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Escape from Ukraine: Grieving but grateful, EWU’s Chris Hansen and his family reflect and look ahead on the other side of a war zone

UPDATED: Sat., March 12, 2022

Refugees are pictured in Medyka, Poland, one of the stops on the journey out of war-torn Ukraine for Chris Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football coach and player, and his family.  (Courtesy photo/Chris Hansen)
Refugees are pictured in Medyka, Poland, one of the stops on the journey out of war-torn Ukraine for Chris Hansen, a former Eastern Washington University football coach and player, and his family. (Courtesy photo/Chris Hansen)
By Dave Cook For the Spokesman-Review For the Spokesman-Review

His collection of friends and family put the humanity into an inhuman atrocity.

Essentially a refugee of war and now spending time in the Czech Republic, former Eastern Washington University football player and coach Chris Hansen finally has some time on his hands to relax. And he has lots of people to thank for that.

Hansen, his wife, Victoria, and stepdaughter Sonja fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, and crossed the border into Poland on Wednesday. Since then, they have been staying in the home of a colleague of Hansen’s in the Czech Republic. Now, they wait out the process to get Victoria and Sonja, who are native Ukrainians, clearance to come back to the United States with Hansen.

Although they are safe, the news out of Ukraine on Friday again tugged at their hearts. The city of Dnipro along the massive Dnieper River was the target of three Russian airstrikes. That is the where Chris and Victoria were married last October, and they had just passed through the city on Tuesday as their bus headed for freedom in Poland.

“It felt it was just a given that all major cities are on a list that the Russians will bombard,” Hansen said via text on Friday. “I feel awful for the citizens of this historic and beautiful country.”

The Ukrainian city of Dnipro is pictured in October, when former Eastern Washington University Football Coach Chris Hansen and his wife, Victoria, were married there. It’s since become a target or Russian airstrikes.  (Courtesy photo/Chris Hansen)
The Ukrainian city of Dnipro is pictured in October, when former Eastern Washington University Football Coach Chris Hansen and his wife, Victoria, were married there. It’s since become a target or Russian airstrikes. (Courtesy photo/Chris Hansen)

In addition to Dnipro, also bombed on Friday was Lutsk, a city in northwestern Ukraine. That is also the birthplace of former Eagles basketball player Bogdan Bliznyuk, who has played the past three years in his home country but was in Spain with the Ukrainian National Team when the invasion began.

“What is happening is a crime that has affected the whole world,” Hansen said. “What was normal will not be normal again for a very long time.”

Hansen said Wednesday he thought the process to get Victoria and Sonja clearance to come to U.S. soil would take months, but he hopes less than the 18-month process to gain citizenship that Victoria began just prior to the start of the war on Feb. 24.

Their initial meeting with officials at the U.S. Embassy is Monday in Prague.

In the meantime, he’ll try to provide comfort to the women, who don’t know whether they’ll return to the country where they were born. Victoria’s mother is still there in the midst of the inconceivable invasion.

“After leaving, I felt like I kind of abandoned the country,” Hansen said. “I feel for these people and this country, and I actually feel a part of it. Victoria and Sonja are both sad, but they both truly want to be in America.”

Victoria took to Facebook on Thursday to share her own thoughts and emotions as she began what she called, “My first good morning in 15 days, after 1½ days of dangerous road (travel) saving my family, we finally have peace.”

In the post’s translation from Ukrainian, she said, “We’ve been through a lot these days – fear, pain, hopelessness … but we are strong when we are together.” She vows to return to Ukraine and Kharkiv, where they had been living, when the war is over.

Hansen will continue to help teach English to Victoria and Sonja, a language his wife began learning about a year ago. Sonja is just getting started.

“Victoria has taken almost a year of lessons,” he said. “She’s better than she thinks, or leads me to believe.”

Only time will tell if they can return to the fourth-floor apartment they shared in the bombarded city of Kharkiv. Hansen said they’ll continue to pay rent and see how the war progresses.

“I think they believe they are coming back here, especially by the way I watched them pack,” he said the day before they left Kharkiv. “It took them two hours – I couldn’t get them to pack a thing and the bus was leaving in two hours. Victoria is leaving food in the refrigerator I would dump out.

“Honestly, we have nowhere else to take them. They can’t go back to Ukraine, they just can’t – not with what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is doing. He’s going to kill civilians and not even care about it.”

Hansen is grateful he had his family back in the United States to lean on during the nearly two-week ordeal his new family has gone through.

Since his precarious situation was made known, Hansen said he’s received text messages from about 300 people and countless phone calls. He was thankful to have communications despite being in the middle of a war zone.

“At first I was kind of embarrassed,” he said of the attention created by his predicament. “Coaches, players, students and so many others have reached out. The outpouring has been out of this world. The outreach from people has been amazing, and I thank everybody.

“I’ve returned every text and every call, and it’s not just to say thanks. A long text from (former Eagle football player) Taiwan Jones made me cry. … Some others have made me cry too. It’s just been crazy.

“I’m so thankful.”

His family was in constant communications with one another through a group text. His brother, Eric, convinced him to start a journal.

Another brother, Aaron, tracked the exact whereabouts of the trio during their escape via an internet app. Aaron lives in Camas, Washington, and was an All-Big Sky Conference selection while at EWU from 1987-90 – a few years after Hansen played in 1983.

Beyond that, Chris was constantly receiving information from family and close friends on bombing locations, troop movements, transportation options, border crossings and many news reports.

“My family feeds me information 24 hours a day, and then I just tell them what I’m seeing,” he said.

Even his roommates – Victoria and Sonja – helped Hansen keep his wits as he processed information.

“Victoria and Sonja really take care of me,” Hansen said of one day when he was on the phone with a well-wisher. “In comes a stool, and the next thing I know in comes a heater, then a blanket, and then my jacket. And I didn’t need any of it.”

Hansen was surprised he was able to keep cell phone service, internet and email for the most part.

They had two internet outages at the apartment, but both times service was restored. He realized at the time that if they were cut off from the outside world, they would have to make decisions on their own that could determine life and death.

He witnessed on Wednesday when they arrived in Poland the importance of worldwide communications. A grocery store had a charging station with chairs that many people were using in order to communicate with loved ones.

Hansen knows those conversations were teeming with sadness, anger and remorse.

“The ruthlessness of one man is part of the story,” Hansen said, referring to Putin.

“Our experience shows what this war costs for one little family, but think about all the other families it’s affected even more. The truth is that it all was avoidable.

But one silver lining has become clear.

“The world has rallied around this country.”

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