MUSCODA - The news of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has dominated much of the world news lately. Many of us find ourselves waking up in the morning and scrolling through our phones looking and seeing the news updates in between pictures of family and friends.
For Mike Kinch of Muscoda, the news of the events in Ukraine had a different meaning. Kinch’s daughter Athena has been living in Kharkiv with her grandmother. Athena was there when the city began getting bombed and invaded. At just 17, she has gone from living the average life of a teenager, working on her studies and enjoying life, to enduring life-shattering war and subsequent escape to safety.
Athena has lived in Kharkiv for the past nine years, going to school and staying with her grandmother, while her mother lives in Cypress and father in Muscoda. Mike and Athena’s mother Ellie met when Athena was just three years old and Mike was working doing FEMA Clean up and Ellie was a translator for the United Nations. The couple made the choice to send Athena to school in the Ukraine with her grandmother because of the opportunities for a top notch education.
However when the news of the attacks began, the family’s world was turned upside down.
“I’ve spent the last week trying to get my 17-year-old daughter out of Kharkov city center alive,” Mike said. “The first day the Russian’s attacked Kharkov the explosions rattled the windows and she went to hide in the bathroom of her home. The next day, her best friend invited her to shelter in the basement of a shopping center where she worked. We were happy to hear this because we thought it would be safer than the apartment bathroom.”
The feelings of being able to breathe a sigh of relief were quickly abandoned when Mike saw the shopping center where his daughter and her friend were sheltering, being bombarded by artillery on CNN.
“That night the Russians unleashed a hell storm of artillery, rocket fire, and cluster bombs on her neighborhood and those around it,” Mike recalled. “Again, I saw it on CNN, and I literally felt sick. The next morning I waited anxiously for news if she was dead or alive. Luckily, she was alive. She said the barrage lasted through the night and it only let up about an hour after daylight. She heard the screams and cries for help all night long from the less fortunate ones.”
Although the bombing and devastation harkens back for many to war torn images during the World Wars, the juxtaposition of modern technology has been a life line for many, including Mike.
“They turn off all of the utilities at night there, so morning here, but during the day we’ve been able to communicate with her via Facebook Messenger and video chatting,” Mike explained. Also noting that they’ve been able to supply her with funds through the Western Union App to help keep her journey going.
After the bombardment, the evacuation trains to Poland began running. Athena’s grandmother, who suffers from various medical and physical limitations, had urged Athena to go on to the train station without her, but Athena would not go without her.
“It’s a two hour walk to the train station,” Mike explained. “And her grandmother has severe asthma and a recently replaced hip among other disabilities. The walk is very perilous for civilians and from the beginning they were subjected to small arms and artillery fire.”
The pair were able to make it to the train station unscathed, but they were among thousands of others who were also attempting to escape from the attacks.
“They got to the train station in one piece, but so did thousands of other people,” Mike said. “They didn’t get on the 2 p.m. train and waited until the one at 5 p.m. but they weren’t able to get a seat on that one either so they had to walk two more hours through a war zone to get back home.”
Mike shared that other close friends of his who lived in Ukraine also endured horrors when one friend and their group went out on bicycles to get water, when they were attacked, and many died. Athena and her grandmother sought shelter through the night again as bombardment continued just before dusk shortly after they arrived at their destination.
The next day they tried once again to get seats on the two trains bound for Poland but once again, they were unable to secure seats. And found themselves back in the cycle of a dangerous trek home, followed by more bombing.
On the third day, Athena’s grandmother was unable to make the journey again. As Mike notes, despite recently undergoing hip replacement, she was in more pain than ever, and sent Athena to the station on her own. Luckily, she was not completely alone on this journey, as she shared her walking path with numerous other people braving the streets to make it to safety.
It was here, on the third day, that Athena was able to make it out of Ukraine. Unfortunately this was without her grandmother.
“The train they took had to go through Lviv, and the news reports stated that, that was where the heaviest fighting was going to move to,” Mike explained. “We worried about that, we worried about the possibilities of the Russians attacking the trains as well.”
Thankfully, Mike was able to communicate with a friend in Odessa who shared with Mike that she was in Lviv, also evacuating and was able to confirm that it was safe.
“That calmed my nerves a bit,” Mike said.
As Lviv is near the border of Poland, Mike and Ellie, separated by water and land, thousands of miles away, awaited news of their daughter’s safe arrival into the country.
“That evening, Ellie wrote to me that our daughter was in a refugee camp in western Ukraine,” Mike said. “I was informed that because she was an unaccompanied minor she would not be allowed to continue.
Her grandmother basically sacrificed herself to get Athena out, and now because of it, she wasn’t allowed to continue to safety.”
Mike shared that the last two weeks have been the most difficult time he’s faced in his life.
“It has seemed like two days in a year all at the same time,” Mike explained. “Watching them get bombed on TV has been surreal. I’ve had panic attacks, I’ve cried more in a week than I’ve cried in my life.”
Initially, Mike was told that it could take up to a month to sort out the red tape for Athena to continue. But shortly after, he was told the problem could go away and bus tickets purchased for 1500 Polish Ztoty, which equals approximately $346 USD. Mike immediately wired the money, and Athena was on her way to Poland.
Along the way, Mike and Ellie later found out, Athena had paired up with a boy two years younger than her who was also trying to escape from Ukraine.
The young boy, named Oscar, was sent out of the war by his family in hopes that he would find some way to survive in the west until they’re able to join him, if they survive.
“Athena didn’t tell us at first she was traveling with a boy,” Mike said with a chuckle. “I realized later that is why the bus tickets were higher, it was for two, not just hers. She didn’t want to tell us at first because she was worried we wouldn’t want to pay for his way too, but we are of course more than happy to help him get to safety and glad that they are traveling together.”
Despite fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the pair made it safely to Poland. From there they were able to connect with distant relatives to help them make their way to Milan, Italy, where Athena has many close friends and family that were waiting for them.
“Athena wants to settle there (in Italy), her mothers cousin who she will live with is a teacher and promised me she will make sure Athena finishes her studies and graduates. We will also take care of Oscar as long as he needs us as well.
I keep thinking of the Harry Potter movie, where he lives under the stairs and lives on scraps while the relatives kid has everything, I don’t want to be those people, so I will treat this boy just like he were my own for as long as he needs us,” Mike said.
Mike hopes to be able to reconnect with Athena and meet Oscar in person in the near future, but for now he notes that they’ve been very fortunate with modern technology to be able to feel close through video chatting and messaging despite being so far apart.Athena’s Grandmother is still sheltering in the Metro (subway station) for the time being, Mike shared. Noting that she is running low on her asthma medication and hasn’t been able to safely evacuate yet. However, he and Ellie remain in touch with her and have been able to wire her money and hope she will be able to get out to safety soon.