Natalia Studinsky remembers the explosions, the children “sleeping in bathtubs and hallways,” and a Russian rocket flashing by over her family’s apartment building and hitting not far away.
Being interviewed now, in a peaceful Evanston park, she cannot get the terrifying reality of recent life in Ukraine out of her mind.
“So many sirens and air raids every day,” she says.
Natalia and her two sons, Nikita, 17, and Tima, 12, arrived in Evanston two weeks ago, with only clothing and personal items that they could fit into suitcases and backpacks.
But still in Kyiv is Natalia’s husband and the boys’ father, Andrii. Adult men are not allowed to leave Ukraine, as they are needed in the war against the invading Russians.
Having such a piece missing in their family picture may be the worst part of all.
Natalia says her younger son Tima “is very sad. He was very close with his dad, and cries all the time.”
Nikita says “I also have nightmares and I’m very afraid, but I need to be calm because I’m now the man of the house.”
The house where they’re staying in Evanston is warm and welcoming, as the Studinskys start to navigate life in a new country — perfecting their English, registering the boys in school, and ultimately, looking for an apartment of their own and a job for Natalia.
And there was already a Kyiv connection in the Evanston house before Natalia and her sons even got here.
The Studinskys are staying with Kostya and Natasha Katz and their three children, Lyla (12), Levi (10), and Elan (6).
Incredibly, Kostya Katz and Andrii Studinsky were childhood friends in Kyiv, but have not seen each other in person since Kostya left Ukraine at age 15, ultimately ending up in Evanston.
“I have not been back to Kyiv in 31 years,” Kostya says.
The two childhood friends have stayed in touch. Kostya also knew about Natalia, Nikita and Tima, but the first time he ever met them in person “was two weeks ago at O’Hare Airport.”
“We actually didn’t know what to do when the war started,” Kostya explains.
He and his wife Natasha, who is from Odessa, Ukraine (she and Kostya met in college in Illinois) then found out about a U.S. program called U4U, “United 4 Ukraine.”
Sponsored refugees can come to America for two years, with extensions at least possible in theory.
The Studinskys applied and were accepted, with the Katzs as sponsors.
It was OK with the U.S. for Andrii Studinsky to come as well, but Ukrainian policies are keeping him home for the war effort.
Andrii’s job in building inspection ended when the Russians invaded. Now he’s volunteering to deliver medicine and supplies to those in need.
Natalia’s job as a party and event planner also became a casualty of the Russians.
“That was my life and I was so happy,” Natalia says of her work. She’s hoping to find a similar job in or near Evanston.
With so much uncertainty over the war, the Studinskys don’t know when or if they’ll be able to return to Ukraine, or if Andrii will be able to come to the United States.
“Nobody knows when this will end,” Natalia says.
And, adds Nikita, “I only want peace in my homeland.”
Turning the Katz household of five into a household of eight with almost no notice has been a challenge to say the least. Kostya, who works in financial services, and Natasha, who is a real estate agent, have reached out to friends, but complete strangers have also helped.
Natasha asked on social media if anyone had old bicycles that Nikita and Tima could have.
Within a day, Natasha says, Mack’s Bike Shop called.
Everyone went down there, thinking, Natasha says, that the bikes would be used.
But she says that owner Sam Mack “pointed to a bunch of bikes and said which ones would you like?” The bikes were all brand new. “Okay, they’re yours. Helmets too.”
“It was amazing,” says Natalia. “There are such fine people here.”
Soon, the Studinsky boys will be starting school, Tima at Nichols (where Lyla Katz will also be a 7th grader), and Nikita at Evanston Township High School for his senior year.
Nikita is already planning to try out for the soccer team.
Standing in an Evanston park with his own family and with the Studinskys, Kostya Katz can’t help but reflect on the “complete upredictability” of life.
For years, Kostya says, he’s been trying to get his Ukranian childhood friend, Andrii, and Andrii’s wife and children to come to America to visit.
Now, Natalia, Nikita and Tima are in Evanston, but Andrii is in still a nation at war.
At least, however, Kostya says, his friend’s wife and sons “won’t have to sleep under air raids and missiles any more.”