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As War Rages, a Ukrainian Family in Michigan Holds On to Home

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Amber Galkin remembers very little from the first time she immigrated to the United States, in 2010. But she remembers the second time in complete detail.

On July 4, 2014, she flew with her two children, Igor and Kate, from Kyiv, Ukraine, to New York. Although she chose that day because it had the cheapest flight, its symbolic importance became clear when she landed. “I respect this is your holiday,” she said recently. “But it’s my independence day, really.”

Landing in New York and driving to her home in Ann Arbor, Mich., was the beginning of a new era. After a year in Ann Arbor, she had returned to Ukraine for three years as part of a long and difficult custody fight for Igor and Kate, which had finally concluded. Their return that July 4 was the turning point when Ms. Galkin and her children could embark upon the lives they wanted in America.

In the years that followed, they integrated quickly into the United States — following the pattern of 19th-century German and Dutch immigrants to Michigan, putting down strong roots in their new country. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, though, wrenched their past into the present. For years, when Igor would tell people he was from Ukraine, he would get questions like, “Where is that?” Now, friends in Ann Arbor all knew about Ukraine and wanted to know how the war was affecting them.

For Igor and Kate, now 20 and 18, the answer was complicated and wrapped up in memories of the custody fight between their parents. For Ms. Galkin, however, the war was visceral, directly affecting friends and relatives. Her brother was one of the millions of displaced Ukrainians living in Poland. Childhood friends were joining the military; others became part of the 7.6 million refugees who fled after the invasion and settled in other European countries. Over 100,000 Ukrainians have settled in the United States this year alone.

Growing up in Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeast Ukraine, Ms. Galkin did not dream of immigrating to the United States. Born in 1977, she was a teenager when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine declared its independence. By then, Ms. Galkin said, Ukraine had become a place of corruption and poverty but also of possibilities that were different from the traditional path of getting an education and embarking upon a career. “Our reality in our world was, ‘No, you just have to go to Turkey, grab some stuff, come here, sell it, and you will be fine,’” she said.

In her 20s, Ms. Galkin met the man who would become the father of her two children. They married in 2002 and settled in Zaporizhzhia. Although they led comfortable lives, their marriage soon fell apart and when they divorced, in 2009, it was the start of “four years of nightmare,” Ms. Galkin said. She had to confront the reality of her life in Ukraine. “If you are a powerful man, it’s one story,” she said. “But if you are just someone’s wife, and you’re not a wife anymore, you’re nobody.”

During that difficult period, Ms. Galkin met a Russian-born man online. He was living in Ann Arbor, a place she had never heard of. But they fell in love and Ms. Galkin decided on a fresh start. She took Igor and Kate, then 7 and 6, and entered the United States on a fiancée visa in 2010.

Igor remembers those first months in the United States as bewildering. He and Kate, who have the surname Khalip, had had almost no exposure to English. In Ann Arbor, Igor remembers being asked to read in front of the class in the third grade and feeling unsure of how to pronounce the English words on the page.

For Ms. Galkin it was even harder. Her first job in the United States was busing tables at an Ann Arbor restaurant; she communicated with nods and smiles. In her next job, stocking the coffee station at a truck stop on the outskirts of town, her English improved some. But the work was hard: She got up at 4 each morning and worked from 5 to noon, restocking pastries and making coffee.

“The first six months you don’t understand at all,” she said. She did not feel comfortable going anywhere, even to the doctor. Then words and phrases slowly became comprehensible. She began to recognize “Hi, how are you?” and “Do you have a rewards card?”

That period in the United States was uncertain for many reasons. Ms. Galkin knew her children’s custody issues were unresolved, and it soon became clear she had to sort them out. Their father received a Ukrainian court order, upheld by a U.S. court, to bring the two children back to Ukraine, and he did so in summer 2011. For those first months of their return to Ukraine, they were not allowed any contact with their mother. Ms. Galkin felt she had no choice but to move back to Ukraine.

“It was a pretty traumatic experience,” Ms. Khalip said. “Him taking both of us, not being able to talk to Mom at all. For five months straight, no calls, no contact whatsoever.” It took three years of living in Ukraine and working her way through the Ukrainian court system until Ms. Galkin was given custody of her children.

When they returned to Ann Arbor in 2014 with custody issues finally resolved, the children flung themselves into an American life. It was a relief to be back, they said. Their time in Ukraine receded into the past. Ms. Galkin prioritized English classes, improving to the point where she could get an office job at the University of Michigan. This provided enough financial and health insurance stability for her to buy a house in the suburb of Ypsilanti, even as her second marriage was ending in divorce.

Although her children were fast becoming Americans, Ms. Galkin maintained strong connections with Ukraine. She was in Ukraine in early 2014 when Russia invaded and took over Crimea. In December 2021, believing that more conflict with Russia was imminent, Ms. Galkin persuaded her mother, Tanya Petrova, to join her in Ypsilanti. Russia invaded Ukraine less than three months later.

This article is part of How I Got Here, a series about immigrants and migrants in America.

At their home in Ypsilanti, on a hot July day, Ms. Galkin, her children and Ms. Petrova sat in the backyard under shade, around a table laden with a traditional Ukrainian spread of cold cuts, bread and kvass, a fermented bread drink. They said the war in Ukraine was a shock to them, but the strength of its impact varied person to person.

For Ms. Khalip and Ms. Galkin, it was like a death in the family. They cried for months. Ms. Galkin described frantic mornings as fighting drew close to Zaporizhzhia. “Every day, I was waking up to read news and text everyone,” she said. “It was a nightmare, but I would check to make sure they were alive.” She threw herself into action, collecting money from friends and colleagues, and volunteering with the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan.

Her morning routine remains the same. She has coffee and reads the latest news from Ukraine. “If I see there is no big changes on the frontline,” she said, “I am not worried that something happened to my relatives or friends, so I am not stalking them with messages like, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK? Reply to me!’” In recent days, though, she has again become worried, as missiles have hit Zaporizhzhia and other Ukrainian cities.

Ms. Petrova’s daily life also includes long chats with friends and family in Ukraine, via Facebook Messenger and Viber, a messaging app. She immerses herself in the intricacies of the war — for example, discussing the importance of the HIMARS rocket system to the Ukrainian military. In the family, Ms. Petrova’s arrival strengthened their fraying ties to Ukraine. “Some of the culture was starting to fade with us,” said Mr. Khalip, but his grandmother’s patriotism “reminded me of what it was like.”

Mr. Khalip, who is now studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, knows how different his life would have been if he had stayed in Ukraine. He was 19 when the war started, he said, and “I would probably get drafted if I stayed there.”

Though Ms. Khalip, who attends Eastern Michigan University, said that her mother and grandmother had been “shaken up” by the war, she added that if the family had been in this situation in a different era, her mother would have worried even more. Modern communication technology allows her to quickly confirm whether a loved one is safe, and to stay in real-time contact with them. Ms. Galkin can also channel her worries into activism and fund-raising even though she lives in an area without a large Ukrainian community.

The morning after the backyard conversation, at one of her favorite coffee shops, Ms. Galkin spoke of taking a recent trip to Chicago and overhearing Ukrainian spoken in the streets. “It was like honey to my ears,” she said.

Still, Michigan had become home. Ms. Galkin recalled a moment when she was driving through Ann Arbor about five years after settling there. So many places were infused with her memories — restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations. She realized she was no longer a visitor. The memories made it home.

Ms. Galkin and her children became U.S. citizens in 2017. She owns a house, has health care, a good job and a retirement plan. And she now speaks fluent English.

Toward the end of the conversation, Ms. Galkin turned to what her future might look like. She said it might include the Ann Arbor area, or not. She might like to work remote full time, maybe in Florida or Europe. She is not a 19th-century German or Dutch farmer putting down roots in the upper Midwest. Hers is a newer model.

Ms. Galkin’s musings about her future were also a reminder that migration is a reaction to a specific set of circumstances at a specific moment in time. When those circumstances are resolved, when the house becomes a home, when the foreign language becomes familiar, when the children are cared for, the migrant can start to imagine what comes next.

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