The journey for Andrii Pomynalnyi’s family began in the early morning hours of Feb. 24 when they were awakened by explosions as Russian troops began their invasion of Ukraine. It reached its apparent end in the early morning hours almost exactly seven months later, only to have the plane preparing to land in Juneau turn around and return to Seattle due to fog.
That second setback did little to cloud the Ukrainian family’s spirits and energy when they finally landed later that day in what they hope will be their new hometown for at least the next two years.
“Our past life disappeared,” Andrii said during a two-hour discussion in the kitchen of a Mendenhall Valley house provided by a group of local residents working with an Anchorage program for Ukrainian refugees. Arriving here “was like a miracle to us.”
The Pomynalnyis are at least the second Ukrainian family to seek haven in Juneau since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Iryna Hrynchenko and her teenage son Ivan arrived at the beginning of July, and were among the first people the newest refugees from the war-torn country met.
While Andrii talked about his family’s journey his daughter Irynka was in the living room the day after her 10th birthday, playing with a chess set and other recent acquisitions after leaving almost all her previous possessions in her homeland. His son Yehor, 15, was enjoying a quiet day off from the high school he started two weeks ago due to teacher meetings. And his wife Olena showed the family’s quick adjustment to Juneau’s rainy season by playing at length with a dog in the back yard.
It’s a drastically different home scene than the Pomynalnyi family was living the night before their home city of Kyiv was attacked by Russians. Andrii owned a thriving seven-year-old medical supply businesses, the family spent leisure time on activities such as beach volleyball and kayaking and the parents of both Andrii and Olena were in close contact in nearby towns.
All that changed before dawn on Feb. 24.
“We woke up from explosions,” Andrii said. “Real explosions.”
Soon after he saw a Russian tank on the street he normally walked his daughter to school along, and he immediately began thinking about what — if anything — he could do to protect his family and business.
“Everybody wants to find gas for their car,” he said. “It’s winter and there must be heating in the car if it stops by the side of the road.”
By 6 a.m. there were mile-long lines at two gas stations Andrii saw, but eventually he filled his car’s gas tank and a 20-liter container with fuel. Upon arriving at one of his business’ locations he quickly decided hopes of preserving it were unrealistic — and he had perhaps two to three hours to decide what he could carry away from it.
“The last seven years of my life, it was my baby,” he said. “I was very shocked. It was like I must kill something I created with my hands.”
Meanwhile Olena’s parents were living in the heart of where the Russian invasion started, and their home was left without power, water, heating and gas necessary to cook food.
“It was like occupied territory,” he said. “We didn’t believe in the 21st century something like this could happen. It’s like the ninth century when somebody comes to your home and steals what you have because they are stronger.”
The next day Andrii’s family fled their home, deciding it was too dangerous to remain.
“I was hard to explain to our children and it was to choose what to bring in our four-person station wagon,” Andrii said. “It was winter and we must take clothes and food.
“We didn’t know when we could come back.”
They fled south toward the middle of Ukraine, staying with some people they knew there for about three weeks before returning to Kyiv. But Andrii knew the rest of his family couldn’t stay there long — even though he planned to remain to help care for his father — and a search of possible destinations led them to choose Ireland since there were few other Ukrainian refugees there at the time.
“It was very difficult to get out from Ukraine,” Andrii said. “The train by this time was horrible. It was like an evacuation train.”
With the help of Andrii’s brother, who worked for the railway, the rest of the family was able to get space on a train to Warsaw near the end of March, although they could only carry a backpack and one large bag apiece. From there they flew to Ireland and settled down in a town of about 3,000 people about 20 kilometers (a little under 12.5 miles) from the country’s east coast.
Andrii joined them in July, but there seemed little opportunity to stay there for a lengthy period of time due to the difficulty of finding work. Olena took a part-time job cleaning hotels, with Andrii helping her when possible.
“We looked for any job we could,” he said.
But a more permanent solution was needed, so the family contacted refugee organizations in the United States, with the Anchorage-based Ukraine Relief Program sending them a response letter in August. Andrii said the idea of living in Alaska — Juneau, specifically, as it turned out — was appealing beyond the family’s need to reestablish a stable life.
“It was a (thought) we can be helpful for this region because we can be useful,” he said, citing among the reasons a background in electrical and mechanic engineering mining that seems suitable for local industrial activity. Plus there is “good air and water…we were happy about that.”
Among the group of Juneau residents sponsoring the family is Kate Troll, who said efforts to help refugees in Afghanistan started at the beginning of the year. But a lack of Afghans interested in relocating to Juneau and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine convinced to group to refocus their efforts.
The Ukraine Relief Program let the family know about three families it considered suitable for Juneau a couple of months ago and Troll said the Pomynalnyis seemed like an ideal fit.
“We thought they had really good prospects for finding work in Juneau,” she said, citing Andrii’s mining background.
Finding housing for the family when they arrived was difficult, with first a short-term duplex in Douglas and then the Mendenhall Valley home being located with persistence and luck. The family was schedule to arrive just after midnight on Aug. 28, but ended up actually landing 10 hours later due to the fog that forced them to travel the Seattle-Juneau route three times in a roughly 12-hour time span.
“We asked them ’do you want to go to bed?’” Troll said, describing the family’s arrival. “They said no because they were so excited to be here.”
Instead the family spent their first day visiting the Mendenhall Glacier and hiking Nugget Falls before visiting the home of Joyanne Bloom, one of the leaders of a group sponsoring the other Ukrainian family in town. There the Pomynalnyis met the Hrynchenkos, with Iryna cooking a welcome meal for the new arrivals.
“They only just said ’Welcome. It’s a great place and these are great people,’” Andrii said when asked what advice Iryna and Ivan offered.
The help Troll’s group, working in collaboration with the Juneau Refugee Relief Fund operated through the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, included turning the empty Mendenhall Valley house into a fully furnished home the day the Pomynalnyis moved in early in October.
“We had almost 10 cars bring stuff,” Andrii said.
His kids started school two weeks ago, with his son signing up for rifle club and his daughter for a community chess club. Olena is expressing a willingness “to start from zero” in an occupation while Andrii hopes to find mining work, although approval of their work authorizations are likely still weeks away.
Back in Kyiv, Russians launched new attacks during the past week which Andrii said have been hard both on the city and family members still living there.
“We were in touch twice a day,” he said, adding he understands the decision of his and Olena’s parents to remain in their homeland.
“It’s their decision,” he said. “I can help them by sending money.”
Andrii said he also hopes to be of help to people in his new hometown as a thanks to those who made his family’s resettlement possible. While the family’s refugee sponsorship is for two years, he’s already looking beyond that.
“I want to stay as long as possible,” he said. “We enjoy somebody helping people they don’t even know. Maybe some family needs help like us.”
The Juneau Refugee Relief Fund, which is seeking to help those resettling in Juneau, is at www.jahc.org/juneau-refugee-relief-fund.