Some fleeing the war in Ukraine have found open arms in North County San Diego. Rancho Santa Fe resident Susann Fishman has been making connections, finding spare rooms and full hearts to help make a welcoming home for Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to leave their own.
“People opening up their homes is wonderful,” said Fishman. “The outpouring of love and support for Ukrainians has been tremendous, I’ve been very touched by all of this.”
Fishman splits her time between Rancho Santa Fe and Dallas, where she has also worked with Afghanistan refugees in the resettlement program. She came out to San Diego this spring primarily on vacation but instead went to work, wanting to help Ukrainians find homes in San Diego County when they crossed the border.
“I felt that I could be useful to the refugees—they’re very scared, they’re very exhausted spending days at the border in Mexico,” she said. “These are strange environments for these people, especially coming from trauma.”
She signed up with UkraineTake Shelter.com, an independent platform helping to connect Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts and housing, developed by Harvard students. Focusing on women and children, Fishman scrambled to find safe places for them to stay.
The cause feels personal to Fishman, who is Swedish-American with roots in Finland. When Finland was invaded by the Nazis during Lapland War, her mother was born in a refugee camp in Sweden. Many family and friends still live in Finland, which has the longest border with Russia: “I’m very nervous, it’s very unsettling times right now.”
Communicating with people via WhatsApp, working her connections, reaching out to friends and posting on Nextdoor, she was able to find a home in Encinitas for a 24-year old Ukranian with a four-year-old who didn’t speak any English, didn’t know anybody in America and had just $200 to her name. She then found a home in Whispering Palms for a 24-year-old named Lesia and her friend Victoria Bradshaw in Del Mar took in a Ukrainian mother named Maria and her two children.
Fishman has helped to provide refugees with a pro-bono attorney to help with complicated immigration issues, lined up dental care, raised money through fundraising, gathered items donated through Nextdoor and even helped get the children into school.
“We do what we can,” Fishman said. “This could happen to us…I don’t think we should take anything for granted. I would hope somebody would take me in if I was in that situation. You want to be there for someone in need of course. That’s a no-brainer for me.”
One day Rancho Santa Fe resident Suki Low saw Fishman’s post on Nextdoor asking about housing a Ukrainian refugee and two days later, Lesia was here.
“The first week of the war I had a strong sense or feeling that I wanted to open my house and host a refugee,” Low said. “I put out a prayer for a young female and it’s interesting because as it turns out, Lesia put out that same prayer.”
Low had an extra room in her Whispering Palms home that she shares with roommate Suzanne Finder and she immediately replied yes to the request. On April 9, they welcomed Lesia, who had not slept for four days while waiting at the border in Tijuana.
“I cried for two days straight,” Low said. “It’s been really emotional for me, obviously for her too.”
A psychology student, Lesia has been living in Kyiv for the last five years and had just gotten a new job working in IT. “No one could think that war can be started,” she said.
It was her mother who called her and encouraged her to leave—Lesia got out of Ukraine a week before the first bombs dropped.
She went first to Munich with her mother and then to Cancun where her sister lives: “It was a little bit dangerous and I decided to move to a place that was safer and I could get some work,” Lesia said.
Traveling all alone, she ended up in a refugee camp in Tijuana for two days and then stayed in a hotel for two days before she was able to cross into the United States and to Rancho Santa Fe via Fishman’s connection.
Finder said Lesia is quiet and sweet and they have tried to give her space and her own time. When she felt like coming out of her room her first week, she took her to Del Mar and walked on the beach. They then stopped at Whole Foods where Lesia picked out groceries and made her hosts a beautiful lunch that she lovingly insisted on making.
She watches Ukranian news on the internet and uses WhatsApp to connect with her friends and family, some of whom do not want to leave Ukraine. She is grateful to be in America and for the women who took her in.
Lesia’s outlook is that she cannot change what happened to her, being uprooted from her life. What she must do now is try to move forward in this new country—it’s very important to her to find her own place and a job in IT, while she would love to finish school she said she can’t do both.
“I don’t have time to think about what has happened, I have to think about trying to fix my life,” Lesia said. “The emotions change every day.”
Originally from Kyiv, Maria, her husband Yevhen and two children had been living in Bucha for the last four years: “We had a happy life in this town,” she said—her 9-year-old daughter Dasha played violin and her son Vova loved playing football.
She had heard the rumors that Russia planned to invade Ukraine but said practically no one believed it: “We think that it is impossible,” Maria said.
The early days of war lived near the airport
“We just all hoped that it would stop very fast because we couldn’t imagine it would go further and further,”
bombing every day, “The house was vibrating, the airplanes were always flying, they didn’t stop, it was constant. They do this and they don’t stop.”
It wasn’t safe to be near the windows to they chose to go to their basement, where it was very cold and there was no light. They had internet and phone service but it was spotty and her sister Tatiana in Los Angeles pleaded with her to leave.
“It was very dangerous to evacuate Bucha because they shot in our cars. Several neighbors and their families got shot in their cars,” she said, her voice fragile with tears. “It’s very scary to take children and go by car when you know that it’s dangerous.”
Tatiana continued to ask why the family stayed and Maria didn’t know what to say: It was terrifying to stay, terrifying to try to go. After enduring 11 days of war, they decided to leave on March 4: “We had no hope that it would stop.”
The family left everything and went by foot about 4 miles to the next town, aiming to evacuate out of Kyiv, “When you go with two kids it’s quite difficult and very dangerous. Unfortunately, it wasn’t safe because there was shooting and bombing, it was very near and close.”
The children were very frightened.
They eventually got to Irpin, where they joined many, many others trying to get to Kyiv by train. People stood crowded and anxious on the train platform and bombs fell so close Maria was sure they were aiming for them. People were afraid and some ran away when but Maria and her husband understood there was nowhere else to go, so they stayed on the platform and waited for a train for almost five hours.
“This five hours was the longest in my life,” she said.
The train they caught was the very last train because the next day, the Russians destroyed the railway from Irpin to Kyiv. “I’m very lucky.”
Maria’s parents Olena and Volodymyr lived in Kyiv and they did not want to go but once they saw how frightened the family was and what they had experienced, they agreed to leave with them to west Ukraine. The next day they evacuated by car in a huge traffic snarl— a three-hour trip took 24 hours the distance, a tiresome for her parents and her children.
They went to the Khmelnitsky region where Maria hoped that they could stay there and the children could go to a local school online, and get her daughter back in violin lessons,
“I just wanted to have a normal life and know that my kids were safe but unfortunately it wasn’t normal because I was constantly afraid,” she said, the sounds of airplanes overhead haunted her and the stories of Russian occupants planting bombs in children’s toys or hidden in a homes in a washing machine made her fear for her children’s safety. “I couldn’t sleep at night in that town.”
“I didn’t understand why it is so cruel that is the most painful for me.”
After about a month, Maria could no longer be there. Tatiana, who had practically ordered her sister to go, arranged travel for the family and Maria still does not know how she managed it. Maria’s husband, a surgeon, would stay behind in Ukraine.
“We’ve been together since we were young, 19 years old, and now I’m 41. I couldn’t live without him and it’s very hard for me,” she said, choked with tears. “It was a very hard decision for me.”
With her children, she traveled to Warsaw and she was in communication with her “angels” Fishman and Bradshaw about a home in San Diego. She flew from Warsaw to London and from London to Mexico City and then onto Tijuana.
Maria spent four days at the border in a very long queue, waiting for her turn. Her son would spend his eighth birthday at the border on April 3.
Maria and her children were welcomed by Bradshaw in their Del Mar home. Vova was certain that all the toys waiting for him at Bradshaw’s house were for him.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Maria said of Bradshaw. “She is a very kind and amazing person. Victoria has a big heart, she loves everybody.
Like the others, Bradshaw just felt moved to help.
“When Susann called, it was just an immediate ‘yes’,” Bradshaw said. “I feel very grateful. The minute I said ‘yes’ I just felt elated because it’s so hard to watch without doing anything. This puts it into action, what we can do to help these people on the other side of the world.”
“I can’t say enough how fulfilling and rewarding it has been for me.”
With Fishman’s help Maria’s children were enrolled in Encinita’s Country Day School. Bradshaw drives the family to school every day and Maria said it’s the best school they’ve ever had. The school has taken in a total of six students from Ukraine, providing them with scholarships and a safe place to be after what they have been through.
“I think when you have an opportunity to make a difference, it’s a happy day to be able to rise to the occasion,” said Kathleen Porterfield, founder and executive director of the school.
Maria’s parents are now in LA and they are working on moving them down to San Diego as well. Maria is very grateful for her new home and for the kindest of strangers.
“It’s something like a miracle. I know that I’m happy and that I’m lucky but I have a lot of tears,” she said.
Away from the harsh and horrible sounds of war, knowing her children are safe, “Here I can sleep.”
Across the world, total strangers are opening their doors—as Fishman said, Poland, Romania and Sweden are full of Ukrainian refugees but there are only so many rooms.
“It’s Europe’s biggest crisis since World War II,” Fishman said. “Millions need to find shelter.”
She believes Europe has better social services but refugees are coming to America and once they are here, Fishman believes in her heart people will do whatever they can to help. Her neighbors in San Diego County have not disappointed her.
“This is the first time I’ve done something like this but I was raised with foster brothers and sisters, I’m certain that’s a great reason for calling that I felt,” Low said.
“It’s lovely to see everybody come together, all around the world, and what we can get done together,” Bradshaw said.
A GoFundMe for Maria has been set up at gofundme.com/f/reunite-with-ukrainian-family