One family’s journey from Ukraine to Olathe, Kansas: 'Any minute could be your last'
The Yeremenko family had no clue who the Kansas City Chiefs were seven months ago. They were focused on evading Russian bombs. With the help an Olathe family, they went from escaping death in their homeland to celebrating the Chiefs' Super Bowl title in Arizona.
For many American families, a trip to see the Super Bowl would be considered a dream come true. For one Ukrainian family now living in the Kansas City area, that trip came at an almost inconceivable price.
Until six months ago, Kyrylo “Kit” Yeremenko and his family were risking their lives daily, trying to escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last week, they found themselves at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, as red and gold confetti fell from the rafters after a nail-biting conclusion to what many consider the pinnacle of American sports.
The gridiron battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles pales in comparison to what the Yeremenkos survived since the war started, one year ago.
At Sunday’s AFC Championship game, the @Chiefs surprised the Teigland and Yeremenko families with tickets to #SBLVII, recognizing the Ukrainian refugees who are rebuilding their lives in the U.S., and the Americans stepping up to sponsor them. #SuperBowlSurprise pic.twitter.com/yRTWSK5E3H— NFL (@NFL) February 1, 2023
“A lot of normal people are living in damaged or destroyed houses and nobody could help them,” said Yeremenko, who fled his home in the Kharkiv region shortly after the invasion began.
More than 5.9 million Ukrainians have been displaced within the country so far. Another 8 million have left the country to find safety, according to the United Nations. Russia’s invasion has caused the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.
“When the war started, we thought that in two, maybe three weeks it would finish and everybody would get home. But that didn’t happen,” Yeremenko said. “At the moment, it's almost a year of the war, so I don't have any expectations about the end of all of this.”
The surprise Super Bowl trip was the work of Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt and the nonprofit resettlement organization Welcome.US, which reached out to the football franchise with the idea. Hunt presented the family with Super Bowl tickets at the end of the Chief’s AFC Championship victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“The Super Bowl was my second American football game and — wow — it was great! I got to meet Paul Rudd, Eric Stonestreet,” said Yeremenko, who is 36.
His amazement turned to humility after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech to the more than 67,000 fans at the game.
“Some of them could (potentially) help any Ukrainian,” Yeremenko said. “It made me proud and brought some hope.”
Accompanying the Yeremenkos in Glendale was the Olathe family who sponsored their passage to the U.S., the Teiglands, who are die-hard Chiefs fans.
“I had a blast with them, singing and dancing,” said Abby Teigland, a national sales manager at AMC Theaters.
“It was fun just to see them relax and have time together and experience a normal family vacation,” the mother of two said. “They haven't been able to do that in a while.”
Surviving the Russian onslaught
Before the invasion, Kit and Iryna Yeremenko led what he called a normal, middle-class family. 14-year-old Maksym excelled in school and soccer, and 6-year-old Alisa was training in gymnastics and figure skating.
That changed on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russian tanks and artillery began bombarding Ukrainian cities.
Kit Yeremenko said he knew his family wouldn’t be safe in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after a Russian missile struck a building just blocks from their home.
“We left for Kyiv on the first day of the war,” Yeremenko said.
The family found shelter deep underground in Kyiv, in the city’s network of train stations, built in the 1960s when Ukraine was under USSR control.
The stations double as bomb shelters, and they became a refuge for thousands of Ukrainians who left their homes in the first weeks of the conflict.
“We were in shelter a lot of the time,” Yeremenko said. “We spent five days there together as a family.”
From there, he took his family to the Ukrainian border with Poland. Yeremenko returned to Kyiv to help defend his homeland.
“Everybody wants to be a military man that has (a) rifle, to go and fight with the Russians,” said Yeremenko.
Instead, he was told enlistment was full and was directed to go home. For the next few months he worked and volunteered in devastated cities like Bucha, where Russian forces had been pushed out.
“Me and my friends got all (the) money we had, and bought a lot of food and clothes. We put everything in our cars and went there to help people,” Yeremenko said. “They didn't even have roofs over their heads, so they needed a lot of help.”
In the summer of 2022, the family reunited and returned to Kyiv, but left a second time after surviving a missile attack within days of their return.
“It was really scary,” Yeremenko said, “and that was the moment we decided to leave the country and go to Poland together.”
Finding sponsors on the prairie
At the same time, Abby Teigland and her husband, Ben, a graphic designer, watched news of the carnage unfolding from their couch in Olathe.
The couple considered going to Europe to help people cross into Poland, but their two young children made that idea unworkable. So they donated money directly to Ukrainian families.
After watching hours of news coverage, social media and Zelenskyy’s daily addresses, Abby Teigland was compelled to do more.
“It was heartbreaking,” Teigland said.
“So we started searching the internet to sponsor a family around June and found Welcome.US,” she said. “The Yeremenko family was one of the first messages we received, when it launched a month later.”
Welcome.US was founded in September 2021 to quickly connect Americans to allies fleeing the Taliban government takeover in Afghanistan. The Russian invasion forced them to expand. In 2022, the nonprofit designed a program where American citizens can connect with Ukrainian refugees looking for private sponsors.
“My wife found the advertisement on some website,” Yeremenko said.
The connection came after weeks of searching for organizations and government programs that could relocate them to the U.S.
“This work, at its core, is about Americans and what Americans do best, which is helping people in need,” said the group’s Chief Operating Officer Anya McMurray.
The platform didn’t just put the Yeremenkos in direct contact with their potential sponsors, thanks to an automatic translation feature. It also helped put a human face on the helpless family.
“We have daughters the same age and, from looking at their profiles, it was like looking in the mirror,” Teigland said. “We knew then we could help them get established here in Kansas.”
Landing in a new community
On August 25, 2022, the Yeremenko family arrived in Kansas City with the Teigland’s full support.
With the help of friends, family, and even some strangers, they provided the Yeremenkos with an apartment and found them a car.
“The community exploded, and everyone was so willing to help,” Abby Teigland said. “They donated furniture, pantry items, dishes and bedding. It all came together beautifully and very quickly.”
In the six months since, Kit Yeremenko and his children have learned English, and he’s found a job in sales and marketing.
But the family’s journey is not over yet: Kit and Iryna have parents who are still in danger in Kharkiv.
“We send them parcels a couple of times a month with food, lighters and other stuff to stay warm,” Yeremenko said. “Missiles are coming every day, so it's really hard to text and feel that nobody could answer at any moment.”
Still, the Yeremenkos are thankful for their second chance.
“It makes me feel really happy to give my children the possibility to be safe and the opportunity to be better than me,” Yeremenko said. “Because that's the goal for every parent.”