begin a new life in America and isn’t anxious to return to Ukraine.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of sense personally for me of doing that and not stay in the United States because I have left all of my property in the Ukraine when I was running to Europe, which was eventually destroyed/disowned with all of this chaos that’s going on all around,” Oksana said. “The only person that is strongly holding me back in the Ukraine is my mother, who I would of course love to visit. But with the huge challenges that my life gave to me, I, as well as the whole rest of my nation, am not trying not to think ahead for so many years, but just trying to thank God for surviving this day and living this day and being able to live safely.”