CANYON LAKE, Texas — More than 14 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began three months ago. Oleksandra Belinska is among the 20,000 asylum seekers who crossed through the U.S.-Mexico border.
She’s now living with relatives in the heart of Texas Hill Country while the war rages on in her homeland.
“My life in Ukraine was perfect. I left everything, and of course it was very difficult,” Belinska said.
Belinska grew up in Kazakhstan before moving with most of her family to western Ukraine when she was 16.
She graduated from university and, after multiple job changes, achieved her dream job working in information technologies for an international company.
“Five years ago, I wouldn’t even believe that I could have my apartment, the job of my life,” she said.
Russia’s months-long buildup of military forces along the Ukraine border prompted international worry and failed diplomatic attempts at easing tensions. Belinska expressed she had contingency plans in the event Russia did invade. Her parents knew she would potentially evacuate Ukraine if the time came.
President Vladamir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, shelling major cities such as the capital Kyiv, which is where Belinska and her parents lived.
One of Belinska’s friends texted her saying the airport was shut down. No flights were coming in or out of Kyiv. Belinska quickly realized her nation was under attack and the war had begun.
From one day to the next, the lives of millions of Ukrainians changed as highways became packed with families desperate for sanctuary in neighboring Poland, among other countries.
“I was in shock. I called my mom and right away I started to pack my suitcase because I understood that it’s dangerous to stay there,” she said.
Belinska recalls running down a flight of 20 stairs to her apartment’s parking garage where dozens of residents made refuge as sirens blared due to the threat of incoming Russian artillery strikes.
Belinska’s parents accompanied her to a nearby railway station where she boarded a train to Vienna.
Everything happened so fast as adrenaline rushed through her body. She hopped on board the train alongside hundreds of other Ukrainians seeking a way out of the war-torn nation. Belinska’s parents stood on the train platform uncertain of their daughter’s fate.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to hug them, to say goodbye and I started to cry, and I didn’t know if I would be able to see them again,” Belinska said.
Belinksa’s journey would eventually lead her to Mexico City, where she met a group of Ukrainian women. Together, they traveled to Texas’ southern border, many with just a suitcase and passports in hand.
“I just understood that, if it’s (the) Texas border, my relatives live here... I need to try to take this chance,” Belinska said.
Belinska considered herself lucky to cross the border without issue in late April, being granted humanitarian parole just a few days before the Biden administration shutdown the ease of access for Ukrainians lacking proper documentation along the southern border.
The White House implemented the Uniting for Ukraine program as a way to streamline the immigration process of up to 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war without having refugees go through Mexico. The program involves extensive vetting of refugees and families wishing to become hosts for sponsored asylum seekers.
Belinska admits she used to be a regimented planner in life. But ever since the war started, she’s recognized the need to slow down and take each day as it comes.
She currently resides with Ukrainian relatives in Canyon Lake who’ve lived in the U.S. for at least a decade. Belinska is still able to work remotely. It’s unknown what the immediate future holds for her.
“Europe was pretty cold. It’s hard to believe that it can be so peaceful and warm and safe,” she said.
Belinska said her mother has left Ukraine while her father and other family members remain in the country.
She believes God helped her secure safe passage around the world. But Belinska stressed she’s grateful for the chance to continue living. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Ukrainian civilians have died since the invasion began three months ago.
Her heart remains with her homeland thousands of miles away. She prays for the survival of Ukraine and an end to the bloodshed.
“I definitely believe that Ukraine will be a great country. It will win. I have no doubts."