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Becoming a refugee: Former EWU coach and family change plans and decide to flee Ukraine. But how?

UPDATED: Sat., March 5, 2022

A Russian armored personnel carrier burns amid damaged and abandoned light utility vehicles Sunday after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine.  (SSR)
A Russian armored personnel carrier burns amid damaged and abandoned light utility vehicles Sunday after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (SSR)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

Chris Hansen has been a recruiter and teacher for his entire adult life. Late Thursday night, he closed the deal on the most crucial pitch he’s ever had to make.

The former Eastern Washington University football coach convinced his wife, Victoria, and step-daughter Sonja to depart their Ukrainian homeland and become one of the more than 1 million refuges fleeing the senseless Russian invasion of their country. Hansen has been living with them in battle-ravaged Kharkiv while on a break from his fishing job in Alaska.

“She finally said we’re leaving, so she’s the one who made the ultimate decision,” Hansen said. “I’ve been pestering her – I’ve been doing that for a month.”

As time progressed, the trio realized they were a stray bomb from becoming victims in the inhumane invasion, which will soon drag on in terms of weeks and not just days. Staying in the country where his wife and daughter were born and raised has become too risky.

With one bag apiece, Hansen says they can leave at a moment’s notice when the coast is clear and final arrangements have been secured. But it will be hard to say goodbye.

“Everything they own, we are leaving – everything,” Hansen said. “Hopefully we could come back some day and pack it up or give it away to her mom.

“It’s hard for them,” adds Hansen, who married Victoria last October in Ukraine. “For me to move out totally is only four pieces of luggage.”

But finding a safe way out is proving to be harder than they had hoped. Originally, the trio had tried to secure train passage to the West. After leaving their apartment in Kharkiv, they would have to walk or get transportation to get to the train station, about 51/2 miles away in the heart of the city, where bombing continues .

From there, they would take a train to the capital of Kiev, also a bombing hotspot, then board a train to the western city of Lviv. “That’s scary,” Hansen said of the cross-country trip across a nation the size of Texas.

Depending on which option was the best, they would then move across the border to another country – Poland, Hungary or Slovakia. Hansen’s geography knowledge has been getting a workout.

“My family’s project was to figure out where to go from there,” he explained. “They will try to figure out what’s the fastest way to get out of Ukraine – via Romania or Poland or whatever country.”

But, after an exhaustive search, there were no train tickets to be had. Hansen saw it in the sad eyes of his roommates. “I looked down the hallway and saw two pretty disappointed young ladies.”

An alternate plan has them getting to Lviv by bus, then entering Slovakia, where they would drive to the Czech Republic. That plan requires help from a friend in Alaska, where Hansen now works for Silver Bay Seafoods and helps coordinate the recruiting of fishermen.

But the bus for Friday was canceled; a Saturday bus is the next option.

Hansen received encouraging news Thursday when he learned of the “humanitarian corridor” agreed to by Russia to enable Ukraine residents to flee the country.

“I really emphasized to her that we need to get out of here,” Hansen said. “We don’t know what is going to happen when they get to our neighborhood, or what will they think of me as an American when they get here.”

Through Thursday, he hadn’t witnessed any death or battles firsthand and certainly hopes he doesn’t. But he knows it’s out there.

On Friday, over a week into the invasion, Hansen only heard artillery and tank battles 3-4 miles to the east. Downtown, where the train station is located, is to the north.

“Nothing I know of hit downtown today,” he reported. “I didn’t hear anything except from the east. They would battle a little bit, then quit, then battle a little more and quit again. It was a real quiet day.”

But it’s all been enough for Victoria to flee a country she’s never left. She was born and raised in the small village of Teranovka, about 35 miles south of Kharkiv, and Sonja was born there as well. Sonja, now 19, made a trip to Turkey once, but that’s the only time she’s been out of Ukraine.

Victoria’s now-retired mother still lives in Teranovka, a village of about 5,000, and that makes it even harder to leave. Hansen says they contemplated seeking refuge there, but decided against it.

“In the media, we have seen that Russians are actually blowing up villages,” he says. “They are wiping them off the face of the map. Those are about the same size of her mom’s.”

For now, there is no such destruction in Teranovka. Sonja will also leave behind a boyfriend, and a biological father she rarely speaks to.

“Her mom speaks to both Victoria and Sonja two or three times a day,” Hansen said. “If there wasn’t a war, it’s daily. She is very close to her mom.”

But Hansen says the effort to get out of the country will be worth it.

“I’m not demoralized at all,” he said. “My wife deciding we should go breathe new life into this family. It’s a challenge – I love this challenge.”

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