Mom evacuates Ukraine for Bay Area, thanks to efforts of Air Force daughter

Months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Air Force Capt. Zlatoslava Karga started to get worried.

The 42-year old psychiatric nurse practitioner at Travis Air Force Base in Vacaville grew up in Ukraine, and said she just had a feeling that something bad was looming. She concerned her mother, Luba Karga, who was living in Kyiv, to get her documents ready — just in case.

After Russian forces invade on Feb. 24, Karga talked to her mom and half sister almost daily about leaving their homeland, but frustrated “screaming sessions” on those calls, Luba wasn’t ready to leave her country.

she relented, and “in early March, she finally said yes,” Zlatoslava recalled.

Evacuating wasn’t easy, even with the valid US entry visa her mother had, but old friends and many strangers along the way made the journey possible. On March 13, Luba walked into the terminal at Sacramento International Airport, now one of the 6 million refugees who, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, have fled the Russian forces in Ukraine. Luba now lives in Vacaville with Karga and her husband, scientist Rob Rigor.

A complicated relationship

Karga grew up in Kyiv but from age 14 lived at boarding school in other parts of Ukraine. At 21, she moved to the US after falling in love with a missionary from Tennessee. They married but later divorced.

She’d had “a troubled relationship,” with her mother, Karga said.“When I left, there were lots of hurt feelings.”

Capt. Zlatoslava Karga (right) a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Travis Air Force Base, sets the table with her mother, Luba, at their home in Vacaville. Karga helped her mother evacuate from Ukraine.

Nicholas Pilch/ US Air Force

Karga said her mother lived alone after divorcing her father, dealing with a number of health and mobility issues on a tight budget. Karga sent her money, and Luba had traveled to the US several times over 20 years. Her trip in 2011 was the last time she saw her grandson, Karga’s son with her first husband. Karga last visited her mother in Ukraine in 2015, but their old conflicts reared and Karga left in the middle of the night.

Despite their years of strained relationship, Karga said there was always an “underlying love and connection with each other.” She felt a duty to care for her mother, and had already been talking with her husband before the Russian invasion about saving money for a larger home and moving Luba to the US to live with them.

Moving quickly

When Luba agreed to evacuate Kyiv, things started to move quickly. Luba would need to get to western Ukraine and then to Poland, where Rigor would meet her and bring her back to California.

On Facebook Karga reached out to old friends and relatives to figure out the plan, and posted for help.

One friend put her in touch with Dmytro Gozak, a tour operator who was helping evacuees.

“He has comfortable minibuses and evacuated the eldery, disabled and children,” said Karga.

On March 8, he took Luba to a safe location in Kyiv, and the next day to western Ukraine — with two flat tires along the way. Before the journey, her mother had little information about the invasion, Karga said.

“She saw buses that were supposed to transport children completely destroyed,” Karga said. “One was run over by a tank, lying on the side of the road. She saw a lot of stuff that has shaken her.”

A Facebook friend whom Karga said she only met once, 20 years ago, arranged for Luba to stay the second night with relatives in a western Ukrainian town called Ternopil.

In Poland, a friend of a friend of Rigor’s cousin met Rigor at the airport and hosted him and Luba for several days.

“They left their apartment to my husband and mom,” Karga said. “They stocked the whole refrigerator with food, got new bed sheets, and bought them paid phones and put their phone numbers in them.”

Rigor created a GoFundMe to help offset the costs of travel, housing and food for the journey, and Karga said within two hours, they reached their initial goal.

A new beginning

Luba Karga arrives in Vacaville with her son-in-law, Rob Rigor, after evacuating Kyiv and reaches out for her daughter, Air Force Capt.  Zlatoslava Karga.

Luba Karga arrives in Vacaville with her son-in-law, Rob Rigor, after evacuating Kyiv and reaches out for her daughter, Air Force Capt. Zlatoslava Karga.

Courtesy Zlatoslava Karga

On March 13, Karga, said, she was too emotional to go to the airport to meet her husband and mother.

“I wouldn’t be able to drive safely to pick her up from the airport,” she said. She waited until they came to the parking lot of her apartment complex, where they embraced and cried.

“She looked malnourished, I could tell she was not moving much,” Karga said. “She feels much happier here.” The couple and Luba have since moved into a larger house on five acres, “a once in a lifetime deal,” Karga said.

“The older my mom got, there was always nagging thought of what am I going to do if something happens to her?” Karga said. “I’m very happy I can monitor her.”

Still, it will be a big transition for Luba after moving 6,000 miles from her home. Challenges include health issues, her introverted nature and that she speaks very little English, Karga said, adding that her mother has been depressed.

Many other Ukrainians can also expect adjustment issues, Karga noted, which can differ based on factors like age, gender, emotional and social status. The Biden administration announced in April it would allow up to 100,000 Ukrainians evacuees into the US, with thousands of Americans already stepping up to sponsor them.

Luba’s closest community was a small, older Orthodox Christian church she used to attend in Kyiv, and Karga said the nearest branch of that church is in Salem, Ore. Karga doesn’t always know how to help her mother but said she tries her best.

“We did find an Orthodox church nearby, and try to provide foods she can eat, connecting her to internet resources,” Karga said. “It just takes time.”

While there is an uphill road ahead, there is something to celebrate. Luba’s birthday is on Friday, and she’ll turn 68. Karga said they have plans to go to a French cafe in Sacramento, and if Luba is up for it, they’ll go to Bodega Bay to see the ocean.

“I have been without her…for nearly 20 years,” Karga said. “I felt like an orphan. Now, I am complete with her presence.”

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