Svetlana “Lana” Semenova and Yuliia Yermakova, childhood friends in Ukraine but separated for years by thousands of miles, are together again. Yermakova and her family fled Ukraine after Russia's invasion and found refuge from the horrors of war in Semenova's Huntington home.
Since earlier this month, Yermakova and her two children, son Andrii, 13, and daughter Emiliia, 11, have lived with Semenova, her husband, Roy, and daughter, Anastasia, 4, in their hilltop home in Huntington.
“I can’t even put into words what I was feeling, but lots of fear,” Yermakova said in Russian, as Semenova translated. “It’s extremely difficult because they had a good life. The kids had a good routine. They had a business and a new president that they believed would make things for the better.”
Semenova said she couldn't sit idly at home, while her native country suffered.
“At first, I couldn't find myself. I didn't know what to do with my emotions. I never felt this way,” she said. “I felt guilty for everything we had. I channeled my emotions to try to help and bring them here. I still watch the news and my heart hurts.”
The Yermakova family is among more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine since late February, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Among those millions, several thousand are now in the United States.
Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it is expanding Temporary Protected Status eligibility for Ukrainians living in the United States. The department estimates that approximately 59,600 people may be eligible for TPS under the designation of Ukraine. Last month, Biden pledged to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the war.
Yermakova said she and her children lived in Kyiv and were forced to flee on a packed train bound for Poland on March 2 with just a small backpack each, filled with underwear, a shirt, pants and a sweater. To avoid being a target of the Russian military, the train didn’t have lights or heat, making the 24-hour trip a cold and stressful ordeal, she said.
Before taking off, and while Yermakova said goodbye to her husband, Dmitri, who stood on the platform with the other Ukrainian fathers, she heard a bomb go off in the city.
With the help from community leaders, Semenova was able to bring the family over from Poland on April 8 — the same day 26 years ago she came to the United States.
Her friends's situation is familiar to her, said Semenova, who left Ukraine in 1996 to escape the antisemitism she faced years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When she came to America, she didn’t have support. She wanted to change that for Yermakova and her family.
“I remember my first year like it was yesterday,” Semenova said. “It was extremely difficult. We did not have anyone here. I know how important it is.”
Yermakova and her children are now trying to adjust to life in a new country. From 2 until 7 a.m. the children take virtual lessons with their Ukrainian classmates and teachers.
Emiliia is still pursuing her dream of competing in the Olympics in rhythmic gymnastics. She currently trains close to 30 hours a week, including at Empire Rhythmic gymnastics in Roslyn, which is not charging for the sessions.
In Ukraine, Emiliia said, gymnastics to her meant “a lot of hard work, so that in the future so I can be a star.” She said the transition has been difficult because she misses her trainers and friends back home.
She also trains in Flushing, but the family has a challenging time getting to the training without a car.
For her brother Andrii, he’s looking forward to joining the South Huntington Dragons soccer team in the coming months, where he’ll look to emulate his idol, Lionel Messi.
Semenova said her neighbors and other community members have shown a great deal of support, including by donating clothes, money and a guitar for Andrii. Camp W Day Camp is also providing free summer camp for the children.
Though things seem to be going smoother for Yermakova and her family in the United States, she hopes to return to one day to Ukraine.
“She always says she’d love to go back as long as there’s something to go back to,” Semenova said of her friend.
With Cecilia Dowd