Solomiia Kuchma clings to her mother at the doors of the Lake Harriet Community School. After her father left them in Ukraine to fight the Russians, the little girl in golden pigtails cannot bear to lose another parent far away in a foreign country.
She sobbed every morning at the southwest Minneapolis school for weeks, even as her mother, Nataliia Kuchma, kept saying, "I will not leave you — it's just kindergarten."
The smiling secretary coaxes 5-year-old Solomiia inside for breakfast, bringing out teddy bears and Play-Doh to comfort her as Nataliia watches from the window. Solomiia looks back again and again — is her mother still here? Nataliia nods. She blows her daughter kisses. She waves. Solomiia is on the brink of tears for a few moments, but she no longer cries. As class is about to start, she runs out to her mother for one last hug.
Nataliia and her daughter are among at least 700 Ukrainians who have escaped to Minnesota in the wake of the Russian invasion. As Ukraine bans men of fighting age from leaving the country, most of the nation's refugees are women and children. War has made Nataliia, 36, a de facto single mother for the first time, leaving behind all she has ever known to keep her girl far from Russian attacks.
"He stays and defends our country," Nataliia says of her husband. "I ... defend our daughter."
They didn't believe it, at first.
As word of Russian aggression intensified, friends urged Nataliia's family to prepare because they lived in the Ukranian city of Sumy, about 25 miles west of the Russian border.
Then frantic calls from colleagues came early Feb. 24.
"Nataliia, it's begun. The Russians are in our territory."
She was a doctor; her husband ran an online business. Their decision to flee was as swift as it was wrenching. "We know Russian people ... want to destroy Ukraine," Nataliia said. "And if this happens, we must escape very far from here."
She piled into a car with her husband, daughter and sister Yaroslava. But the Kuchmas feared taking highways and a direct western route across Ukraine, especially through the capital of Kyiv. They also worried that Russian attacks would compromise bridges that they would need to cross the Dnipro River. They pursued a winding southern route, often bumping over narrow, shoddy roads.
More than 600 miles later, they found refuge with relatives in western Ukraine. Surely, it would be over soon. But one week passed. Then two. On the third, her husband decided he would leave to join the armed forces.
A picture they took the day of his departure shows the family of three calmly smiling, as though war is not rending them apart. But when the camera was down, Solomiia sobbed.
"Don't go," she begged her father. "I love you. I want you to stay with me."
He could not. Days later, Nataliia, Solomiia and Yaroslava crossed the border to Slovakia, where they exhausted their savings staying in a refugee hostel for six months. Through a series of people who knew people, they connected with a Minneapolis couple, Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk and Thomas Cronk, who agreed to sponsor them through Uniting for Ukraine, offering a way for Ukrainians to stay in the U.S. for up to two years on humanitarian parole.
The Kuchmas arrived in Minneapolis on Sept. 13 with one bag each.
Lessons of America
"Anybody has a guess of what Minneapolis means?" the teacher asks.
Nataliia looks at the multiple-choice list.
"Great water," she guesses.
"It's actually city of water."
Nataliia, her sister and her daughter are attending their weekly class for Ukrainian refugees at the Ukrainian American Community Center, where teacher Carrie Mann orients them to life in America. Mann, a teacher from the International Institute of Minnesota, asks her students — six women, two children and a man — to share observations about their new country. Nataliia says she that here, children have more say in how they look and dress. "The child understands I am free," she says. "I have my dreams."
Others note that Americans enjoy far more "personal space" in public. Some of the nations' differences baffle them. Why do American stores start selling Christmas wares months early? Why are so many people in such a powerful country homeless on the streets?
"Americans do not like taxes. … Many other countries are taxed more and have more of a social net for people and that may affect you as you apply for social benefits," Mann tells the class. "You'll see there are some, but there's usually not enough to support you if you're not working at all."
Nataliia once left her flat at the start of each day to teach medical students and help patients at the hospital in Ukraine. But a few mornings after her class in Minnesota, she puzzles over a jumble of letters about her eligibility for welfare and food stamps at the kitchen table in her sponsors' Fulton neighborhood home.
She was approved for nutritional assistance, but why had the county turned her down for cash aid? She needs the money; she has yet to receive her work permit. Her medical license does not apply here; she is contemplating a job as a nurse's or doctor's assistant.
Nataliia phones Hennepin County. She waits on hold for 10 minutes.
The woman on the line tells her she is eligible for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state's welfare-to-work program, but was denied earlier because she hadn't yet had 30 days of residency. Now that some weeks had passed, she would receive $357 in cash and another $110 for a housing grant.
"The cash benefits that I just approved will go on your EBT card," the woman says.
"So will I receive both benefits on the same card?"
"Yes, you will."
'We fight for our homeland'
Solomiia hears that rockets are killing Ukrainians. Nataliia tells her that Russia is their enemy.
"Will my father be alive?" Solomiia asks.
"Yes," her mother replies. "He will be alive."
Nataliia tries to video chat with her husband Volodymyr Kuchma every morning, though they sometimes go days without talking when the internet falters in the Ukrainian countryside.
"Of course, I miss my daughter and my wife. It's tough when they are very far from here, but I'm happy they are safe," Volodymyr tells the Star Tribune during one such call. He stayed because "it's my duty ... and as a man, I should protect my country to save it for the future, to save when my wife and daughter come back."
He is near Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine — home to Europe's largest nuclear power plant and the site of heavy missile strikes — and works as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist disabling Russian bombs.
"I really believe this war will be won and everything will be good because we are right," Volodymyr says. "We fight for our homeland; we fight for our families, for our daughters and sons and their future. And Russians fight — I don't know about what. About empire, about their ambitions, about Putin. … They are fighting about nothing."
That day, Yaroslava, 31, is in tears over the revelation that her childhood friend, a Ukrainian sniper, was killed in the war, and a heaviness settles over the Kuchmas. They also worry that many are going without electricity and heat; her boyfriend's father sleeps in a jacket. A fitness instructor in Sumy, Yaroslava still teaches online workouts to her old clients, but they sometimes miss classes to seek refuge in bomb shelters.
Nataliia knows some people are tiring of the Ukrainian cause amid surging inflation and Europe's energy crisis. But if her homeland falls, Nataliia says, she believes other countries will be next.
"Putin never stops, like Stalin … and Hitler. It's typical of these dictators. No, they don't stop. Why people think if Ukraine falls, it will be normal?" Nataliia shakes her head. "No."
Amid their strife, Solomiia finds joy in Halloween. She exclaims "pumpkin!" at the sight of every jack-o'-lantern they pass. It is among the smattering of English words she has learned, and the girl is eager to dress up as a cat and go trick-or-treating for the first time.
She has made a few American friends at school, but she can still be slow to socialize, even among Ukrainians. At the Ukrainian American Community Center, Solomiia draws a picture of herself with her parents and the cat they left behind. Someone posts it on the wall alongside other children's renderings of the war: a fighter jet, weapons, a popular meme of a Ukrainian tractor pulling a Russian tank. But when a man tries to high-five her, she clings to her mother. When Nataliia urges her to join other children at a Ukrainian dance class, she burrows herself in her mother's side.
This week, Nataliia uses her cash assistance to buy Solomiia warmer clothes.
The Kuchma sisters have a family tradition of going to their parents' village to help plant and harvest potatoes, taking home a hearty bundle. Now they use their food stamps to buy potatoes at the supermarket. They mash them to serve alongside beef patties for dinner Thursday evening. Yaroslava talks about her renewed resolve to be happy, here in this moment, in the midst of so much loss.
As the Kuchmas eat, they mull over Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech that day lambasting the West. Could they really believe his claim that he would not use nuclear weapons against Ukraine? Were they headed for a third world war?
Solomiia suddenly bangs her fist on the table and cries out in Ukrainian.
"Russian soldiers, go [back] to Russia!"