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Ojai residents embrace mom and 3 children escaping war in Ukraine

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Photos by Lee Roberts

From left, Max, Nikita, Elena, and Nika plan to make Ojai their home after escaping from Ukraine.

By Lee Roberts Special to the Ojai Valley News

Five days before Vladimir Putin’s soldiers invaded Ukraine on Feb. 19, Kyiv native Elena and her three children boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles to visit her younger sister. What had been planned as Elena’s 36th birthday celebration and solo trip to Ojai turned quickly into a narrow escape for her and her three children that — in a lucky twist — landed them in a house on Eric Goode’s Turtle Conservancy in Ojai.

Elena had been to Ojai before, since her sister, Iana (pronounced YAH-nah), who now lives in Ojai, had come to the United States in 2016 to attend the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. 

Both women asked the Ojai Valley News not to print their last names out of concern for family members in Ukraine. 

When Ojai resident Jennifer Goode learned that Elena and her family were planning to stay in Ojai to escape the war, she helped them find a place to live.

Until the Feb. 24 invasion, Elena said many of her friends had imagined Putin’s threats to be largely bluster. When she found herself making last-minute reservations so her children — twin 10-year-olds Max and Nika, and 11-year-old son Nikita — could travel with her to Ojai, she said she was acting on a nagging intuition, not logic. “I didn’t understand; I just felt that I could not leave them behind,” she said.

Elena and her children had traveled widely, in part because Elena works as a fashion designer with her own label. With her children safe, she said she worries about her Ukrainian work team of six women. Many have young children and live “in and around Kyiv.” 

Suspended between feeling guilty and lucky for her accidental escape, the designer said she has contacted apparel industry colleagues in Poland to find work there for her employees who can get across the border. “Poland is getting full, though,” she said, gesturing as if holding a growing ball. Unable to gain access to her accountant or bank because “no one goes to the offices … or answers the phone,” it has been challenging for her to help her team, she said.

She worries also about her children’s father, from whom she is divorced. The children speak to him every day.

Although Elena’s parents and grandparents resisted leaving Kyiv, they fled to the Carpathian Mountains in early March. Since then, Elena said they have heard shelling, even in their remote area. Elena said her children also worry about their friends and family. Sounding more like a philosopher than an 11 year-old boy, Nikita asked his mother recently, “How did we get so lucky to be in Ojai when the war came to Ukraine?”

Locally, Goode’s alma mater, Ojai Valley School, has opened its arms to the children. Goode and another Ojai-Ukraine connection, Olena Kachur, helped connect the boys to OVS and arranged for them to join co-curricular activities three afternoons a week. The twins speak almost no English; Nikita, who is fluent in French, understands a bit more. However, they are all rapidly picking up English, Goode said. Both the OVS Lower Campus Head Laurie Clark, and Assistant Head Mike Mahon have welcomed the family, Elena said,

Also, Ojai Valley Athletic Club provided a 14-day club pass to the entire family.

Max, who was keen to return to his soccer-playing routine — reminding his mother, mid-interview, about signing the necessary paperwork — is now playing on team Nigeria, a 12U local AYSO team. His favorite position is forward.

People responded enthusiastically to a GoFundMe, set up to help offset the family’s expenses for necessities. 

Elena’s family is eligible to apply for Temporary Protected Status, by the smallest of margins. According to the New York Times, all Ukrainians in the United States on or before March 1 may apply. Once the status is granted, the family will have an 18-month grace period to stay and work in the United States.

Elena plans to stay in Ojai and is looking to rent a place by May. Goode has volunteered to act as a conduit for anyone who would like to help the family in any way.  She can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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