How a family of eight escaped Ukraine — and landed in Long Beach – San Bernardino Sun

On the outskirts of Kyiv — the initial target of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — sits a modest town with about 36,000 inhabitants:


Once a quiet, suburban city, Bucha quickly became the epicenter of bloody fighting in late February as Russian troops tore through in an attempted advance on Ukraine’s capital city, mere miles away.

Yuriy Nerubay, a 48-year-old Bucha resident, along with his wife, Milana, and their six children, woke in the early morning hours on the war’s first day to find their house violently shaking.

“First, I thought it was an earthquake,” Nerubay recounted recently. “Wait a minute — I’m not in California. What’s going on?”

Upon opening the windows — which were thick and blocked out most sound when sealed — Nerubay realized the Russian troops had arrived in Bucha.

What followed was a frantic effort to survive and ultimate escape, from the family’s native Ukraine, through Moldova and eventually to the United States, where Nerubay had once lived and worked. Today, the family — benefiting from Nerubay speaking English and having a relative in the U.S. — lives in a Long Beach pool house owned by kin.

“Everything was upside down,” Nerubay said. “Fire, yelling, people running — I mean, crazy.”

Nerubay, his wife and their six children — who range from 11 months to 15 years old — survived the first few days of fighting by camping out in their basement.

Those first days, Nerubay said, the Russian troops weren’t killing people.

The Nerubay family’s home in Bucha, Ukraine, before Russian troops invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Nerubay Family)

“They weren’t destroying any life (or) infrastructure — only military,” he said. “They hope that Ukrainians will see them, get shocked and give up. And they want to have a good face with the whole world — ‘you see, without even blood, we took over.’”

But things changed.

As Ukrainian forces countered Russian attacks, stalling their attempts to reach Kyiv — the invaders took on what the New York Times called “a campaign of terror and revenge” against civilians.

Nerubay’s neighbors, just two houses down, were bombed a few days into the invasion.

The blast even penetrated the neighbor’s basement, where that family had been hiding out, Nerubay said — killing everyone inside.

“I realized if that missile ends up in my house, we’re all gonna be killed too,” Nerubay said from Long Beach. “Me, my wife and all six kids. So I said: ‘We have to run.’”

Not knowing whether the Russians would bomb their home next, the family took their chance to escape. They got into the family car so quickly, Nerubay said, that two of his children went without shoes.

At the same time, Nerubay said, the family’s surviving neighbors decided to flee as well.

“The moment we got out of there, Russian paratroopers started falling down,” Nerubay said. “And they started shooting.”

Russian officials have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in Bucha, labeling as “fakery” video evidence of what Ukrainian officials called atrocities. Despite those denials, both Ukrainian prosecutors and the International Criminal Court are investigating the Kremlin for war crimes.

And recent reporting by Reuters confirmed that an elite paramilitary force — with a paratrooper division — that reports directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin was present in Bucha during the same time the Nerubay family made their escape.

The New York Times on Thursday, May 19, also confirmed the presence of paratroopers — who rounded up and executed eight Ukrainians — in Bucha.

The neighbors who fled first  — a mother, father and two children — were killed by the paratrooper’s bullets immediately, Nerubay said. The mother, Nerubay said, got shot in the neck.

“Blood was all over the place,” Nerubay said. “And my kids were right there watching that.”

For several nights after, one of Nerubay’s younger sons, would call out while asleep, begging soldiers not to shoot him, the father said.

The Neruby’s — by chance, it seems — had evaded the Russians once again. On foot, Nerubay said, the paratroopers couldn’t keep up with the family’s car, though one of its windows was shot-out.

The family drove for miles, through Kyiv and toward the border of neighboring Moldova. It was a 536 kilometer — more than 300 mile — trek, but it was faster than the journey to Poland, which sits about 500 miles from Bucha.

But after about 40 miles, there was another bombing.

“They weren’t bombing us,” Nerubay said. “They were bombing a military base next to the roads.”

The Nerubay's escaped from Bucha, Ukraine amid the early days of Russia's unprovoked invasion. (Courtesy of Nerubay family)
The Nerubay’s escaped from Bucha, Ukraine amid the early days of Russia’s unprovoked invasion. (Courtesy of Nerubay family)

They were far enough away to escape the worst of the blasts, Nerubay said, noting the destruction on the road around him: Cars, disheveled and covered in dirt, with shattered windows.

“It was so loud,” Nerubay said, holding on to each word, only letting each one drop once its full weight was understood.

The pressure, Nerubay said, was tremendous: Six kids in the car, each needing protection, with no food or water, and no way to know whether a bomb would fall on them at anytime.

No way to know if the decisions he was making were the right ones.

But in war, Nerubay said, there isn’t much time to think.

Or rest.

And just like that, there was another problem: No gas.

After driving with the flow meter below empty for miles, Nerubay said, the family was met with what seemed to be another miracle — a gas station. Not bombed, not occupied by enemy forces.

The only catch, Nerubay said, was that this station was meant for farmers and agricultural machines — not commuter cars — meaning there was no way to refuel.

But there was only one option.

Nerubay siphoned gas from the old farm stop with his mouth. It took him more than an hour to extract enough to get the family closer to the border, he said.

“The problem is that you cannot do it for a long time,” Nerubay said. You have to stop all the time because it’s bad for your brain.”

And the rest of your body. Nerubay threw up several times, he said, and almost passed out multiple times as well.

“I had no choice,” Nerubay said. “There’s my family — my kids — right there.”

With gas in hand, Neurbay fueled up and the family continued on to Moldova.

On the outskirts of Kyiv, the family ran into what looked like Ukrainian forces, ushering cars filled with civilians fleeing toward a new country. They waved at the family — directing them toward a street.

Nerubay decided to go the other way — an instinctive decision he still isn’t able to explain.

“I got a call from a friend 15 minutes later telling me everyone on that road was killed,” Nerubay said. “It happened to be Russians, but they changed dress.”

The Nerubay family made it to Moldova shortly after.

They were welcomed in with a place to stay temporarily, hot food, water and anything else they could need, Nerubay said.

The Nerubay's en route to the United States, after fleeing from war-torn Ukraine in early April. (Courtesy of the Nerubay family)
The Nerubay’s en route to the United States, after fleeing from war-torn Ukraine in early April. (Courtesy of the Nerubay family)

Russia’s forces withdrew from Bucha and other areas surrounding Kyiv in early April, not long after the Nerubay family escaped to Moldova. Since then, Putin’s army has refocused its efforts on taking control of eastern and southern Ukraine.

As of Thursday, the Donbas, in the southeastern part of Ukraine, had been “completely destroyed” by Russian forces, according to Reuters. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Putin’s forces of attempting to cause as much damage — and kill as many Ukrainians — as possible as the Kremlin ramps up its offensive attack on the country.

Not long after the Russians pulled out Bucha, video footage revealed mass graves — of what appeared to be mostly civilian Ukrainians — in Bucha.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova’s office said it is looking into more than 10,700 potential war crimes committed during Moscow’s invasion, according to a Wednesday, May 18, NPR report.

The Nerubay family was fortunate to survive. They were also fortunate to have another country in which to settle.

The family happens to have American citizenship and speaks English. And Nerubay worked in the United States for years before returning to Ukraine to marry his wife and start a family.

That helped the immigration process immensely — and they made it to Long Beach by April 9. The family is currently staying in a lofted pool house in Alamitos Heights, which Nerubay’s distant cousin owns.

The Biden administration announced on March 24 that it would accept 100,000 refugees into the U.S. and provide millions of dollars in aid to neighboring European countries that host displaced Ukrainians.

But on April 21, the policy changed: Rather than allowing any refugee into the country, Ukrainians fleeing their homeland must now find a United States-based financial sponsor.

The Nerubay family’s citizenship let them bypass that complication — but they still empathize with those entangled in the immigration process.

“If you will go through the procedures, it’s crazy,” Nerubay said. “How is a refugee sitting in a shelter in Romania going to get a sponsor in the United States to get him here?”

But despite their relative privilege, the Nerubay family has still struggled to get back on their feet.

The Nerubay's travel to America to rebuild their lives after escaping Bucha, Ukraine in April. (Courtesy of Nerubay Family)
The Nerubay’s travel to America to rebuild their lives after escaping Bucha, Ukraine in April. (Courtesy of Nerubay Family)

Even with help from two of his cousin’s Long Beach neighbors, Nerubay hasn’t been able to access much help from the government. He spends hours on the phone — speaking with government agencies and public groups offering help to newly arrived refugees.

But even they’re out of resources, Nerubay said.

Nerubay and his wife, meanwhile, are also still searching for jobs — and trying to rebuild their lives in the United States. They aren’t sure they’ll return to Ukraine even if the war ends.

There’s likely nothing in Bucha, Neurbay said, to return to.

How to help

The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help them get set up with the basics: hygiene products, groceries, jobs and even a permanent place to live. They’re also available at

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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