Anna Ustin and her husband Dima moved to Westport from Manhattan during COVID.
Unlike many new residents, they did not have young kids needing more space. Both work in finance — she’s at Morgan Stanley, he’s at Citibank — and both are finishing up master’s degrees. They came here planning to start a family.
They have not done that yet. But these days their house is filled. Dima’s mother, brother and sister-in-law, and their 2 children fled Ukraine for Westport last month.
Their story is harrowing. Their future is hopeful.
Anna was born in Kazakhstan, raised in Russia, and studied in China. She came to the US in 2010.
Dima was born in Kyiv, and arrived in the States in 2015. The couple met and were married in New York.
They followed Russia’s menacing moves in Ukraine closely, but did not think an invasion would happen. When it did in late February, they urged their relatives to move as quickly as possible to the Polish border.
Dima’s mother Hope had been a kindergarten principal. His brother Alex was a congressman’s aide; Sasha’s wife Olena owned a cafe, and their 8-year-old daughter Neva was a high-level gymnast. Their son Lev is 6.
The trip to Poland should have taken 8 to 10 hours. With gas shortages and other issues, it took 5 days.
After 2 days sitting on a bus at the border, the family decided to walk the last few miles.
Alex headed back east, to Lviv. The others took another bus to Warsaw, where Anna — working online from Westport — had rented an Airbnb apartment.
They applied for a US tourist visa — the only type available in Warsaw — but were denied. Anna researched the best way to get them into the country through Canada, but that country had no program for Ukrainian refugees.
Anna turned to the next option: Mexico.
Through friends of friends, she found people in Mexico City. Anna arranged for a flight from Warsaw, and asked her new contacts to meet her relatives at the airport. The next day, they boarded a flight — also arranged by Anna — to Tijuana.
Meanwhile, Anna interviewed 35 lawyers in San Diego who could help. Few knew what to do. She hired 2 who did.
One knew an immigration officer at the San Ysidro border crossing. He made an appointment to see the family there.
In Tijuana — again through friends of friends — Anna found a driver to take them to the pedestrian crossing. That was important: “Coyotes” who transport people there charge up to $5,000, and are not always safe or reliable.
The driver showed Mexican officials a printout of the family’s appointment. That helped the them through Mexican control, onto US soil.
Anna and Dima flew to San Diego. They were constantly on the phone to their relatives — until American officials took the phone. They underwent 3 interviews, with 3 separate US immigration officers, then spent 26 hours in a cell with 10 other people.
Finally, the family was released to Jewish Family Services, which tested them for COVID. After 24 hours — in a nice hotel by the water — they met up with Anna and Dima.
They flew back to JFK on March 20th. Which leads to a whole other story.
After saying goodbye to his family, Alex — Dima’s brother — had driven back and forth, helping evacuate Ukrainian women and children to Poland. But when he was told that he had to fight in the besieged city of Mariupol, he headed to Romania.
Alex walked 18 miles through mountains. He was nearly frostbitten and injured his toes, but eventually boarded a train to Budapest, Hungary. Anna got him a ticket to New York.
Miraculously, he arrived at JFK at almost the same moment as his family on the flight from San Diego. They had a surprise — and very emotional — reunion at the airport.
For a month, they’ve all lived together at Anna and Dima’s house. Hope sleeps in the guest room, with her grandchildren. Alex and his wife have taken over what was a home office.
The youngsters were quickly enrolled at Coleytown Elementary School. “I can’t even describe how welcoming everyone is,” Anna says.
“Janna (Sirowich, the principal) brought 20 bags of clothing and gift cards. On the first day she rode the bus with them, so they wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I’ve never seen a school like this.”
Neva had learned a bit of English at her school in Kyiv. Lev knows no English, and has a tougher time. Both have been swimming at the Westport Weston Family YMCA.
The family, who is Jewish, also spends time at Beth Israel Chabad in Norwalk.
Anna’s relatives are looking for jobs. Olena is working as a nanny in New York. She does not drive, but plans to learn. Her English is rusty, but she hopes to go back to school, for a degree in technology.
Alex speaks a little English. He studying for the TOEFL exam. He has a degree in physical therapy, and would like to become a nurse’s assistant.
When they can afford to, they hope to find somewhere to live on their own.
“It’s all been overwhelming,” Anna says. “Everything is new. They have no place of their own to relax.”
But — amazingly — they have made the long, dangerous, twisting journey from Kyiv to Westport. There are no missiles or bombs.
Here, they are safe.
(Anyone wishing to help can email Anna: firstname.lastname@example.org).
What a remarkable story. Having recently finished two poignant memoirs about families seeking to leave Austria in the late 1930s, this really struck a chord. And, having met Janna seven years ago when she allowed us to do a 50th-anniversary mini-reunion tour, I was not surprised to read about her going the extra mile here.
What a harrowing, terrifying yet hopeful and redemptive story. I am happy and not surprised at the reception they are getting at CES. Thanks Dan for this story.