A Mother and Daughter’s Journey From Ukraine to Beverly Hills

Before the war, Deyna Pomazanova had exams.

Sitting in a home in Beverly Hills more than 6,000 miles away from Irpin, Ukraine, the 16-year-old recounted the excitement she felt on Feb. 23 as she left school, confident she had aced her tests. Her mother, Elina Kovalenko, 52, who is sitting beside her, was also in school at the time, earning a second degree to become a therapist.

Distant were thoughts of the imminent Russian invasion, only a day away, that would shatter the peace of their suburb northwest of Kiev. But within weeks, the two would join millions of others in an exodus unseen in Europe since World War II.

While governments like the United States and Germany have poured billions of dollars’ worth of weapons into the conflict, an ad hoc network of individual households outside the fold of state departments and NGOs have opened their doors to those in need. One of them belongs to Beverly Hills residents Nancy and Derek Kramer, on whose couch Kovalenko and Pomazanova sat as they shared their story with the Courier.

“I’m so grateful to them,” Kovalenko said, speaking through an interpreter. “I feel like they’ve given us safety.”

Even after Russian forces penetrated Irpin on March 1 and 2, Kovalenko held to the hope that the fighting would not escalate to the point where she and her daughter would have to flee. But soon, three Russian tanks took up positions in front of their home and the unremitting and indiscriminate shelling made clear to them that civilians were either acceptable collateral damage in Putin’s incursion or, worse yet, targets in their own right.

“My mom came to my room and said we’re going to go; we need to pack, and we have to leave because it’s not safe. I understood that I had to put myself together and move on,” Pomazanova said.

They waited until they felt confident the soldiers inside the tanks were asleep and crept past, encumbered only by two suitcases containing their documents and clothes, the entirety of their material possessions.

“We understood that there were going to be tons of refugees,” said Kovalenko. “We took only the most important things.”

Pomazanova was also leaving behind her father, Kovalenko’s ex-husband Vladimir Pomazanova, who “chose the path to war,” Kovalenko said. Pomazanova last saw her father on Feb. 24. He told her that he would likely be gone for several months but said nothing else. She has not heard from him since.

Deyna Pomazanova, left, with her mother, Elina Kovalenko. Photo by Samuel Braslow

Kovalenko marvels at the serendipity of their survival. On the train platform, they heard the thud of shelling in the direction of their home merely hours after leaving. Later, they would learn that their home had been leveled by the blasts. One day after boarding the train to Kiev, it, too, would succumb to bombing, she said.

The next few legs of their journey exposed them to the horrors of mass displacement, bringing them first to Kiev, then Lviv, and then to Poland.

There, they were briefly held against their will with other women and children by a group claiming to be humanitarian volunteers, but who took their documents and phones and refused to return them. Another woman, who had surreptitiously kept her phone, contacted a German friend who came to her aid. Kovalenko begged the friend to take her and Pomazanova as well.

With both Kovalenko and Pomazanova growing increasingly ill, they found a group in Denmark providing assistance to Ukrainians. But the weather proved further deleterious to Pomazanova’s health. After selling some of Kovalenko’s artwork and with the help of the Danish family that had taken them in, the mother and daughter secured tickets to Mexico with the ultimate goal of reaching Los Angeles.

It wasn’t how they had imagined visiting the City of Angels, but for years before the war, Pomazanova had dreamed of pursuing acting in Tinseltown itself. (She blushes sharing that she wants to meet one actor above all others: Jared Leto.)

“We had a plan,” Kovalenko said. “We didn’t expect it to happen like this.”

After crossing the border at Tijuana and making it to San Diego, a volunteer phoned Nancy Kramer.

Kramer had been inspired to help after seeing an ABC News segment on a group of volunteers in Newport Beach who collected supplies for refugees. Kramer and her husband had taken in one other couple before they picked up Kovalenko and Pomazanova from Union Station. That couple now lives in a guesthouse of another Beverly Hills resident.

In the three weeks since Kovalenko and Pomazanova moved into the bedroom vacated by Kramer’s college-age son, Kramer has seen the two of them thaw from the trauma of the war–a trauma made bearable through their bond with each other.

“If my mom and I had to be together for 24-hours-a-day, every day, we would’ve killed each other. Those two, they laugh together, they get along so amazingly well,” she said.

Kovalenko has said that she keeps laughing for her daughter’s sake. The two look forward to celebrating Mother’s Day for the first time ever. They plan to take photos and videos to share with their friends and family in Ukraine “to show us taking part in a modern day United States celebration.”

With the help of an immigration attorney, the cousin of Kramer’s Russian-speaking neighbor, the two are currently applying for a green card and temporary protected status. The paperwork alone has cost Kramer more than $1,300 and the process will still take months.

Kramer launched a GoFundMe page for her guests (https://www.gofundme.com/f/ help-with-legal-fees-and-living-expenses), which has raised more than $10,000 for necessities. Neighbors have pitched in as well, bringing over dinner, donating supplies, even providing translation services. But they’re starting over from scratch, Kramer says. And soon, her son will return home from college – not to mention Pomazanova still has one more year left of school. She says that they are looking for a more permanent situation for the family.

But until then, after bearing witness to the capacity of one’s neighbor to commit violence, Kovalenko and Pomazanova remark on the kindness of strangers.

“I feel so grateful for this union with the whole world,” Kovalenko said. “The whole world is taking care of Ukraine.”

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