If his daughter in the Bay Area hadn’t sent a tweet asking for help, 69-year-old Yevgenii Burdol and his 94-year-old mother likely would still be stranded in their apartment in Kyiv, as bombing continues to devastate the Ukrainian capital.
“I just decided to go on Twitter and try to do what I do as a journalist, which is look for information, talk to people. So I put out a tweet,” said Katia Savchuk, a freelance journalist in San Rafael.
Savchuk has written for multiple major media outlets and developed a substantial Twitter presence, with more than 6,500 followers. But she still didn’t expect the response she got: more than 30,000 retweets and more than 90,000 likes, along with at least 100 direct messages of support.
Among the tens of thousands of people who saw the tweet, one would eventually help them find a path to safety.
More than 3 million refugees now have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion at the end of February. This week, UNICEF shared the harrowing statistic that the conflict is creating a new child refugee almost every second. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday addressed U.S. lawmakers, imploring them and President Biden to send more support, and sharing a jarring video documenting the devastation in his country.
While officials have some sense of the number of people the war is displacing, it’s harder to keep track of how many have made it to safety.
But Yevgenii and Zoia Burdol are two of the lucky ones. They reached a hotel in Heidelberg, Germany late last week – it’s now their temporary home until they figure out what’s next.
Savchuk, who is Jewish, was born in Kyiv and emigrated to the United States in 1989, at age 3, when her mother and maternal grandmother fled antisemitism in the Soviet Union. Her father stayed behind.
Savchuk says she didn’t see him again in person until she was 21, nearly two decades later. They’ve kept in touch through phone calls and messaging apps, and she had been checking in on him often as the prospect of war grew increasingly imminent. Her father didn’t initially believe the invasion would happen, she says, but not long after Putin launched the attacks, he told her that he was seriously considering evacuation options.
“He’s a man of few words and not very emotive … so when he told me, you know, ‘I’m worried. I’m concerned,’” Savchuk said, “that really scared me because he doesn’t normally admit that kind of thing.”
Her father and grandmother, Zoia, had been living for days amid air sirens and keeping their lights out at night to avoid being an easier target for Russian aircraft. Because of her mobility issues, Zoia did not feel safe getting all the way down to their building’s basement bomb shelter, where she would likely have been packed into a crowded, confined space. Savchuk decided she needed to do what she could to find help for them before things got worse.
A lot of the advice Savchuk received in response to her tweet wasn’t applicable to her family’s situation. Her grandmother has limited mobility and recently had recovered from COVID-19. Savchuk said she probably hadn’t left the house in a year. Because of her condition, making the journey on a bus or a train, with the potential for long stops in freezing weather, wasn’t an option.
Finding a car was the ideal route, but Savchuk’s father has a disability related to his eye and neck that prevents him from driving. So they needed to find someone willing to take them.
Among the people who responded to the tweet was a German journalist whom Savchuk had never met.
“He knew Wladimir Klitschko, who is a famous Ukrainian boxer, and his brother, Vitali Klitschko, who’s the mayor of Kyiv. And he mentioned the situation to them, and they decided that they wanted to help,” Savchuk said.
The Klitschkos requested assistance from the Territorial Defense Forces, Ukraine’s new military branch that everyday civilians have been joining to defend their homeland. Volunteers from the force and a logistics group informed the Burdols of their departure date, set for March 8.
“So they found a Toyota minivan that the dealership just lent to them, really,” Savchuk said.
Savchuk’s father and grandmother, along with a family friend — and that friend’s pet parrot — loaded into the van and set off on their multiday journey across multiple borders from Ukraine to Germany.
Just weeks earlier, their heavily armed escorts were regular civilians, Savchuk notes.
“In normal times, you know, one of them’s a film producer and on the city council. But now they’re wearing bulletproof vests. They have Kalashnikovs,” she said.
Two days later, on March 10, the Burdols arrived safely at their hotel in Heidelberg. Savchuk says her grandmother surprised everyone involved with how well she handled the long journey.
“I think one of the first things she did when they arrived in the hotel was to ask for some cognac,” Savchuk said.
And the two already have been embraced in their first week there.
“I know they have been invited to take part in a press conference. They’ve been featured in at least two German newspapers and also in TV broadcasts,” she said. “I know that they had a visit with the mayor of Heidelberg and with the chief rabbi of Heidelberg, so they’re being warmly welcomed.”
Savchuk’s grandmother — who lost both of her parents in the Holocaust — told one news outlet that she was relieved to no longer fear dying in a hail of gunfire and bombs.
Savchuk said that while her family will be able to stay at the hotel for the immediate future, their longer-term horizon is unclear at this point.
‘You did the impossible’
“I think it’s all a big question mark right now, and they’re just trying to rest and recover and probably just feel the weight of the fact that they left their homeland … where they’ve lived all their lives and just left with a couple of suitcases,” Savchuk said.
In the midst of all of this, Savchuk was caring for her 11-month-old baby and working on a freelance project — her first piece for The New Yorker, which also was centered on the war.
As a journalist with an online profile, Savchuk knows her platform undoubtedly gave her access to resources and suggestions that many others don’t have.
“A sense of guilt or privilege that, you know, I was able to tap this network and sort of move mountains,” she said. “My dad’s friend who went with them said, ‘You did the impossible.’” Now, Savchuk has been trying to use the knowledge she’s gained to help people in similar situations, and she’s compiled a Google Doc with a list of support services.
But as the devastation in Ukraine continues, she is grappling with conflicting emotions.
“It’s a very confusing mix of relief, you know, that my grandmother doesn’t have to cower in fear after everything that she’s been through,” she said, “and while at the same time, just realizing that we kind of just got really lucky. It was really a one-off solution.”
March 18: In the radio version of this story, which aired on KQED’s The California Report on March 11, Katia Savchuk’s father, Yevgenii Burdol’s age, was described as being 70. He is 69. Also, the story said the Burdols have family in San Francisco; Savchuk, who previously lived in San Francisco, now lives in San Rafael.