BILLINGS — Posted proudly to the fridge of his new home is artwork by 8-year-old Mark Kavva from his second day of second grade.
He points out the cartoons, "A dinosaur, Pikachu, Star Wars—Ukrainian tank, tanka."
Mark, his mother Viktoria Kavva, and her sister, Svetlana Kavva are from Kherson, a port city in the south of Ukraine near the Black Sea.
To the Kavvas, Billings looks and feels like Kherson, and Viktoria wishes their introduction with the city was for a vacation, not fleeing war.
“Our story looks like a movie, but it’s true," Viktoria says.
Viktoria's right - the story of how they landed in Billings as humanitarian parolees six months after the outbreak of war has the makings of a movie.
It stems from a friendship, kindled on a cruise ship.
“It was in February of this past year. We left San Francisco, and we’re cruising to Hawaii and back on a 15-day cruise," says Myron Vogele, a Billings resident and retired teacher.
"Viktoria was working on the ship. She was a waitress in the piazza, which is a beautiful part of the ship, and she was just delightful."
Myron and his wife, Laurie Vogele, a retired nurse, set sail in February 2022. While at sea, the unthinkable happened for Viktoria.
"We thought, 'Russia? Invade Ukraine? Never. Impossible. We are sister nations,'" Viktoria said.
But on Feb. 10, war broke out and Viktoria watched from afar, while her son Mark, sister Svetlana, and many family members and friends were on the front of Russian aggression.
From the deck of the ship, the Vogeles found a way to help.
“Our lives just bonded," Laurie Vogele said. “I told her we’d be praying for them and that if the war hadn’t ended by the time her time was up on the cruise ship, we’d just love to have them come to the United States and live with us. Well, it just evolved and we were able to keep in touch through Messenger on Facebook.”
Viktoria was unable to return to Kherson, and back home, Mark and Svetlana were caught in the ensuing panic, food, water shortages and Russian shelling. Leaving their apartments, they spent weeks in a bunker, hiding from bombs.
Ultimately, Svetlana and Mark made it out of Kherson and passed 50 Russian checkpoints to get out of Ukraine, traveling to Poland, then Spain, where they were reunited with Viktoria over the summer.
“We went through a lot of process getting approved as sponsors, and then they had to be approved, and it quite an ordeal to get them here," Laurie said.
After weeks of paperwork filed by both families, the Kavvas arrived in Billings on Aug. 20.
The Vogeles went through processing and the legal steps with Uniting For Ukraine—a program through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS litsts qualifications and steps in sponsoring or co-sponsoring Ukrainians seeking humanitarian parole in the United States.
Mark is now in school and the Kavvas have settled into a routine, but their thoughts are constantly back home in Ukraine, where the war rages on.
“I feel very lonely to be far away from home and worry all the time thinking about Ukraine. When we want to stop this war and how? How to stop it? Because in this war, die children and women, just people, regular people," Viktoria says.
August marks six months since the start of the war in Ukraine, and the numbers are sad and staggering.
Reuters counts 30,000 people who have been killed, 520,000 people with non-lethal injuries, 3,000 buildings destroyed, and 14 million people displaced.
“We just think about there’s three people in this family and they’re saying there’s 10 million people that have left that country, a quarter of their population, and who’s taking care of them?" Says Myron Vogele.
Fate brought the Vogeles and Kavvas together, but the Vogeles say Montanans can do it by choice.
“You need love and you need support and I hope people reach out and think about sponsoring a person or a family," Laurie Vogele says.
The Vogeles recommend anyone interested in sponsoring or co-sponsoring Ukrainians seeking refuge check out Uniting for Ukraine and the USCIS.
You can do that here: https://www.uscis.gov/ukraine