An hour before the plane landed Wednesday night, Jackie Birov stood at the end of a shop aisle and contemplated which bouquet of drugstore flowers could live up to the moment.
She was between three bouquets and eventually narrowed it down to two. Then she noticed a slight difference. “Oh,” she said. “These have some of the Ukrainian flag.”
Blue and yellow in the middle of a small sea of color. She had found one of two things on her list. In a hurry, she went to the cashier to check out.
“Do you have any small bottles of vodka,” she asked the Walgreens clerk. “Smirnoff? Is that made in Russia?”
The clerk wasn’t sure so they inspected the bottle together. No, it was not made in Russia.
Twenty-four hours prior to Birov’s frantic Walgreens run, her aunt and uncle — Mark and Ada Shoykhet — slept on the floor of a crowded airport in Warsaw after waiting in the bitter cold for over nine hours on the border of Ukraine and Poland.
Twenty-four hours before that, the Shoykhets nervously and reluctantly got in a van with a few of their belongings and left their home in war-torn Kyiv. In a week full of panic, late-night video calls, online coordination and familial reminders to stay hopeful, Birov had done everything she could do to get her aunt and uncle to Chicago and away from a devastating and deadly invasion.
The plane was now scheduled to land in 40 minutes.
“I still can’t believe that it actually worked out,” Birov said. “I don’t think my body has caught up to the relief. I think when I see them, I’m going to feel OK.”
“This isn’t our first rodeo with Russia”
Birov, 32, is a Ukrainian American who comes from a Jewish family and grew up speaking Russian. She was born in Chicago, but her parents and older sister were all born in Kyiv. The family has called Chicago home for over 40 years.
Mark and Ada Shoykhet — 83 and 81, respectively — have called Ukraine and Kyiv home their whole lives but visit family in Chicago about once a year. They have a home in Wheeling, but have never seriously wanted to leave Kyiv. Ada is an American citizen and Mark has a green card.
The Shoykhets were most recently in Chicago this past winter for the holidays. The family discussed the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine after reports of Russian military deployments at the Ukrainian border had popped up.
Some family members at the time, including Birov, tried to tell the couple to stay in Chicago until things blew over in Ukraine.
“This isn’t our first rodeo with Russia,” the Shoykhets told the family.
“They didn’t think a war was coming,” Birov said. “Even as it was happening.”
There wasn’t a naivete behind their stance, Birov said, or behind many Ukrainian’s stance even today. Instead, there was pride and a stubbornness to stand in the face of a neighboring evil and to not back down.
The Shoykhets flew back to Ukraine in January. Less than two months later, the bombs started to fall.
Reality sets in
As tensions increased between Russia and Ukraine, Birov kept in closer contact with her aunt and uncle. They would FaceTime often, check in with each other and discuss what they were hearing from news reports and from the streets of Kyiv.
Once Russia started to invade Ukraine in late February, the couple was unsure what to do. They’re not the most tech-savvy 80-year-olds. Ada doesn’t get around as easily as she’d like to and texting is still a foreign form of communication for the two of them.
As the days went on, Birov sensed they became increasingly afraid despite putting on a brave face.
In a two-week span, the video calls went from casual to alarming as the Shoykhets started to spend nights in a bomb shelter to sleep. One evening, Birov reminded them she was supposed to visit Ukraine twice recently. She was planning to go in 2020 but the pandemic cut short her European vacation. She was also planning to go this summer.
“They were so excited for my visit,” said Birov, who was last in Kyiv when she was 11 years old. “During these Skype calls, my uncle was showing me their apartment with their little webcam and he was saying, ‘When you come visit, this will be your room.’”
In reality, the chances of them being back in Kyiv as they knew it were slim. Everyone knew it deep down, Birov said, but Mark wanted to keep the faith for as long as possible.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Birov said.
Once her aunt and uncle were forced to spend nights in a bomb shelter, Birov knew she had to get them to safety. After striking out with the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, Birov scoured the internet for resources on how to evacuate citizens from Kyiv. She joined Facebook groups, exchanged messages with people in Ukraine and for days felt like she hit dead ends.
Meanwhile, her uncle would joke that if the Ukrainian military would take him at 83 years old, he’d proudly be on the front lines.
Birov eventually found a woman who volunteered for a number of nongovernmental organizations who specialize in evacuation work. Birov was put in touch with a group of about 100 handlers who were orchestrating evacuations out of Kyiv.
Around the same time, a Russian missile destroyed an apartment building about a kilometer from the Shoykhets’ building. A few days later, Birov didn’t hear from her aunt and uncle for a full day after speaking with them twice a day for a week. Real fear started to set in.
When the couple finally got back in touch with Birov, they had sounded as desperate as ever to leave the city and country they love, the one they had wanted to stay in and fight for. The war had come to their doorstep.
Fortunately, Birov had finally found them a ride out of the city.
The journey from Kyiv
The 800 kilometers trek to Warsaw for their flight to Chicago wasn’t easy. The Shoykhets spent one night outside in the freezing weather. They called Birov crying. Mark had such a terrible pain in his legs that he feared he had blood clots. That night they took the wrong transportation and ended up at a border crossing deemed the most crowded by websites Birov was tracking.
Eventually, they made it to Warsaw and stayed at an apartment owned by a friend of Birov from Mexico City who had reached out to help.
All the while, Birov also raised over $6,400 in less than a week with a social media fundraiser. Before she could set up a GoFundMe (which she’s doing now), thousands of dollars poured in from friends and strangers.
Through her contacts on Facebook, she learned Ukrainians needed body armor, helmets and other military equipment in their fight against Russia. She has already sent one shipment to the Poland and Ukrainian border and has more work to do.
Back in Chicago on Wednesday evening, Birov grabbed the small bottle of vodka, the bouquet of flowers and hopped in a car to O’Hare. Birov felt exhausted, grateful and anxious.
She had cried so much over the last week. She felt like she didn’t have any tears left. About an hour later, at the O’Hare international terminal, her aunt and uncle crossed the last roadblock and made it through customs.
Ada gingerly entered the arrivals floor and gave her niece a big hug. Even though she was finally safe on American soil and happy to be alive, she spoke of a sense of regret for leaving some of her fellow Ukrainians behind.
Mark, with a beaming smile, hugged his niece who was still holding the bouquet of flowers and the small bottle of vodka in her bag.
The two of them looked happy and relieved to be in Chicago and days away from relaxing with family on a Sunday afternoon.
Birov asked how the flight went, hoping it would be less hectic than the rest of their journey.
Mark said it was good. In fact, he drank some whisky on the flight. He flashed a beaming smile again.
The whiskey: also not made in Russia.
Patrick Filbin is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin