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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Escape from Ukraine: Now safe in the Czech Republic, EWU’s Chris Hansen and his family look to a new life

Chris Hansen, his wife, Victoria, and stepdaughter Sonja on their journey out of Ukraine.  (Contributed photo/Chris Hansen)
By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

As long, difficult and stressful as it was to find liberation in Poland, Chris Hansen wasn’t there for long.

The next country may be a different matter as escaping turns to waiting.

Hansen, his wife, Victoria, and stepdaughter Sonja are now safely in the Czech Republic after fleeing Ukraine during the invasion by Russia.

A week ago, when making the decision to flee their fourth-floor apartment in Kharkiv, Hansen predicted their trip to freedom would take 20 hours. That was just about right after they concluded their exodus with an 18-hour bus ride on Wednesday morning to the border.

It began last Saturday with a two-hour trek to Poltava.

Less than an hour after they arrived at the border, they made it through customs and were in the town of Medyka in Poland. They waited two hours for their ride, then began the six-hour trip to a house owned by a colleague of Hansen’s in the fishing industry in Alaska, Vojtech Novak.

“It was very nice of them,” Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football coach and player, said Wednesday of the assistance. “I really am tired – I hardly slept at all on the bus. Then it didn’t take long to get through processing.”

Although their stay in Medyka was short, Hansen echoed the media reports from that area about the enormous humanitarian efforts taken as some 2 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries. “The Polish people are very friendly and helpful,” he says.

“There are a couple of hundred tents with people giving away clothing, cooked food, desserts and water,” he said of their short stay. “There are medical tents and people around the world helping mankind. It was very impressive.”

What Hansen witnessed on the cross-country trip across Ukraine will not be forgotten anytime soon. He estimates there were 50 stops at checkpoints, which turned what should have been a 15-hour trip into 18 hours.

Sometimes they would get a wave-by at the checkpoint, and other times the driver would just be questioned. During other stops, Ukraine officials would get on the bus and do random passport checks, or sometimes check everybody’s identification.

“Every place was different, but they all did checks,” he said. “We could hit a string of three within 10 miles, or you could go 10 miles without one. It was very well thought out, you can say that.

“They are all fortified with bomb shelters and pill boxes right on the road. You have to snake around the stations. They’ve set up zones to ambush if necessary, and there are places where infantry can fall back to.”

Even roadside farms were prepared, he observed.

“Every farmer’s road has obstacles in the way of getting to their houses,” Hansen explained. “And they have armed people there – it wasn’t one or two, it was like 200 of those we passed.

“They’ve prepared for this a very long time – forever,” he adds of their vigilance from being invaded. “And it’s professional. Every side road has something or somebody there.”

Hansen was also quick to credit the bus driver, who he tipped afterwards. The trip itself was a reasonable $100 in American dollars for each of them.

“Our driver was outstanding,” he said. “There was snow, black ice and white-out conditions. He was passing people who were slow, but he was safe doing it. About a mile away from the border it was bumper to bumper with cars on the far left and far right, but he just stuck it in the middle and went by everybody.”

Beyond that, Hansen noticed the terrain as being a real obstacle for Russia to invade – let alone win the war against the defiant Ukrainians.

“Think of the rolling hills of the Palouse, then add huge forests of trees that separate all those fields,” Hansen said. “There are valleys, hills and ravines. The Ukrainians are not going to quit, so it stuck out to me that the Russians can take the cities but they won’t take the country. No way.”

The beauty and size of the Dnieper River to the south of the capital city of Kiev also stuck out to him. That river originates in Russia, then flows through Belarus and Ukraine on its way to the Black Sea. In that area were numerous abandoned factories and businesses.

“It’s a skinny, two-lane bridge and it’s well protected,” Hansen said of the crossing.

Now that they are in a safe haven, the process to get back to the United States will be the next step. The father-in-law of Hansen’s brother, Aaron, helps get people into America from third-world countries.

“He’s dealing with embassies and consulates all the time,” Hansen said. “He’s already contacted the capital in Prague, and he’s already given them our information and that we are coming. He’s forwarded to me six or seven phone numbers that will be important for us.”

Earlier in the invasion, Hansen had contact with the State Department and the office of Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. A worker in her office has been particularly helpful.

“We’re on a first-name basis now, and he’s asked me to let him know when we leave and to keep in contact,” Hansen said before they departed Kharkiv. “They wanted to track us.”

Hansen is hopeful the worldwide crisis would help speed along United States citizenship for Victoria, and now Sonja. They had started the 18-month process for Victoria to become an American prior to the war starting.

“We have every document we need – birth, marriage, divorce – and I have a passport,” he said.

Those documents will become critical to the process of eventually getting them to the U.S. through some sort of emergency or refugee visa.

Hansen knows, however, even the best-case scenario could take months. He can do some of his work for Silver Bay Seafoods remotely but spends the summer months in Alaska. He said that ideally they would be there with him.

“It’s not going to be easy – it’s just not,” Hansen said of the process, which will include meetings and communications with the United States Embassy in Prague. “It’s going to be time-consuming, and I can see the writing on the wall. We’ll get our proper paperwork in this weekend, and then try to make an appointment sometime next week.

“Hopefully something will materialize, but I don’t see it happening right away,” he continued. “One month, no way. Two months, maybe. It will probably take five to six months, something like that.

“I can leave anytime,” he added, “but I’ll stay here with them as long as I can.”