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Billings woman reunites with Ukrainian mother in Europe

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Mar 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-22 21:00:29-04

Since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Billings resident Yuliya Johnson has been worrying about her mother, Marina Petrusenko, who was stuck in her home country and under attack.

Now, Petrusenko is safely out of the country and reunited with Johnson in Slovakia, preparing the next steps to come to Montana.

“My mom says that here is very peaceful and nice. No rockets, no bombings, so it’s completely different versus how it was back home,” Johnson said.

Petrusenko, 57, journeyed over 800 miles from her hometown of Sumy, Ukraine, all the way to the town of Vysoké Tatry in eastern Slovakia.

The journey took weeks as she sought shelter in small villages along the way.

“My mom took with her, herself, just dog, and her papers, nothing else,” Johnson said.

Johnson left from Billings to Europe last week and had been worried she’d never see her mother again.

“My mom said it was very hard because she constantly remembers her hometown, and how ruined it is,” Johnson said.

The pair were finally reunited last week and able to embrace after being so far apart for so long.

“We didn’t know if we would have the luxury to hug each other again,” Johnson said.

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Marina Petrusenko and Yuliya Johnson

There are still many obstacles to overcome. Not only did Petrusenko leave behind precious memories and photographs, she also had to leave Johnson’s father behind.

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not permitted to leave the country, so Johnson’s father remains in Sumy.

“He said, like, I will stay in my apartment because if it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die,” Johnson said.

The mother-daughter duo has no idea when they’ll be able to see him again, and they fear the worst after witnessing the horrors of the war.

Petrusenko recently learned about a former student of hers trying to escape the country with his wife and child.

“His family was just killed. The Russian troops will kill like all of them,” Johnson said.

Petrusenko and Johnson are now living with other refugees. They’re completing the necessary paperwork that will allow them to travel to Montana.

Though life has been tumultuous, the pair are choosing to celebrate what they do have and the people who have helped them along the way.

“You can meet like horrible people but you can also meet incredible people who show you how big our hearts can be,” Johnson said.

Related: Ukraine's infrastructure damage could blow country's economy post-war
Related: Zelenskyy says Holocaust survivor killed by Russian shelling