Information abounds about what’s going on in Ukraine.
And then, you can look around town (or read here) to learn about Kevin Kubarycz, his wife, Robyn, and their recently adopted teenagers, Anya and Lena. Kevin and Robyn adopted the teenagers March 15 of last year. They had earlier hosted them when the girls visited their home through a nonprofit that brings Ukrainian orphans to the United States for the Christmas or summer holidays.
They had met their future daughters virtually in 2019 after living in Kyiv while Robyn worked as a consultant for Ukrainian energy projects. Robyn is a consultant specializing in clean energy, while Kevin’s background is in commercial banking. (Robyn, who was at a conference, was not interviewed for this column.)
The couple had also previously hosted three Ukrainian teenagers at their home — and have since found out that one of the teens had been injured during fighting in her village.
“It’s hard to see places I know being blown up,” Anya said when I met her during a rally Sunday on Fair Oaks Avenue in support of Ukraine. “I text my friends and I hope they make it. Some of the things are very difficult.”
Right now, both girls, Anya, 17, and Lena, 16, are enrolled at South Pasadena High School. The girls are half-sisters with a common mother who died when they were 9 and 8 years old. They have had little if any contact with their fathers, who are also believed to be dead, Kubarycz said.
They had been in an orphanage in a village that came under the control of Russian separatists sympathetic to Moscow during the 2014 outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in the so-called Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. During that period, the girls were kidnapped by Russian troops, Kubarycz said, and taken to Russia where they were held for two days until their release could be negotiated.
They were relocated to an orphanage in a village called Sviatohirsk, which is where they were living when the Kubaryczs adopted them.
The day before we met, the girls had learned that the Russian military had bombed the village. The girls don’t want to talk too much in public about the situation, although they text and video chat with friends and extended family.
They found out this week that one of their roommates from the orphanage is trapped in Lviv — the main hub for most of the country’s refugees — while trying to escape the country.
“The girls learned news of the bombing from friends in Ukraine, although it is not clear if it was from friends still there or from Russian- [or] Ukrainian-language online information,” Kubarycz said. “We later confirmed what they heard through news reports and photos from Ukrainian news sources and people in the area.”
He said they were not aware of any of their friends being injured, although that may be due to their early evacuation to Lviv. Kubarycz said the girls continue to monitor the situation all the time.
“When the war began, the girls were video chatting with friends, one of whom was describing the sound of explosions in her vicinity,” he said, adding that he and his wife have had friends in Ukraine injured and who have had to be relocated.
It took 18 months from the start of the process for the adoption to be completed last year. The parents traveled twice to Ukraine and had one virtual Ukrainian court appearance. Kubarycz said the girls previously turned down four offers to be adopted from the United States and elsewhere.
It is a new life for everyone since the girls arrived in South Pasadena last April. They began taking classes via video conferencing due to COVID-19. Although they spoke varying degrees of English when they came to America, their English proficiency has improved, but Anya was still too modest about her skills when I spoke briefly to her at the rally on Sunday.
“Robyn and I are first-time parents, and the girls are acclimating to living in a family setting on a permanent basis after many years in the orphanage,” said Kubarycz, who moved with his wife to South Pasadena 1 ½ years ago. “The girls have loved the access to good and plentiful food — although they do request Ukrainian food from time to time — the safety and security of a family and the love we have done our best to give them.”
Kubarycz said Anya is shy until she knows someone well. She enjoys embroidery and painting and is on the high school badminton team. Lena, he said, is more outgoing, though she is still developing her confidence. She enjoys music, is learning to play the guitar and likes hats. Both girls, he said, enjoy dance.
Kubarycz said his grandparents emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900s, so he remembers some of the language, foods and customs from them and his own parents. Robyn speaks a little Russian.
Kubarycz said the girls were a little hesitant about sharing more of their stories about Ukraine with me — mostly out of shyness and insecurity about speaking English.
He told me that one of the girls came home upset from school one day after someone had commented — whether out of jest or not — about the intelligence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has aggressively pushed the destructive invasion as an attempt to reunite the former Russian Empire or Soviet Union.
“COVID restrictions at school and in the community probably kept them from developing a social circle as quickly as otherwise expected,” he said. “Although they spoke varying degrees of English when they joined us, their English proficiency has improved drastically since their arrival.”
Because of his grandmother’s insistence once that he take Ukrainian lessons, and because of the recipes and customs he remembers, Kubarycz said with a laugh that the girls won’t have to totally go without the foods they once enjoyed.
Kubarycz can go into the kitchen and come up with a semblance of something they — and he — once enjoyed.
Remember the star-crossed lovers I have written about in my column, Aleksandr L and N (whose names are written as such for personal and security reasons)? Aleksandr had been spending sleepless nights worrying about his girlfriend, who was trapped in a basement in Ukraine with her mother who had refused to leave Kyiv when I last wrote about them.
Alexsandr said they finally were able to flee — first to Lviv and then to Poland. Volunteers agreed to drive them to safety in Berlin, where they are now living in what Aleksandr describes as the home of a “friend’s friends,” not far from major sites in Berlin.
“Thanks to volunteers and merely kind people who helped along the way, they made this treacherous trek across two countries riding in a car with someone like themselves in about 18 hours,” he said.
He said N is somewhat more relaxed and wanting to see the sights, but the trauma is still present. His next concern is getting N and her mother to America. He himself has a frail and disabled mother to care for and he hopes there will be some sort of extended displaced persons admission act for people like N and her mother.