Love is what brought American Meghan Neville to Ukraine – and in some ways, it’s also what forced her to leave on Monday.
Neville’s love story starts about two years ago when she was visiting the country for fun. She was at a Christmas market and heard a man speaking English.
“I just went up to him and said hi, and we hit it off really well,” she said.
They hit it off so well that she later moved to the Netherlands where he was living full time. Then they moved to Spain, where she was working at the time.
But her boyfriend, Maksym Lushpenko, dreamed of going back to his home country of Ukraine and living near his family.
“I was happy to do that,” Neville said. “It seemed like kind of an adventure at the time.”
The couple moved back last August and they were enjoying life. Neville got a job with an American company. Her boyfriend was close to his big family. There were reports about a growing tension with Russia, but it didn’t seem too dire yet, Neville said.
Then came the first email from the U.S. embassy. They were advising all Americans in Ukraine to leave as soon as they could – warning that commercial flights might stop flying to the country soon.
“I remember the day I got it. I was crying all day long. I was so scared,” Neville said. “But then I talked to a lot of Ukrainian friends here and my boyfriend and his family and … to them, it was, ‘Well … this has been happening for about eight years. It’s nothing new for us. It’s just Russia being Russia.’ “
Neville didn’t make a decision immediately. She started making a pros and cons list and talked with her friends and family back home and those in Ukraine.
“On one hand, Western media, my friends and family back in the States have been urging me almost daily with a barrage of messages saying, you know, ‘Please come home. Like, leave Ukraine. We feel scared for you,'” Neville said.
In her chats with her Ukrainian friends, many told her they felt Western media was creating a lot of this panic. At the same time, she noticed other countries getting their citizens out.
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But then President Biden made a statement about the situation. During an interview with NBC News last Thursday, he said U.S. citizens should leave Ukraine within 48 hours, adding that there were no plans for the American military to rescue them if they chose to stay.
The U.S. State Department also issued a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” advisory for Ukraine on Friday, telling Americans: “Do not travel to Ukraine due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19.”
The advisory also said that “those in Ukraine should depart immediately via commercial or private means. If remaining in Ukraine, exercise increased caution due to crime, civil unrest, and potential combat operations should Russia take military action.”
Most of the State Department’s own employees were ordered to leave the embassy in Kyiv, with a small number of people relocating to Lviv in the western part of the country.
Biden’s warning, combined with more reminders from the U.S. embassy about potential limits on commercial flights and resources, led Neville and her boyfriend to leave Ukraine on Monday.
“Honestly, it’s really hard to leave,” Neville said. “My partner’s whole family is here, and they really don’t have any options to leave financially visa-wise. It’s a really difficult situation, so it’s hard for him and I’m not going to leave him behind.”
Flying out of Lviv, the couple landed in Warsaw after a full day of travel and stress.
“There weren’t very many planes leaving, but the ones that were leaving were pretty packed. Ours was completely booked,” Neville said. “But we made it here. [We are] very relieved to be feeling safe in Warsaw and sad to leave Ukraine.”
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The hard decision to leave is one that American James Joeriman also ultimately made.
Joeriman is the president of the Rotary Club Lviv International and has worked in Ukraine for nearly a decade. He and his wife, who is Ukrainian, have two children who are in school. The family also has a cat and a hamster.
“If I don’t absolutely have to upend all of that — because I’m afraid once that’s upended, [we] may never be able to come back here and restore what we had,” Joeriman said.
Ahead of his final decision, Joeriman said he thought about what might happen if Russia did invade.
“I sit and ask myself, like, ‘What are you doing? Even if it’s a small risk, you’re responsible for more than your own life,'” he said.
After countless emails from the U.S. embassy, a phone call came and that’s when Joeriman decided to book a flight for his family to the U.S.
Unlike Neville and Joeriman, Father Philip Gilbert isn’t evacuating, though his friends and family in California are worried about him.
“I get lots of messages and emails from people back in the States asking how I’m doing,” Gilbert said. “Am I OK? Am I safe? Any mother who’s on the other side of the world worries because she doesn’t exactly know all the details.”
Gilbert moved to Lviv three years ago to pursue his master’s degree in theology. Since then, he’s gotten married and decided to stay for another degree. He says his life is “more or less here in Ukraine” now.
The mood is also completely different in Lviv than what he is getting from his friends and family in America. Everyone Gilbert knows in Ukraine is calm, he said, adding that evacuation plans hadn’t even been a topic of discussion among the clergy at the Greek Catholic monastery.
“That’s not to say there isn’t a real threat,” Gilbert said. “[But] I’m not leaving anywhere without my wife, and my wife is not an American citizen and can’t enter the United States. So while I’m aware and keeping my eye on the situation, we’re planning to stay here. I mean, there’s really no other option.”
Amid the difficult decisions to stay or leave, there is still hope that things remain peaceful. Neville said she sees Ukraine as a country of love and that she and her boyfriend hope to return in a month or so.
“We really want to return back to Ukraine,” she said. “We love it here. We love our life here. And this whole thing is just really upsetting.”
NPR’s Joanna Kakissis and Elissa Nadworny contributed to this story.
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