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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After taking refuge in Spokane, family returns to Mariupol only to find destruction – not hope

Mykhailo 33, Yelysei, 7, Anna, 30, and Habriel Kurilova are seen in Bavaria where they’ve settled after finding their Mariupol home unlivable.  (Courtesy of the Kurilova family)

Each time Anna and Mykhailo Kurilova got a text from their friends in Mariupol, their hearts sank.

The couple fled the home they built together. Where they brought their two children home from the hospital. Where Mykhailo was starting a business. And where Anna would take her kids to the ocean just blocks away.

From thousands of miles away in Spokane, they were left to track the status of their home in Russian-occupied Mariupol. For a time, Russian soldiers lived there. Then they heard the neighbor’s house had been destroyed. They feared their home was gone, too.

But it remained standing.

The family had fled Mariupol in March, not long after Russia attacked Ukraine. They were among the last group to get out before the Russian army set siege to the city. They eventually left the country, arrived in Mexico and then crossed the border into the United States.

After arriving in Spokane in April, the Kurilovas lived with a Slavic family who they were matched with through a local church. When Thrive International opened the Thrive Center, a modified hotel for refugees, the Kurilovas were among the first to move in on June 17.

It was the first time in months the family had a place to call their own, but it was still difficult to be in a foreign place where they didn’t speak the language and relied on the generosity of others.

“We felt so alone,” Anna said.

They missed their family, most of whom had escaped to Germany. They missed their home, haunted by the knowledge it was still standing. All the Kurilovas wanted was to return to it, they told The Spokesman-Review in October.

“It doesn’t matter for us,” Anna said. “Russia or Ukraine, if it has stopped war, we go back.”

In the end, they couldn’t even wait that long.

The Kurilovas left for Europe in early November, embarking on a weekslong journey home. They picked their way through Russia, receiving help from Russian Christians, most of whom were vocal about their opposition for the war, Anna said.

“All people we met in Russia were kind people,” Anna said. “They helped us to the train, with tickets, with food.”

The couple stayed with Mykhailo’s aunt who lives in Russia for a week before buying an old car and some things for the house.

“And we go home,” Anna said through tears.

The journey was full of anticipation. Anna wasn’t sure if she would laugh or cry, she said.

When they finally arrived, no tears fell.

They were in shock, Anna said.

The Kurilovas knew the city was destroyed, that their home was damaged and surrounded by rubble. But they didn’t know it in their hearts, Anna said.

“I must see this in real life,” she said.

But the most shocking part of going home wasn’t the buildings and ruins. It was the people who had stayed in Mariupol.

“I understand that Mariupol is destroyed. I knew about this,” Anna said of the 10 months of siege and now Russian occupation. “But people, their minds (are) so destroyed.”

Anna set about trying to clean up the shell of what was once their home while caring for their frightened young children. Mykhailo scavenged bombed-out apartments and homes for appliances and supplies.

A few days after they arrived, Mykhailo came home crying. He was scared. It was “so destroyed,” Anna said.

The people who stayed in Mariupol blamed the Kurilovas for leaving. Each time they ventured out, they realized their city was in worse shape than they thought.

One day, they went for a walk in their neighborhood for 30 minutes. They only saw four houses that were inhabited.

After five days in Mariupol, the Kurilovas knew they had to leave again.

“We say goodbye our house,” Anna said. “It’s very big pain. I don’t want come back.”

The Kurilovas were able to get out of the region and return to Moscow, where volunteers again helped them get to Belarus. There, they slept at a refugee camp before boarding a bus to Poland. The bus ride was terrifying as they wondered if one guard, notorious for not allowing people to cross into the European Union, would let them through.

They were able to make it to Poland and eventually to Germany, where they met Mykhailo’s brother.

The Kurilovas moved into yet another hotel housing refugees in a snow-covered village in Bavaria nestled in the alps.

It was a big risk to leave the safety and security of Spokane, but the Kurilovas couldn’t move on until they saw with their own eyes that there was nothing there for them in Mariupol.

“We need to come back to start new life,” Anna said. “Our mind, our heart, had not left our old life.”

It’s hard to start over, Anna said. The couple is filling out documents, enrolling in language classes and planning for how they’ll find permanent housing.

“In Germany, when I remember my home, it’s not like in America,” Anna said of her mindset. “I want to try to start a new life.”