A freshman's experience evacuating Ukraine the day Russia invaded.
On February 24, at 5 a.m., Veronika Welch and her family were awakened in their apartment in suburban Kyiv by a phone call from her aunt on the other side of the city. For weeks there had been rumblings of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country where Veronika had been born and where her parents had served as missionaries since 1998.
Now it was happening. “The war has started,” Welch’s aunt announced over the phone with tears and heavy breathing.
Within hours, the Welch family had packed up their belongings and started the 70-hour evacuation. “It felt like my gut dropped,” Welch, who is now a freshman at Wheaton, said. “But I wasn’t shocked or sad or anything. I was just like, ‘of course this happened.’”
Seven months after that phone call, Ukranians continue to face the realities of Russian invasion. Once secure in their homes, many now helplessly watch as Russia soldiers and bombs destroy homes, schools, streets and businesses. UN data show that 7 million Ukrainians have fled to numerous countries, with the majority evacuating to Poland. Welch, whose parents ended up moving to Hungary, is among those grieving for their homeland.
A missionary kid raised in Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Welch has called Ukraine home her whole life. It’s where she was born in 2004. It’s where she went to school and church. It’s where her friends live, where she calls home. Her American dad and Ukrainian mom have served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students). They are also elders at their international church, which is affiliated with Assemblies of God World Missions, and stayed in Ukraine to pastor the church through the fall of 2021 even as many expats and missionaries were already leaving.
All that changed in February, when Russian forces attacked. When the invasion began, with hardly any time to process the news, Welch, her parents and her two younger sisters packed up their necessities in two hours and headed to the western side of the city where they spent the night at Welch’s grandmother’s house.
The week prior, they had a false evacuation, thinking it was time to leave. The family packed their belongings and went west for a week before returning, which gave Welch insight into what she would need to pack for the real event. She packed about a month’s worth of clothes into one backpack, managing to stuff in duct tape, a few pictures, and a stuffed animal. Much of her stuff, however, including the pictures on her walls, her guitar, and even a new dress she had not had the chance to wear, had to be left behind.
After spending the night with her grandmother, Welch and her family set out for the Polish border. It took three days and three nights in the car, even though it’s only 13 miles from their house to the border. The long wait was typical in the war’s early days. Western media reported that it regularly took people 60 hours to cross.
On the first cold night spent in the car, Welch remembers movement jostling her awake. A car had scratched the side of their vehicle, knocking off an air valve to one of their tires. The family carried on, but were confronted with another problem when they ran out of food. Shortages were widespread and the long lines across the border meant food was scarce.
Then something unexpected happened. Ukrainians living along the route brought from their homes hot tea and soup, bread, potatoes and pasta to share with the stalled refugees. “I think it was a miracle,” Welch said.
Welch was encouraged by these interactions. Even in wartime, she knew that Ukrainians would help even if her family ran out of supplies.
After 70 hours of travel, the Welches finally exited Ukraine and arrived in Poland. Upon their arrival, they were promptly granted refugee status, which includes education, housing and health care. Welch’s appreciation for Poland grew as the country welcomed in over 3 million Ukrainian refugees, almost 10 percent of their own population, with many staying as guests in private homes.
Polish generosity comes in part from a shared history of Russian aggression, as Soviet and Nazi policies in Poland and Ukraine in the early 20th century resulted in mass killing on an unprecedented human scale. Putin’s attack on Ukraine similarly demonstrated not just destruction and death, but an effort to obliterate a nation, something the Poles understand.
At first Welch wrestled with her status as a refugee, due to the stigma and poor treatment that many refugees suffer around the world. But she says she’s glad that her own story has shown the world that “it could happen to anyone.”
Finishing up her senior year of high school in Poland proved difficult for multiple reasons. Not only did she have to deal with processing the experience of watching news from back home, but she simultaneously needed to finish the end of high school online with classmates from her international school spread across 14 time zones.
During this time, Welch discovered that the people in her small hometown of Bucha had seen a massacre at the hands of Russian soldiers. Once an obscure Ukrainian town, Bucha became ground zero of the war’s brutality against civilians. Horrific stories of war spread across news stations around the world as allegations of war crimes increased.
“It was really weird seeing videos of supermarkets I’ve been to being on fire, cars being blown up and fire everywhere,” she said.
In June, her family returned to their home in Ukraine to gather some belongings and a sense of closure before Welch’s transition to college in the U.S. and the family’s move to Hungary.
Their neighbors watched over their house in the months they were away, but Russian looters still invaded the home. Although they did not steal much — a tablet and some jewelry — the looters left behind a chaotic mess. The family was disturbed that the house they had called home was in such a state of disrepair.
“I was processing the emotions of moving out and thinking, this is the last time I’m seeing my house, this is the last time I’m in this country for a while,” she said. “It felt like taking all the memories off the wall.”
When she traveled to the U.S. in June to prepare for her arrival at Wheaton, Welch knew that the American news cycle had begun to move on from Ukraine. The gap between her family’s ongoing distress and what seemed to be a growing sense of disinterest among Americans proved jarring.
“ kind of rough,” said Welch. “We did go through trauma debrief counseling in Turkey, so a little bit of that was unpacked, especially for my family since they’re also transitioning with me leaving. For me, transitioning to the U.S. is overwhelming because I’ve never lived here long term.”
At Wheaton, Welch says she has found that people are hesitant to talk with her about Ukraine. Despite the difficult experiences, however, Welch loves telling her story and answering people’s questions. She says telling people about Ukraine brings a bit of home to Wheaton.
“I understand that people don’t really know how to approach it, and it’s nice that they probably don’t want to offend, and they’re trying to be respectful of that, but if they’re curious I would love to talk about it,” Welch said.