Utah sisters coordinate intense, incredible rescue of Ukrainian families

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BOUNTIFUL — Three Utah siblings are grateful for the incredible rescue of their family members from Ukraine, and they are thanking the Utahns who pulled together from around the world to make it happen.

It may have been over a decade since he left Ukraine, but Jonathon Faber — who goes by Jon or his Ukrainian name Yuri — still feels very close to his original home country.

Jon was adopted, along with his two younger siblings, from a Ukrainian orphanage by a Bountiful couple when he was 16. Two of his older sisters have kept in close contact with Jon and they talk weekly.

When the war broke out in Ukraine, all Jon could think about was what would happen to Anya and Elena.

Looking at the sweet faces of his nieces and nephews in photos on his phone, Jon couldn't imagine the reality of what his sisters and their kids were facing.

'Could you get my family out?'

Elena and her husband Sasha have three children, ages 3 months to 9 years old. Anya has a 13-year-old daughter. All of them lived in Dnipro.

"Hearing the stories and the news of the kids being locked in a basement, in a bomb shelter, with no food and no water, and having things like bombs and rockets explode above them, and just living in that fear, is just something that (Sasha) didn't want his kids to live," Jon said.

Sasha asked if Jon could help.

"Could you get my family out?" Sasha asked Jon. "Because ultimately, the war has been spreading so fast, and it's only a matter of time until it gets here."

Of course, Jon said yes, but didn't quite know where to turn. Anya and Elena don't speak English and had never been outside of the Dnipro area.

Jon's adopted mother made a post on Facebook, which caught the attention of his mom's neighbor, Emily Leger.

"They became just our main focus," Emily said. "We wanted to save those little children and that family, and bring them to safety."

It just so happened that Emily's sister and brother-in-law had moved to Paris three months ago for a job.

Anne-Marie Cales Lewis, watching the war unfold just a few countries away, was already planning a trip to Poland to volunteer at the border.

Then, Emily gave Anne-Marie a call.

"I said, 'Well I've got a rescue operation mission for you instead, if you're up for it,'" Emily recalled.

Anne-Marie was immediately on board, and the two, along with Jon's adopted brothers, joined forces to figure how to get Anya, Elena, and their four children out safely.

Where they lived in Dnipro is 13 hours and practically across the whole country from Lviv, the city they'd need to travel to in order to cross the border into Poland.

Emily described how they began several group chats to brainstorm, reached out to any contacts they could think of, and researched options on social media.

"Every minute, literally, it was, 'Jon, what's happening next? K, where can we go? Let's get Igor on the ground. What about this bus? Let's get this Facebook group. Let's call this person. Let's do this,'" Emily recounted.

Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine.
Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine. (Photo: Family photo)

"We started to look through Facebook groups for transport for different buses that were leaving. We started vetting people who were offering buses," Anne-Marie explained.

After finding a bus from Dnipro to Lviv, coordinated by a reputable person, Jon said Sasha told him the family made the decision to board the bus the next morning. Sasha had to say goodbye to his wife and children to stay behind and fight for the Ukrainian military.

After the final decision, Anne-Marie had to move quickly.

"I got on a plane to Warsaw the very next day," she said.

Her husband was on a work trip and couldn't fly out fast enough, but his co-worker living in Germany named Ken was able to leave at a moment's notice. Ken met Anne-Marie in the Warsaw airport.

The two introduced themselves to each other, then immediately began planning how to rescue the sisters from an already jam-packed border crossing.

Anne-Marie and Ken rented two cars and secured hotel rooms. They went grocery shopping to pick up items that the two women and their children may need.

"We got the very last two rental cars in the Warsaw airport, by the way, got to the hotel rooms, laid out all of these items for them," Anne-Marie explained.

A harrowing journey

What would have been a 13-hour road trip for Anya and Elena and kids, turned into 36 hours.

"When they first got on the bus, I could not sleep for two days," Jon said, with tears in his eyes. "Because I felt the responsibility that I'm the one that found the bus, and it's my job to make sure they're safe."

He checked in with Elena and Anya every hour to make sure they were on the right path, and that nothing had happened. Jon explained that the buses took a roundabout way to Lviv, potentially to skirt military checkpoints and dangerous areas.

Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine.
Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine. (Photo: Family photo)

His sisters made it to Lviv, then boarded another bus headed for Poland. While the drive to the border is only about an hour, Jon said the wait at the border to cross over took six hours.

Anne-Marie and Ken were waiting on the other side.

At 1:30 a.m., after spending more than 40 hours on two different buses with four children to keep occupied, Anya and Elena arrived in Poland, exhausted. Jon said Elena held her 3-month-old baby in her arms for the entire trip.

Anne-Marie and Ken watched people unloading from the bus, and immediately spotted Anya and Elena.

"We hugged them, and we shuffled them into our cars," she said. "And we took them back to the hotel and said, 'Shower, relax, rest, sleep in. You're safe now. It's OK.'"

The next morning, they awoke to news that Dnipro had been bombed.

"We literally got them out just in time, and I think that they're being watched over," Anne-Marie expressed. "It was a wonderful thing to be part of."

Anne-Marie and Ken talked to Anya and Elena over Google Translate, which, aside from some hilarious mix-ups, worked pretty well for communication.

Next came securing flights to Paris, which proved to be tough because Anya and Elena only have hand-written paper Ukrainian ID cards, not biometric passports needed for international travel.

They ended up working with the Hungarian airline Wizz and bought tickets. Ken said his goodbyes and headed back to Germany, while Anne-Marie and the others were bound for France.

At customs in Paris, the hand-written ID cards again became an issue and border security pulled everyone aside to question them.

Anne-Marie said she called Jon and translated from French to English to him on the phone, and he translated from English to Russian to Anya and Elena.

"I said, 'Here's the situation: I'm an American. They're my friends; I'm helping them. They left their husband behind, he's fighting in the war, he's in the Ukrainian military,'" Anne-Marie recounted. She got choked up as she continued, "And all of a sudden, this solemn feeling of respect came over these policemen. … They tapped their chest over heart and said, 'Bon courage. Bon courage.' And they let us out."

Bon courage, she explained, is a phrase that expresses well wishes and means, "Go with courage."

Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine.
Anne-Marie Cales Lewis helped coordinate Elena and Anya's families' escapes from Ukraine. (Photo: Family photo)

Safety in Paris

After clearing that final hurdle, Anne-Marie took the six new refugees back to the couple's tiny, two-room flat. The eight are living there with two cats, making it work as they figure out the next steps.

Jon is relieved and grateful.

"Huge thanks to Anne-Marie for going to help people she never met before in her life, just trying to help, and it's just so amazing for that," he expressed.

While he wants Anya and Elena to join him and his two other siblings in the U.S., Jon said current immigration laws make that impossible. He indicated the process could take from two to 15 years.

The plan, for now, is to try to get the two sisters and their kids to Canada.

But at least for the moment, they have a safe place to stay, thanks to complete strangers who made it their mission to get Anya and Elena to safety.

"The kids are just these darling, beautiful, happy little children, which I think is really a huge testament to the mothers and how well they've been keeping it together in spite of the horrific fears and fright that they must be feeling," Anne-Marie said, adding, "I'm proud of them. And I'm honored to be their new friend."

Emily and Anne-Marie are documenting the journey on this Instagram page.

They're also taking donations on this webpage* to help Anya, Elena and the four children as they find a new home.

*KSL.com does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisers and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

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Lauren Steinbrecher
Lauren Steinbrecher is an Emmy award-winning reporter and multimedia journalist who joined KSL in December 2021.


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