Editor’s Note: Veteran news anchor Susan Siman first brought this story to News 3 Now viewers with her special report, “From Kyiv to Madison.” But there was so much more to the story that it led to her first feature for Madison Magazine.
An American family and a Ukrainian family were separated by 5,000 miles but were forever united as friends. Then the war upended all of their lives. As one Ukrainian mother and her two children seek refuge in their friends’ already full Fitchburg home, both families are left to grapple with what happened, who was left behind and what comes next.
In February, Anne and Jeff Munson sat in their Fitchburg living room glued to their screens, watching the horrifying events in Ukraine unfold. They were searching in stunned disbelief for glimmers of hope amid the Russian invasion of a country with which they had deep ties. Each of their four children had been adopted from Ukraine orphanages years ago, but it was more than that. They’d grown close to their Ukrainian interpreter, Vitaliy Bykov, and his wife, Snizhana Bykova.
Desperate for news of her friends, Anne Munson picked up the telephone. Miraculously, Bykova answered.
“Where are you?” Munson said. “What do you need? How can we help?”
Bykova told Munson that she, her husband and their two children had made the heartbreaking decision to flee their home and travel to western Ukraine.
“I need to see your face,” Munson replied. “I need to hear your voice. We’ve been so worried.”
Two weeks later, all but Vitaliy Bykov would be living in the Munsons’ Fitchburg home, and Munson would finally hear the incredible details of her friends’ harrowing escape.
An Impossible Decision
February 22, 2022, is a date that will be forever etched in Bykova’s memory. It was the day she faced an impossible choice: Live in a war zone or leave everything and flee to safety.
“It is difficult to do,” Bykova says. “Your mind and your inside says that you should act, but your body refuses.”
Bykova chose to flee with her husband and children. They borrowed a friend’s car, abandoned their home and all their possessions in Kyiv, and headed into the unknown.
Forty-eight hours later, Russia began a full-scale assault of Ukraine.
“I knew we were in danger, but many people didn’t believe me,” Bykova says. “I had many open talks with my friends saying probably we are in danger. They all said, ‘Oh no, you are kidding. It’s impossible. Putin will never do it.’ But I know the Russian mentality and I knew the issues we’ve had for many years. Real war started eight years ago.”
Before the Russian invasion, Kyiv was a European city of 2.8 million people known for its golden-domed churches, bustling shops and brightly lit restaurants. It was home to 46-year-old Bykova, her husband, Bykov, and their two children, Daniil, 19, and Arina, 9.
“We had a good life,” Bykova says. “We had a nice apartment, many friends and good jobs. I cannot believe that this is real.”
As rumors of a Russian invasion in Ukraine slowly cast a shadow across the country from east to west, Bykova could no longer ignore the nagging intuition that she should get prepared.
“As a woman and as a mom, I knew I had to do something,” Bykova says. “I had many, many attempts to bring a suitcase up. Finally, I did it. I pushed myself and I did it.”
Bykova packed a few snacks, enough money to last a while and two suitcases. One held a couple of outfits for each of them and the other was filled with critical paperwork.
“I had a little suitcase with all of my documents,” Bykova says. “Medical records of my kids, my diplomas, my apartment lease, all our passports. We were lucky people to have United States B-1 and B-2 traveler visas.”
Bykova had first visited the United States in 2008 when her son, Daniil, was 4. In 2018 they’d returned to visit universities and colleges, as well as friends in Canada. In a stroke of luck, the visas were still valid. Bykova would soon learn how lifesaving they turned out to be.
In the dead of night on Thursday, Feb. 24, reports cascaded across the internet and exploded on social media. Messages like “Russian action will begin at 4 a.m.” shot through cyberspace to warn of “an imminent invasion” by Russian troops amassed along the borders of Ukraine. Hours earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced the start of a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine.
By nightfall, as roads out of Kyiv were gridlocked and the city’s residents went underground to bomb shelters and basements, the Bykovs were already gone.
“It’s extremely difficult to make the decision to say, ‘Go, run, escape,’ ” Bykova says. “You have to do the first step.”
They drove for 10 hours to the tiny village of Verkhovyna in the mountains of western Ukraine, where they stayed at a 130-year-old cottage.
“This house witnessed the First World War and the Second World War,” Bykova says. “We had to put logs on the fire every three hours to stay warm. Two other families stayed with us. Twelve people, including six kids, in this tiny, small house. But I started to feel that this is my real home.”
Bykova called her 74-year-old mother. The news from home was ominous. Explosions were rocking Kyiv, painting the sky orange. Bykova could hear air raid sirens in the background.
“My mom had not slept,” Bykova says. “My family are very simple people. They don’t have documents or international passports. I can’t even tell you how hard it was to leave my family behind. It’s impossible to realize that you are more or less safe, but they are not.”
Despite their fear and heartbreak, Bykova and her husband considered themselves lucky. They were several days ahead of the crush of refugees that would soon overwhelm Ukraine’s borders to the west.
“It’s not possible to go from Ukraine directly to the United States,” Bykova says. “We decided to go through the Romania border. It was the closest and there was already a crowd of refugees coming from Kyiv and other cities.”
Once they reached the border, Bykova’s phone rang. It was her friend Anne Munson calling from half a world away in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, to share the news that airline tickets would be waiting for her once she reached Romania.
The Munsons first met the Bykovs when they began their international adoption journey back in 2002.
“We actually started with Russia,” Anne Munson says. “At the time, U.S. adoption was more difficult because adoptions kind of go in waves. We weren’t sure about an open adoption, so we were encouraged to try international.”
A year and a half into the process, in late September 2004, they traveled to Ukraine for the first time. “I always tell people who are interested in international adoption to get started right away,” Munson says. “It takes a very long time.”
The average international adoption in Ukraine for an American family takes two to five years and costs $35,000, according to americanadoptions.com.
“We knew we wanted to adopt two children the first time we adopted,” Munson says. “We wanted a boy and a girl. But, in Ukraine, you don’t receive information upfront about children. You go to Ukraine and the dossiers of children are presented to you.”
The Munsons worked with a U.S. adoption agency that had contacts in Kyiv. That’s how they met their Ukrainian interpreter, Bykov. “Vitaliy would drive us. He would be our interpreter at the orphanages,” Anne Munson says. “He would help us with our paperwork and tell us what to expect next. We dealt with a lot of babushkas, which are older women working at the orphanages. Vitaliy would speak to them and would help us understand more about the child.”
“We had two drivers, but we preferred Vitaliy,” Jeff Munson says. “He was more our age. He was fun and he listened to American music. He made us feel safe.”
International adoptions can be more logistically complicated than U.S.-based adoptions. Adoptive parents are usually required to stay for an extended period in the country where the adoption is taking place.
The Munsons adopted both of their sons — Jacob and Alexander, both now 19 — in 2004 and brought them home right before Thanksgiving.
“The boys met in the back of Vitaliy’s car from two separate orphanages,” says Jeff Munson, recalling the way he and his wife held their new sons on their laps in the back seat. “We were their car seats.”
Six years later in 2010, the couple returned to Ukraine and adopted two more children: son Eric, now 16, and daughter Katia, now 14.
“We went back with the intention of adopting one more child,” Anne Munson says. “When we arrived at the orphanage, we were presented with a sibling group of five. Our paperwork allowed us to adopt more than one child, so we were fortunate to be able to adopt two children.”
Remarkably, the Bykovs invited the Munsons to stay with them in their Kyiv apartment.
“We told them, ‘We’ll just be here for a couple of days and then we’ll be on our way,’ ” Jeff Munson says. “Well, a total of 45 days later, we were still there.”
“They gave up their bedroom, they slept on the couch,” Anne Munson says. “That’s just what Ukrainians do. They just give up their heart.”
After their arrival in the U.S., all four of the Munson children were diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, which is a leading cause of neurodevelopmental disorders in children worldwide.
“We knew right away that their exposure to alcohol before birth would present physical deficits and problems with learning and behavior,” Munson says. “While you can work hard to retrain your brain, FASD is a lifelong disability with no cure. Some people describe it as someone who has had a stroke where parts of your brain have been damaged.”
The Munsons had also been informed prior to adoption that the babies had “failure to thrive,” and were suffering from malnourishment and neglect. But it was a whole other thing to witness these symptoms for themselves, including the fact that none of the four Munson children cried.
“Have you ever heard that an orphan doesn’t cry?” Munson says. “This is very true. Crying, for a baby, is a learned response. If a baby cries, Mama comes and soothes and makes eye contact. When an orphan cries, very rarely does someone come. So eventually, they just stop crying.”
Munson recalls a visit to the doctor’s office with one of her sons three months after she brought him home. “We went to get Alex his vaccinations,” Munson says. “He was 2 years old. Nurse Gail came in to give him four shots in his little thighs. He got one shot after the next. He never flinched. Never cried. Never said ‘ouch’ or ‘stop.’ He had developed a high pain tolerance from the absence of nurturing. He was completely stoic. It was chilling.”
Two decades later, on the morning of Feb. 24, as the Munsons watched the explosions rocketing and Russian troops rolling against Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities on their TV screen, they seized the opportunity to repay the kindness that had been extended to them almost 20 years earlier.
“I told people, we need to get Snizhana and the children to the United States,” Munson says. “There were so many steps. I told Snizhana, ‘I have plenty of Delta Air Lines miles and money and we will make this happen.’ ”
Still, Munson says, Snizhana is the real hero in all of this.
“It’s very easy to sit here and say, ‘What can we do?’ ” Munson says. “She had to execute it.”
Safe in Fitchburg — For Now
On March 6, Bykova and her two children boarded an Air France flight from Bucharest to Paris with a connecting flight to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. “Escaping, I started to feel that we are safe,” Bykova says. “We were so exhausted. They gave us three seats for each of us so we could lay down and rest. I hadn’t slept for a week.”
That same day, they arrived at the Munson home in Fitchburg. The Ukrainian flag, that striking combination of blue and yellow stripes, hung on the front door. The blue represents the sky and the yellow, on the bottom half, represents Ukraine’s golden fields of wheat.
Now, from the safety and serenity of a cozy family room, Bykova and her children joined the Munsons in front of the TV, glued to their screens watching the constant influx of news stories from Ukraine.
They also stay as connected as they can to their loved ones back home, which isn’t always comforting. A friend who stayed behind in Kyiv sent a video of Bykova’s apartment — she had the keys because Bykova had left them for her.
“They went to my apartment to take out the rest of the food I left because they are starving,” Bykova says. “They don’t have anything to eat there. I gave them keys to my apartment and said, ‘Take everything you can. We have some pasta, maybe eggs and meat in the fridge.’ We just walked away. I don’t know if people in this country can imagine what that is like. My apartment is still standing, but I don’t know what will happen. I pray to God.”
For 19-year-old Daniil Bykov, watching from afar has been painful. His friends and family are living through a war, and many boys his age have become soldiers. Here in Fitchburg, he can’t do much to help.
“These circumstances, they are not easy to cope with,” he says. “I feel a little bit guilty. You look at all the people who were your friends and family and what’s going on with them and what condition they’re in and I cannot be happy. I cannot feel any positive emotions. I feel either nothing, or pain.”
Daniil was a full-time college student majoring in business and an aspiring musician when the war upended his hopes and dreams. Now, he is the man of the family, responsible for taking care of his mother and sister in the United States while his father stays behind in Ukraine. His devastation is difficult to put into words. “What my life has taught me is, I shall move on,” Daniil says. “I shall be strong, every day, every minute, every second.”
Vitaliy Bykov talks to his family every day via computer from the ancient house in Verkhovyna where the family escaped. He is helping with the growing humanitarian crisis on the border in western Ukraine.
“We have a nice cottage, we have hot water, we have electricity and internet,” Bykov says. “But the feeling is, there are no more Mondays, Saturdays or Sundays. Every day is kind of the same.”
What Happens Next?
On a recent night, at 1 a.m. Ukraine time, the families gathered around the computer in Fitchburg to call Bykov.
“How are you doing?” Bykova said, trying to keep her emotions in check. “We miss you so much.”
“I miss you too, guys,” Bykov said. “Daniil, what’s on your sweatshirt?”
“Badgers,” his son answered. “Wisconsin Badgers.”
Turns out, there was exciting news to share. Daniil was accepted into the University of Wisconsin–Madison to continue pursuing his business degree in the fall. And 9-year-old Arina is fully embracing her new life in America, too.
“I’m so thankful to Verona schools,” Bykova says. “My daughter started to attend real American elementary school. She was so excited for the big yellow bus to come and pick her up.”
Amid all the loss and uncertainty about the future, there have been overwhelming gestures of generosity for the Bykovs from total strangers in their newly adopted country.
“We don’t need food,” Munson says. “We have so much food, it’s amazing.”
Midvale Community Lutheran Church in Madison formally adopted the Munson and Bykov families. Moved by the plight of all refugees, members of the congregation wrote a business plan to help coordinate donations and access to resources for families like the Bykovs who are starting over in Wisconsin.
“We have a meal train,” Munson says. “We have a community garden plot on Midvale Boulevard to grow our own vegetables. They helped fund an art camp for Arina for the summer and so many more things. Eventually, they would like to help put the family up in an apartment. These people are incredible.”
Still, combining nine members of two families to live together under one roof has had its challenges. Jeff Munson works remotely from home for the Wisconsin Veterans Administration. Anne Munson had stepped away from her role as a corporate executive in August 2021 in order to be home and manage her kids’ Individual Education Plans full time.
“Transportation is huge,” Anne Munson says. “We have three cars and three drivers. Merging schedules, rules and new customs has been very interesting at times, but we manage pretty well.”
Munson says that while the Bykovs have been able to witness firsthand the effects of FASD and how structure helps the kids navigate those effects, the Munsons have learned something about their own family, too.
“Through this process, Jeff and I have realized that our kids, while unique, are pretty great,” Munson says.
The Bykovs are taking things one day at a time and counting their blessings.
“We have a big, nice king-size bed to sleep in,” Bykova says. “Thanks to the Munson family, we are eating and we are sleeping, but I’m trying to keep myself very organized because I have a lot of things to do. We are here and we are safe. But we are Ukrainians and we need to figure out what to do next.”
On April 21, President Joe Biden announced “Uniting for Ukraine,” a new streamlined process to provide opportunities for up to 100,000 Ukrainians who have survived Russia’s invasion and relocated to the United States. The United Nations estimates more than 5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country. Only the luckiest among them have had a safe place to land like the Bykovs had in the Munson family.
The Bykovs are hopeful Biden’s new program will reunite them with Vitaliy Bykov and all the other friends and relatives in Ukraine they had to leave behind, like Bykova’s mother. But she knows her mom understands the decision she made.
“My motivation for all of this was to save my kids,” Bykova says. “As a mom, this is the main thing that I should do in my life. So I think that I did it.”
Susan Siman is a multimedia journalist at WISC-TV.
This article appeared in the August 2022 issue of Madison Magazine.
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