Mykola Bartosh didn’t think much of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat of invasion in early 2022. The 34-year-old Kharkiv, Ukraine, native lived just 25 miles from the Russian border with his wife, Oksana, and young daughter.
On a clear day, Bartosh could see the Ukrainian-Russian border. Back home, Bartosh was a civil law lawyer and his wife worked as an associate law professor at Karazin Kharkiv National University.
But living near the border left the Ukrainian family well acquainted with the ongoing tensions.
“It just becomes an everyday thing,” Bartosh said. “It just happens. You become used to it.”
While rumors of a potential invasion persisted as early as December 2021, Bartosh and his family had no plans to leave. Bartosh remembers getting worried calls from his Fort Worth-based friend, attorney Mimi Coffey, about leaving the country.
Sitting in a room inside the Refugee Services of Texas’ Fort Worth office nearly a year later, Bartosh pulled out his phone and showed photos of his family walking around the town square — mere days before their unplanned departure.“We were walking into town and then we were showing (Mimi) a video of Kharkiv like, ‘Hey, there are no Russian tanks around. Everything’s good,’” he said.
Threats of an imminent invasion increased and by Feb. 15, 2022, Bartosh decided his family should take some time off with a short vacation to step away from the chaos that was slowly engulfing the country.
Two weeks in Cyprus, they told themselves — two weeks and then back home. Bartosh, who participates in triathletes on the side, even brought his bicycle with him.
“Everything was good for the first three days,” Bartosh recalled. “For the first days, we were very happy – very nice weather, very warm. For a second, it seemed like there will be nothing, it was just a false alarm.”
Their lives changed on Feb. 24.“We were getting up in the morning at 5 a.m. because (our) phone was going crazy from messages,” the Ukrainian lawyer said. “All our friends are basically texting us, ‘The invasion begun.’”
Missiles rained down on the Ukrainian people that morning, as Putin ordered Russian troops to invade, the largest escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.
Texas Christian University political science professor Ralph Carter said this aggression by Russia is in line with Putin’s dream of recreating a semblance of the Russian Empire.
“In the interim since 2014, there’s been a low-level ground war being fought in eastern Ukraine in the region they call the Donbas, between Ukrainian troops trying to hold on to their territory and Russian troops and more recently groups from the private military contracting firm — the Wagner group, trying to expand Russia’s territorial footprint in eastern Ukraine,” Carter said.
‘We didn’t know what to do’
Since the start of the invasion, it is estimated that over 8 million Ukrainians have fled their country and found refuge across Europe and the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports.
Refugee Services of Texas has resettled 122 Ukrainian refugees since Feb. 24, 2022, most of them women and children. Catholic Charities has resettled 15 Ukrainians.
For Bartosh, who was stuck in Cyprus with his wife and daughter, the first month was hard, frustrating.
“We didn’t know what to do, what we’re going to do next with our life,” Bartosh said. “Are we staying in Cyprus? Are we moving somewhere else? What are our (options) because we have a limited budget.”
Bartosh and his family were invited to Texas by Coffey, a high-profile DWI attorney in Fort Worth. Coffey also ended up sponsoring the Bartosh family through Uniting for Ukraine.
“I’m no stranger to taking in people and trying to help them. So it’s not like it’s something that I’ve never done. They’re great people. We’re just trying to help every way we can,” Coffey said.
Bartosh and his wife met Coffey in 2017, through The Leavitt Institute for International Development, which brings legal professionals from the U.S. to Eastern European countries to teach them about democratic and ethical practices, and the rule of law.
Under her obligations as a sponsor through the government’s program, Coffey is required to sponsor the family for two years.
“I think that the American people are always real open-hearted,” she said. “You just never know when you’re stepping on a landmine or your residential building is going to get blown up. They’re 30 minutes from the border of Russia. It’s not like I woke up one day and said, ‘I need to find some kind of humanitarian cause to get involved in.’”
‘There is no place like home’
Bartosh got approved through the Uniting for Ukraine program two weeks after applying, but the journey to his new home was far from over.
After spending three months in Cyprus, the Ukrainian family moved to Hungary where they were able to briefly reunite with their parents.
“It was a very heartwarming moment to see them for such a long period of not seeing each other,” Bartosh said.
The family parted ways across Europe – some went to France, others to Germany. Oksana’s father remained in Kharkiv where he is dean of the philosophy department at Kharkiv University.
Since that day in Hungary, Bartosh and his wife have not seen their families.
After a brief stop in Turkey, they finally arrived in Fort Worth on June 9, 2022, and settled in with Coffey and her husband.
The first thing the couple noticed? The Texas heat and the crucial need for a car.
“It was already triple digits outside,” Bartosh said, recalling a bold mid-summer afternoon walk in Sundance Square with Oksana and their daughter. “It was probably 1 p.m. or something like that. We’re walking with a stroller. We’re used to walking. We love it. We’re walking outside (and there are) absolutely zero people. People were staring at us from the windows, just like what we are thinking, talking to each other, probably thinking we’re crazy or something.”
Since moving to Fort Worth, the couple has started attending Texas A&M Law School, in hopes of eventually working and independently supporting themselves. Their daughter has been learning English.
While Bartosh has been adjusting to life in Cowtown, he hopes to one day return home, but safety concerns remain top of mind.“It’s just scary but we kind of have two feelings which fight inside you. One is you want peace and security for your family and the second one, you want to go back home because there is no place like home,”
More than anything, Bartosh worries about his daughter – should they decide to go back. Having now spent more time in the U.S. than in Ukraine, she may have trouble readjusting to life in Kharkiv.
“(I’m thankful that) she never heard a bomb explode. We’re telling her about the war, about what’s going on. She’s asking a lot ‘Why we cannot go back home’ and it is very hard to explain the concept of war to a 3-year-old,” he said.
The toll of the year-long conflict can also mentally weigh on refugees. Bartosh and his wife were diagnosed with anxiety shortly after arriving in Fort Worth.
This has been among the biggest challenges refugees face, Kaitlin Cowan, program manager for Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s Refugee Resettlement Services, said.
“Many of our cases with women and children or single women, have husbands/loved ones who are still fighting in battle, and they worry about their safety every day while going days or weeks without speaking to them,” she said in an email.
Even Coffey has noticed the adjustment and learning curve that comes from adjusting to life in a new place.
“There’s a big difference when you flee and you come because you have to and you come because you want to,” Coffey said. “My mom’s Japanese. She emigrated to America because she wanted to come here.”
As Bartosh and his family continue to adjust to their new life in Fort Worth, his dream of peace back home remains strong.
“War is the scariest thing which might happen to you and it becomes real, very fast,” he said. “I hope for peace and for the situation to be mitigated, but in order to win this war, it will be a joint effort of Ukraine and its allies, the United States and European Union countries.”
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