‘I want to be safe and close to my loved ones’: A family’s unfinished journey to Alabama from war in Ukraine

For 48 hours, Tatiena Babicheva sat in a Kyiv bomb shelter with her two young children.

They listened as Russian bombs and artillery fell on Ukraine’s historic capital city – a place that Babicheva, 25, has called home her entire life. Alongside her were scores of other women, children and elderly people clutching the few personal belongings they were allowed to bring, all fearful about what fate had unfolded on the war-torn streets above, according to recent interviews with Babicheva and her Alabama-based family.

“It breaks our hearts,” said Lawrence Gralapp, who is married to Babicheva’s mother, Olena, during an interview outside of their RV in a south Alabama trailer park. “Those people are going through so much and our family is distraught.”

Although Babicheva did not know it at that time, those two days in a bomb shelter were the start of a difficult and life-changing journey that may not be complete for months or even years.

The war in Ukraine has seen approximately 12 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes, with 5.6 million leaving for neighboring countries. The evacuation is the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. While most will likely remain in Poland and some of the other 27 European Union countries, at least 100,000 are expected to arrive in the United States at some point.

It’s not yet clear what that will look like or where most of the 100,000 people will live. Many are likely to eventually make their way to states and cities with a higher population of Ukrainian expats, like Texas, California and New York.

But Babicheva and her two children will come to lower Alabama. They have nowhere else to go.

Like so many others living in Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine, Babicheva discovered that the home she shared with her children had been destroyed. At that time, Russian troops invading from nearby Belarus had made progress on the outskirts of Kyiv, raising fears that the city could be overrun.

Babicheva decided to evacuate.

She drove her children and a 70-year-old family friend to an evacuation station where they boarded a train headed to western Ukraine, far from the main pockets of fighting and closer to the protections of NATO countries in western Europe.

Through the country’s bleak winter landscape, the train continued west for over two days, according to Babicheva’s mother, Olena Gralapp, 45, who has lived in lower Alabama for the past five years and has never met her grandchildren. Olena Gralapp recently told Reckon about her family’s evacuation from Kyiv and the heavy burden of financially and emotionally supporting them as they survive in a foreign country and navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.

“After the train arrived they had to walk in snow for 18 hours to reach [the] Polish border,” she said tearfully. “I still cannot believe this is happening in my country. Tatiena walked through the cold night with my grandchildren and a 70-year-old friend who is like another mother to them. It [is] dangerous and they are now stuck until they can come here.”

Although Babicheva and her children are now safe in Germany after a series of additional train journeys through Poland, she left behind more than just her home. Her friends, job and the support network she has relied on since her mother left for the U.S. half a decade ago.

Despite escaping her wartorn home, being displaced as a single mother has taken its toll.

“I feel diluted,” she told Reckon in a WhatsApp message. “The psyche cannot withstand the pressure. It is very difficult to find a place in a foreign country. I want to be safe and close to my loved ones.”

“I don’t know how long my strength will last,” she added.

Adding to the tragedy of losing her home, her grandparents are still missing from their Ukrainian village and haven’t been seen or heard from since the war began, according to Babicheva’s mother, who said that her own mental health had dramatically deteriorated since the war began in late February.

“I have a pain in my heart, and I cannot take it much more,” she said, adding that she rarely sleeps and is unable to work because of stress and depression. “I remember the fun when my children were young and now my family is lost and trapped. I just want to hold them again and give them a good life.”

She met Lawrence, a U.S. military veteran and former river boat captain, on a date in Kyiv seven years ago. They later married and moved to the U.S. At that time, Babichieva, who was married to a Russian man, declined to leave Ukraine. Babicheva’s two brothers, still children at the time, went with their mother. Both now live in Alabama.

Babicheva eventually divorced her Russian husband after winning a custody battle over their children, now aged three and four and a half. After that, she decided that it was time to leave Ukraine for the U.S..

But the process has not been easy.

Immigration Troubles

Babicheva and her children were approved for family-based green cards back in October 2019, long before the prospect of war with Russia was on the horizon and the current administration planned to allow 100,000 Ukrainian refugees asylum.

But her stepfather said that the process has been slowed because of President Trump-era immigration policies and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s not easy to come in or leave,” said Lawrence Gralapp. “My wife didn’t leave the country to see her grandkids when they were born because of what Trump was doing to the immigration department. People were terrified and we were worried she wouldn’t get back in because of how badly immigrants were being treated. Like criminals. Then Covid hit and everything felt impossible. We just want to bring Tatiena and the kids here.”

There is currently a record-breaking backlog of immigration applications within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It has exacerbated the country’s current hiring crisis and added greater wait times for refugees and asylum seekers who are trying to leave places like Afghanistan and Ukraine.

President Joe Biden recently announced a raft of changes that should accelerate the process and eventually clear the backlog.

But it’s unclear how those changes will affect Babichieva, who has already had to transfer her immigration case from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to Frankfurt, which is also facing a large Covid-related backlog.

In the meantime, Babichieva and her two children are surviving on the kindness of a German family that took them in and money sent by her family in Alabama.

Babicheva could begin working in Germany under a new European Union scheme introduced for Ukrainian refugees, but doing so could possibly complicate her and her children’s pending immigration to the United States, said Lawrence. That means her only source of income has been her mother and stepfather, who have so far sent her much of the profit from the recent sale of their house.

But the money is running out.

“The only money we have left is to cover our own living costs and build a modest house on the land we own, which will be where Tatiena and her children will hopefully live,” said Lawrence Gralapp, who is being assisted by Belong, a Mobile, Ala.-based group that helps immigrants and their families. “We cannot afford to risk all our futures. And when the time comes, we’ll have plane tickets and immigration expenses to cover. It’s overwhelming for all of us.”

While their main priority is to bring Tatiena and her kids to the U.S., the Gralapps have grander plans.

“I love Ukraine and I love its people and I want to help resettle as many of them as possible,” said Lawrence Gralapp, who is currently trying to help 50 other Ukrainians families move to Alabama. “I have 1,000 acres and I would love for someone to help me put Katrina-style trailers on it or small condo type homes so these people have somewhere to restart their lives.”

He added: “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I’m willing to do it if we can get the funding. I challenge people like Elon Musk to help us do that. Helping is what Americans do and I want to be part of that.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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