From war in Ukraine to peace in Port

Couple who escaped Russian bombs, made harrowing journey to America while becoming parents of triplets arrive in a community they now call home

VITALII AND LIUBOV KOVALCHUK and their 10-month-old triplets (from left) Eleonora, Natanael and Samuel, who were born in Slovakia after Liubov’s harrowing escape from Ukraine and during the family’s arduous jouney to America, posed in their Port Washington apartment. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

It was a little more than a year ago when Vitalii and Liubov Kovalchuk heard the sounds everyone in Ukraine was dreading — the boom of bombs.

They were living in the capital city of Kyiv when Russia invaded the country. And while the rumor of war had been swirling for months, it wasn’t something they thought would become reality, they said.

When the shelling started on Feb. 24, “I heard bombs and the windows were shaking,” Liubov said. “A couple of miles from us it started. It was really scary.

“We had heard a lot of rumors it was going to happen. Many Ukrainians, they did not believe there would be a move across the border.”

“From our perspective, it sounded unbelievable,” her husband added.

Today, they and their three children have settled in Port Washington. It’s not the life they once envisioned for themselves, but it’s one they are thankful for.

“We’re really grateful to America,”  Liubov said. “We’re grateful for their support and caring.”

The Kovalchuks are native Ukrainians. Vitalii was born and raised in Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine on the Black Sea. Liubov was raised in Kremchuk, in the middle of the country.

They married in 2017 and traveled through Ukraine and Europe for a time before settling in Kyiv.   

When the rumors of war began spreading, they moved out of the city for a few weeks but returned on Feb. 23 because Liubov, who was 20 weeks pregnant with triplets, had a doctor’s appointment in Kyiv on the next day.

Then the shelling began. They debated what to do, but given Liubov’s condition and the fact it was difficult to find a doctor to handle a high-risk pregnancy, they decided to stay for her 8 a.m. appointment.

Liubov had some issues and needed surgery immediately. They went to the hospital, but Vitalii wasn’t allowed in.

“The military was already in the hospital, protecting it,” Liubov said.

She was to recuperate in the hospital, but patients were being shuttled between the relative safety of the basement and their floor as shelling continued.

“Nobody was prepared. The shelters weren’t ready for the war,” Liubov said. “The sirens didn’t work (that first day). The scariest part was the night. Usually they bomb during the night.”

Wounded soldiers were already arriving at the hospital, she said, including a pregnant soldier who lost her baby and wanted to return to the front line.

“The second day, the doctor said you can stay here but it’s so dangerous,” Liubov said.

She left, and the couple headed out of the city in a convoy with three other families — all of whom are in the U.S. now.

“That was probably the hardest thing,” Vitalii said. “You’re unprepared and you try to take what’s important to you.”

What they saw was shocking, they said.

“I can’t even explain it,” Liubov said. “You go to the gas station, big men were there crying. We saw a lot of men who were in line, signing up to go to war.”

The couple headed to southwestern Ukraine, planning to cross the border at Moldova. But Vitalii couldn’t leave the country. Men ages 18 to 60 had to remain unless they had three or more children.

With three babies on the way, Vitalii tried to convince guards at the border that he should be allowed to leave.

“It didn’t count,” he said.

Their friends left, but the Kovalchuks returned to western Ukraine, close to Romania, and stayed with friends.

“It was probably the safest place,” Vitalii said. “There were no bombs (falling) but a lot of sirens.”

The stress took a toll on Liubov, so within a week they decided she should join her parents in Slovakia, where they live. There were lengthy lines of people waiting to cross near the border, but Vitalii said guards sympathetic to her condition let them drive as close to the border as possible.

After Liubov left the country, Vitalii said he worked with Doctors Without Borders and helped deliver humanitarian aid.

“I tried to be helpful,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Liubov was with her parents in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, when her water broke at 29 weeks. She went to the hospital but they transferred her to a facility in another city because they didn’t have the incubators the babies would need when they were born.

A couple hours later, on May 2, she gave birth via Cesarean section to Eleonora, Natanael and Samuel, who each weighed just more than two pounds. Liubov messaged Vitalii on her way to the operating room.

“The people there were so nice to me,” she said. Because her parents lived several hours from the hospital, they allowed her to stay in the hospital while the children were in the neonatal intensive care unit.

While most people are allowed to stay a maximum one week, she was there for 2-1/2 months.

It took three weeks for Vitalii, who was with his family in Odessa, to get the birth certificates and other necessary paperwork to leave Ukraine. He drove 24 hours straight, arriving on May 26 — a day before the couple’s wedding anniversary.

“It was so amazing to see them,” he said.

But big decisions needed to be made.

“I didn’t know what to do — should we establish life here?” he said. “My mother-in-law said, ‘Why don’t you go to the States? A lot of people seem to go there.’ I thought maybe that’s reasonable.”

It seemed a good choice, Vitalii said, because the U.S. would be safe and provide a better future for their children.

“It was a hard move. We thought, what would we need. We don’t have relatives there, so we need to have a community.”

Uniting for Ukraine, which provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their family members to come to the United States and stay for two years, had been put in place earlier that year.

To enter, Ukrainians need to have a sponsor. The Kovalchuks called Paul Pierquet, a minister they knew who with his wife Christine and family had lived and worked in Ukraine for 16 years before returning to the U.S. in 2021 and moving to Fredonia.

The Pierquets are the family life pastors at Portview Church in the Town of Port, and their church agreed to sponsor the Kovalchuks.

But first, Vitalii said, he had to convince Liubov, who was worried about moving halfway around the world to a place where they knew no one and had to start over. They argued a lot about it, Liubov said, but finally she agreed to the move.

“They sounded so supportive,” Vitalii said. “We would have people behind us, and that’s what we needed.”

They moved to Port Washington in October. Church members helped them acquire an apartment and furnishings, as well as a car and have helped care for their children, and Vitalii quickly found a job at Falcon Industrial in Port.

“The church is sacrificing for us and giving to us. It’s a huge blessing,” Liubov said. “I realize how lucky we are to be here.

“God is protecting us. Even through these difficult moments, you realize how God loves us. We are protected and surrounded by love and peace.”

“We love it here,” Vitalii said. “It’s a really nice place, safe and beautiful. There are nice people here.”

They talk often to friends and family in Ukraine, where Liubov’s cousin, like so many young men and women, is serving in the military on the front lines and other relatives can’t leave because of military obligations.

“My relatives are in the middle of the war,” Liubov said. “The Ukrainians are really fighting. There’s no way they will go under Putin’s regime.

“Ukraine’s lost so many lives. They don’t want to give away any centimeter of area.”

“The people are united,” her husband added, noting many won’t leave because they want to fight for their country. “They won’t give up.”

But the fear created by the war is becoming ingrained in people, they said.

“The worst part is they’re getting used to it,” Liubov said.

She wants to go back someday, but knows the country won’t be the same.

“I miss my community. I miss my family. I miss our lifestyle there,” she said. “My heart is with them.

“But the places you know, it’s all destroyed.”


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