‘They don’t feel safe’: Ukrainian refugees share experiences of fleeing war for Colorado

By: - March 22, 2022 3:24 pm

Rep. Diana DeGette meets with people who fled Ukraine in the wake of Russian aggression in her Denver office on March 22, 2022. Katerina Khmil, back left, fled Poltava and Iryna Rothko, front right, fled Kyiv. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)

Iryna Rothko arrived in Colorado approximately two weeks ago after fleeing Kyiv with her two children to escape the violence from Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Her husband stayed behind and sought safety as the Russian military shelled the neighborhood she left in the countryside outside of the capital city. Rothko watched in real-time from Colorado, through a home camera feed, as that idyllic home with a swimming pool and playground became another site of destruction from the war.

“In the beginning, I was in total denial,” Rothko said, through an interpreter, during a meeting with Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette on Tuesday morning in Denver. But as the threat of war turned to a real concern for safety, Rothko’s husband insisted she and the children leave the country. She landed in Colorado, where her sister lives.


Rothko is one of the over 3 million people who have left Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. The United Nations now estimates that 10 million people have been displaced from their homes.

“Most of all, we want to welcome you being in the U.S. and let you know that the whole community and the whole country are supporting you and sending you love,” DeGette said.

Katerina Khmil, who also met with DeGette, spoke about her house, which sits next to a military airport in Poltava, Ukraine, narrowly missing the first wave of attacks. It took her and her daughter, Tetiana Khmil, two weeks to make the decision to leave home and come to Colorado. Viktor Khmil, Katerina’s son and Tetiana’s brother, lives in Denver. They arrived approximately one week ago after five days of travel.

Tetiana’s husband and two adult sons remain in Ukraine. They work to repair critical electrical infrastructure that gets hit and volunteer with the territorial defense group for their town. The family is able to speak daily as Wi-Fi remains operational.

We want to welcome you being in the U.S. and let you know that the whole community and the whole country are supporting you and sending you love.

– Rep. Diana DeGette

“Tetiana says that even though they are here in a warm and safe place, they don’t feel safe because the country is in the war,” interpreter Marina Dubrova, with Ukrainians of Colorado, said.

DeGette said that most refugees who have come to the United States so far have family in the country already, or have used tourist visas.

Congress reauthorized the Lautenberg Amendment on March 15, which provides a way for persecuted religious groups from the former Soviet Union to be reunited with family in the United States. Other mechanisms for resettlement that require a United Nations or U.S. Embassy referral can take up to two years.

“People whose houses area being bombed every day can’t wait for two years to be able to come here, and we know that,” DeGette said.

DeGette hopes that bipartisan congressional action in the next few weeks can help other Ukrainian refugees come to the country in an expedited process through that refugee resettlement program.

That could mean more arrivals in Colorado.

“We expect that as Russia continues the humanitarian abuses that we may see even more. As the new refugee resettlement policies take into effect, more people will be coming into Denver and into Colorado,” DeGette said.

The International Rescue Committee is one of three refugee resettlement agencies that operates in Colorado.

“The refugee resettlement agencies here in Colorado are ready to assist refugees who come from Ukraine,” IRC Executive Director Jennifer Wilson said. “We recognize that most of the people displaced just want to go home, and it is the best and most preferable option if we can restore safety in the country so people can return.”

Dubrova said that people who wish to help support Ukrainians can donate to Ukrainians of Colorado as the organization raises money to transport medical supplies.


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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.