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  • Linda Palmer

Elizabeth (Henry) Groff Faces the Reality of War in Ukraine Shortly After Reuniting with Family

This is the much-anticipated follow-up to Reshuffled contributor Elizabeth (Henry) Groff’s story after reuniting with her sister in Ukraine.

After returning home to the U.S., Tanya and I kept in touch through social media. I was hesitant and unsure of the relationship Tanya and I would be able to build after 20 years apart. But I had hope that God reunited us for a reason.

On January 28, 2022, Tanya gave birth to my nephew Vanya, and on the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I will never forget this moment. My husband and I were sitting on the couch watching a movie. We received a phone call from one of my husband’s brothers asking if I and my family in Ukraine were okay. I immediately realized what he was referring to and, after turning on the news, our worst fears became a reality. While the news was reporting a buildup of the Russian military near the border of Ukraine and many predicted a Russian invasion of Ukraine for months, it was still hard to believe what we were seeing on the news.

I immediately texted Tanya who at that time was living in Oleshky, a smidge Northwest of Crimea. Her response filled me with worry… “The war has started. There are helicopters over our heads and explosions in the distance.” My husband and I began to pray. I spent all night on the couch with my eyes glued to the news on the tv and keeping in touch with Tanya.

Over the next few weeks, as the entire world watched devastation trample Ukraine, Tanya, her son, grandparents, and father took shelter in the basement of their apartment building. As the war continued, those with the means fled Russia-occupied regions of Ukraine and others were evacuated. In Tanya’s region, all banks closed, and food became scarce. Vanya became sick and had no formula left. It was at this time that I fully realized the purpose of God’s perfect timing of our reunion. I can’t help her from the United States, and I can’t lose her again. Only one option remained – get her to safety.

My lightbulb moment led me to begin a conversation with Tanya about getting her and two-month-old Vanya out of Ukraine. After a lot of deliberation and hesitation from Tanya, she decided that she would only leave if I was waiting for her on the other side of the border. She realized that Vanya may not be able to survive the war and if he did, there was no future in Ukraine for him. It is because of her immense love for her son that Tanya decided to leave her family and her country behind. The next challenge was getting them out.

Confirmation from Tanya threw me and my family into hours of research: Is anyone leaving or evacuating Tanya’s region? Is it safe? How can we get them out? At one point my adoptive dad seriously considered renting a car in Romania and driving into the unoccupied region of Ukraine to meet Tanya and Vanya and just drive them out. Once they are out and safe with us, what’s next? Can we apply for a visa? If denied, where do we go from here?

With a tentative plan in mind, many unanswered questions, and a lot of faith in God, my dad and I set out for Europe. On March 27, my husband and I had our big wedding. On March 28, I prepared for my trip and celebrated my birthday. And on March 29, my dad and I flew out to Bucharest, Romania. During this time, Tanya began searching for a ride out by posting on a local message board and we reached out to our family and friends for support.

After about 12 days in Bucharest and countless horror stories of fleeing children, women, and whole families being shot and killed, my dad and I began to lose hope and were beginning to make plans to return home on April 7. But on April 6, I had a prayer call with my Operation Christmas Child family. At the exact moment that we were praying for Tanya and Vanya to find a ride out of Ukraine, my phone lit up with a message from Tanya that read, “I found a ride from Oleshky to Mykolaiv (about halfway to the border) and we leave tomorrow morning.” It was another family fleeing Ukraine. Praise God!

Tanya packed a giant suitcase of essentials only – important documents, baby formula, clothes, and anything Vanya would need as she didn’t know how long the trip would take. She was scared because another little human depended on her, and she didn’t know where they were going or what would happen.

Once she got to Mykolaiv, our Christian community rallied around us as we found a church to host Tanya and Vanya. They fed her, gave her a warm place to spend the night, and packed her a bag of food for the road. The next ride from Mykolaiv to the border of Moldova was with a “random guy” whom Tanya found through her research. This made us nervous. We gave him half of the fare at the beginning of the trip and promised the rest when Tanya and Vanya were safely delivered to the border. Once they arrived at the Ukraine and Moldova border, our friends at Heroes International helped her cross the border and drove her all the way to Bucharest, Romania where my dad and I were waiting for them. The entire trip took about 48 hours because there were so many Russian-controlled checkpoints and city curfews. When they finally arrived, it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders because now they were safe with me. I could finally breathe.

During the two weeks that my dad and I were in Romania, we applied for a U.S. Tourist Visa for Tanya and Vanya and scheduled an interview in Bucharest on May 2, 2022. We spend many hours preparing for the interview and had countless support letters from state senators, family members, and others. The visa was denied! We were devasted. What now? We had to regroup and trust that God is in control.

As we began to make plans to settle Tanya in Cluj, Romania with our church friends, the Biden Administration announced Uniting for Ukraine, a federal program where American citizens could sponsor Ukrainian nationals in the U.S. We jumped on it and applied within two days. Again, it was time to wait – a difficult task for someone like me with very little patience. We were told it could take months. My dad and I couldn’t wait another two months in Romania due to work responsibilities. So, as we returned to the U.S., my mom came out to Bucharest to stay with Tanya and begin teaching her English. It wasn’t three or four days after I submitted the application that we received the green light – Tanya and Vanya were authored to travel to the U.S on humanitarian parole. We booked the flights immediately.

Tanya was one of the first people to go through the program and as a result, we encountered many delays along the way. When Tanya and Vanya finally boarded the flight from London to Austin, Texas she texted to thank me for all that I have done and I responded, “It wasn’t me, it was God!”

Since Tanya’s arrival in the U.S. on May 10, 2022, she has adjusted well. Her English is remarkable, and she is an amazing mom. We applied for her social security card so she can begin working when she is ready. She has been so brave – leaving her family behind and trusting complete strangers. Vanya started crawling and will be well on the way to walking by Christmas time. He keeps us on our toes.

All of this would not have been possible without my husband, my parents, our family, my friends, and our Christ-centered community. You know who you are – we can’t thank you enough!

God moved mountains to bring my sister back to me. Beyond anything I could control on my own. Tanya is family and a new friend all at once. As I learn more about her life since we were children, getting to know the woman she has become, I realize that now I have a chance to show my sister and nephew the unconditional love that I have been given. What a faithful God we serve!

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