About a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, a letter from Westminster arrived in the quiet western Ukraine tomato-farming village of Borzhavske.
Carroll County resident Sonya Barnold, whose grandfather emigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1917, had written to distant family members there, wanting to know whether they needed help.
After initially declining, her relatives reached out again: Could Barnold take in their 17-year-old nephew?
Barnold began working last March to make sure that her relative, Ivan Hnetilo, would make it to Maryland safely. She needed to move fast if she wanted to sponsor him; Hnetilo would turn 18 in July and after that, he would no longer be able to leave the country, according to Ukraine’s martial law.
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Barnold explained. “It was quite a process.”
They got lucky, in the end. Hnetilo could not travel to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, so he left Ukraine days before his birthday, celebrated with family in the Czech Republic before passing through Turkey and, finally, landed in the U.S.
Several months later, he is living in Westminster and recently received a work permit. His English has been rapidly improving. He says he is “impressed” with Westminster, but after growing up on a tomato farm, the transition to living on his American family’s farm was not too much of a culture shock.
“There are very beautiful small houses,” he said via text, not yet feeling comfortable enough with English to speak over the phone.
Despite the peaceful surroundings in Westminster, the continued war in Ukraine is taking its toll. Although his family is in the west, away from the most intense fighting, talking to them regularly is still difficult.
“When I communicate with friends from Ukraine or with my family, they mostly don’t have electricity and it’s very sad for me,” Hnetilo said. Power cuts in his hometown can last from 14 to 16 hours a day, he added.
Since last March, about 221,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the United States, according to President Joe Biden. Government programs such as Uniting for Ukraine have helped to expedite legal residency for many.
It is difficult to measure how many Ukrainians have arrived in Carroll County, but Carroll County Public Schools reported that fewer than 10 Ukrainian students had signed up for school in 2022.
One of these students is Yevheniia Brovka, who is enrolled at Francis Scott Key High School. She came to Carroll County in June after fleeing from Kyiv with her mother and one of her two sisters, joining her aunt who moved to Maryland 10 years ago.
Yevheniia’s grandmother was also already in the area, initially for a visit to her daughter in the U.S., which then became permanent when she canceled her return ticket back to Ukraine.
The change was not easy for the 16-year-old from Ukraine’s capital, who suddenly found herself in a rural area in Maryland.
“It’s really difficult because they don’t have public transportation here,” she explained. In Kyiv, she could text her friends and meet up for a walk after school or go to the movies.
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“Here, you can’t do anything without a car,” she said.
Her mother, Anna, 40, does not mind so much. “I want to be at home and cry and look at my phone, at what’s happening in my country,” she said. She said she mostly looks forward to the moments when she can call her friends who are now, due to the war, scattered across the world.
“I had no problems in Ukraine before the war,” she emphasized. Leaving Kyiv meant abandoning her life in a “beautiful town” with a career as an accountant.
Yevheniia is trying to cope while maintaining life as a normal teenager — she auditioned for the high school play and joined the school chorus. Yet while some of her Ukrainian classmates have already finished school, she is busy attending classes at her Ukrainian high school online so she can graduate. She said she hopes the war will end soon.
It was a sentiment echoed across the board by her mother as well as Hnetilo, who writes of the pain he feels due to a conflict in which “innocent people, children die.” He also expressed gratitude for his family’s help in getting used to life in Westminster. " I am very grateful to them,” he added.
As for Barnold, her experience sponsoring Hnetilo has opened her eyes to how one decision can have a lasting impact.
“If somebody really has feelings about the war, and they’re concerned, and they have the time and the means, sponsor someone,” Barnold said. “You’ll save a life.”