A Ukrainian family arrives (finally) in Gulfport
Ukrainian refugees Halyna Hamota and her two young daughters are relieved to be an ocean away from the sirens and bombardments of the Ukraine/Russia war, but their future is uncertain at this time.
At 2 a.m. Thursday morning, Hamota and her children, Yulia (12), Alina (10), and Gulfport Garage owner Eric Cudar, arrived in Tampa after more than three days of traveling from Istanbul to Mexico. , in California and, finally, in Tampa.
The family of three stayed at an Airbnb in Poland for more than a month while waiting for permission to travel to the United States to reunite with Cudar’s fiancé and Hamota’s sister, Ulyana Fylypovych.
“She is still in shock, Ukraine in shock, from the war,” said Fylypovych, translating Ukrainian into English for her sister.
The girls’ grandparents also live in Gulfport, near Stetson. Hamota and her daughters will stay with Fylypovych’s parents, as Cudar works full-time at his busy downtown Gulfport auto shop and Fylypovych is an assistant at a dental office.
The Ukrainian family left everything, their house, their pets, everything that couldn’t fit in a hand luggage in Europe. Hamota’s husband and the girl’s father, Andre, are still stationed in Ukraine.
Andre is a factory worker and a volunteer in the Ukrainian militia, the shelling has temporarily stopped in the area where he is stationed but the internet is spotty. For a few days of worry, they completely lost contact with him.
“Those were days of panic,” Fylypovych said.
Finally, the phone rang: André was safe.
“We can sleep at night now,” Hamota said.
After more than a month of uncertainty in Poland, Ukrainian refugees learned that they could come to the United States for humanitarian reasons and pass through Mexico. The status only lasts for a year, but the Gulfport couple wasted no time in arranging a plane from the nearest exit point, Istanbul, to Mexico City.
Cudar decided to meet them, considering that the family understands little English, no Spanish, and had never flown before.
“I think the hardest part was the airports in Mexico,” Cudar said with a frustrated laugh.
Cudar printed out a temporary Mexican visa for each of them and filled it out at home. The first caretaker insisted that they should rewrite it themselves, but the Ukrainian family cannot write English.
After much pleading and Cudar’s form ripped to pieces by a guard, a second guard agreed to let them in. Hamota and his children watched and listened to the altercation, unsure of what was going on.
Finally, a second guard let them in. They heaved a sigh of relief.
“The rules changed depending on who you were talking to,” Cudar said.
From Mexico City, they traveled to Tijuana and then learned that flights from Tijuana had a four-day wait – and there were no hotels available.
No Uber either.
The foursome – Cudar, Hamota and their daughters – traveled to the Mexico-California border and crossed it on foot. They took another trip to San Diego, then flew to Florida.
“They are so excited to be with their family,” Fylypovych said. “They’re coming from the snow, so they’re happy with the weather. For her (Hamota), it’s a bit of a shock. She says she doesn’t know why people always say hello to her, they don’t know her. That’s how Americans are.
A one-year safety net
Their humanitarian status lasts only one year, but the family hopes to extend it. Hamota and the girls applied for a US visa six years ago and went on a nine-year waiting list.
“We hope it can be expedited somehow,” Cudar said, “given the circumstances.”
For now, they are settling down.
“We were so focused on them getting here, at this point we don’t know the next steps,” Cudar said.
On Sunday, the 10- and 12-year-old girls of Hamota laugh and chase each other around the steps of the Gulfport Casino ballroom after lunch at the Dog Pier. They know their life has changed forever, but they probably don’t know the seriousness of it.
Girls can attend Walden Private Middle School, a small school in Gulfport that offered free lessons for girls – and work with them on their English.
As traumatic as it may have been for the Ukrainian family, they are lucky. Many refugees cannot afford to fly or book a room.
In the case of the family of Cudar and Fylypovych, the Gulfportians gave money for the theft. At press time, the GoFundMe has raised just under $9,000. People stopped by Gulfport Garage to hand over cash, often moved by the plight of the family. On April 25, artist Denise Keegan will host a fundraiser to help the family get back on their feet.
“The people of Gulfport are what made this financially possible. I know Gulfport is generous, but seeing it firsthand,” Cudar said, “it’s a community like no other.
Cudar has increased the amount needed on his GoFundMe from $15,000 to $10,000, but any additional funds will go towards setting Hamota and his young daughters up for a new life in Florida.
Fundraising for Gulfport’s Ukrainian Family Art Raffle Monday April 25. 5-8 p.m. North End Village, 2901 Beach Blvd. S
Donate online at GoFundMe.