Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 4 million people have fled their homes in search of safety. One such family has found refuge in Maryland thanks to a North Potomac couple.
“We feel that, now, we’re safe. And that sense of constant concern and fear has diminished,” said Sergii Bodak through a translator.
Three days after the invasion began, amid the constant sound of shelling, Bodak and his wife made the decision to escape Ukraine with their two young children. Their travel would include time in a bomb shelter, a four-day stay at a refugee camp in Warsaw, Poland, and a flight to Dulles International Airport.
“We had an apartment in Kyiv, with — obviously, you know — belongings and furniture. We had a car, so we left everything behind and we came here with two children and two suitcases,” Bodak said.
Bodak’s translator is Faina Stepensky, who, along with her husband Ark, opened their home to the family.
Faina Stepensky is from Kyiv and emigrated to the United States with her husband 43 years ago. The couple decided to step up and help after seeing what was happening in Ukraine.
“For me to see all that was really, really heart-wrenching,” Faina Stepensky said.
The Stepenskys son, who no longer lives at home, responded to a call asking for a host home for the Bodak family. It was decided that the Stepenskys’ home would be best suited for the family of four — Sergii Bodak, his wife Anya, and their children Egor, 12, and Lukyan, 4.
While many men have been forced to stay and defend Ukraine, Sergii Bodak was allowed to leave due to a long-lasting illness caused by the Chernobyl power plant’s 1986 nuclear disaster. Bodak worked at the plant with his first wife; she would later die from radiation poisoning.
Sergii Bodak said he has a difficult time putting into words the gratitude he has for the Stepenskys.
“It was completely unexpected to us that we would be accepted by a family. And now after being here for three weeks … we feel that [we] will become one family,” Sergii said of the Stepensky family.
As the Stepensky family houses the Bodak family, the couple said they are receiving help from so many people. From donations of clothing for the family to tennis and swimming lessons for the kids and one person stepping up to offer the Bodak family an apartment that they can use for six months, for free, in Silver Spring.
From refugee to immigrant
As the war continues, Sergii Bodak said he would like to see his family be allowed to remain in the United States, because he fears even with an end to the war, the recovery in Ukraine would take many years to complete.
“I have very mixed emotions. Like, I would love to stay here and raise my children here but on the other hand, I am from Ukraine. I was born, I was raised there, and from Kyiv, so I would really love to go back. [But] only if the war will be finished very quickly and the rebuilding of the country will be very, you know, quickly accomplished,” Sergii Bodak said.
Egor Bodak said he feels safe here but is still concerned for his friends and family back in Ukraine.
“I would love to live in America but on the other hand, I will miss my family and my friends back in Ukraine,” the 12-year-old said.
The Stepensky family has been writing to lawmakers and searching for an immigration attorney with the hope of paving the way for the Bodak family to stay. The couple also set up a GoFundMe page for the Bodaks, which has raised more than $8,000 as of Thursday afternoon.
The Stepenskys said hosting the family has been a lot of work; but for the retired empty-nesters, it has been nice to have little ones roaming the halls of their home.
“It’s really nice to hear a little boy, you know, seeing, you know, talking in the morning, making noises” Ark Stepensky said.
“Yeah, so that’s sort of nice and refreshing,” Faina Stepensky said.
The Bodaks will soon move into the donated apartment, and Ark Stepensky said one remaining need for the family to be self-sufficient is a car. The couple hopes to find someone who would be willing to donate one.
Once the Bodak family starts their new life, the Stepenskys said they hope to host another refugee family, and they encourage others to do the same.
“I really would encourage and urge people if you have an opportunity to do it. If you have resources, if you have time. If you have energy, just go ahead and do it as much or as little as you can,” Faina Stepensky said.