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Fleeing from Ukraine

Marshalltown native, family escape amidst Russian invasion

-Submitted photo
Marshalltown native Burgess Barr is pictured with his family. From left are Anastasia, Bogdan, Burgess and Katya Barr.

BRAILA, Romania — When Burgess Barr awoke at his home in Odesa, Ukraine, at 7 a.m. Feb. 24, his phone was lit up with the notifications he had been fearing — Russia had launched a full scale invasion targeting several of the nation’s population centers.

His daughter Anastasia, told him she had heard explosions as early as 5 a.m., and despite the circumstances, Barr’s wife, Katya, insisted they go to the office, get back to work running their import clothing business and take their son, Bogdan, to school.

Barr, a Marshalltown native and 2000 MHS graduate, had been living in the country since November 2018 with Katya, Anastasia,12, and Bogdan, 9. He quickly got into contact with his mother, Carrie Barr of Marshalltown, who advised him to get out by any means necessary.

“(It was) not in a hysterical way — just, ‘Burg, you’ve got to go.’ And I’m like, ‘Yep, I’m with you,’ but my wife was not on board, so that’s how our morning started,” he said.

Three days later, Burgess, Katya, Anastasia and Bogdan were safe and sound in the Romanian city of Braila, but the journey to shelter and the challenges they faced escaping their war-torn homeland are experiences none of them will soon forget.

‘No one thought it would really happen’

Despite dire predictions from the U.S. intelligence community, many Ukrainians — Katya included — did not believe Putin would attack their country. A week before the war began, Burgess and Katya were at an Odesa coffee shop drinking cappuccinos when he began to read reports from the U.S. Embassy urging residents to evacuate.

The people around him, Katya said, knew he was American and made fun of him, “rolling their eyes” at his alarmism and brushing off the possibility of a nationwide invasion. Odesa, the third largest city in Ukraine, is located in the southwest corner of the country, far removed from the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. As most mothers would, Carrie Barr worried about the safety of her son, but she compared Ukrainians’ seeming indifference to a “boy who cried wolf situation,” as they had lived under the perceived threat of Russian aggression for years.

“I was pretty shocked, but the Ukrainians were stunned,” Burgess said.

By 9 or 10 a.m. on Feb. 24, they could hear bombs in the distance, and the U.S. Embassy advised civilians in regions under attack to shelter in place. Burgess and Katya stocked up on food and water while they still could, but at around 11:30 a.m., a missile exploded in a park near an apartment building they own not far from their home.

“This thing shook the foundation, shook the entire place, and it was so strong that it would be like at a rock concert where the bass is really pumping, and you can kind of feel it vibrating in you, in your chest,” Burgess Barr said. “This thing went all the way inside you, and you could feel it. It was so surreal, so weird and so loud. Every car alarm in Odesa went off at that point. I looked around and I was like ‘OK, Putin doesn’t care now. He doesn’t care what he hits.'”

Upon his initial announcement of a “military operation” in Ukraine, the Russian leader Vladimir Putin pledged to target military installations and airfields, but the explosions in the vicinity of a large city full of hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, and restaurants sealed the deal for Burgess and Katya. They were going to do everything in their power to leave the country.

‘No tickets now, no tickets tomorrow’

After taking a taxi to the main Odesa train station, the family soon came face to face with the grim reality of the situation: they weren’t the only ones trying to get out, not by a long shot.

As Burgess Barr put it, none of the buses or trains had any tickets available, so Katya was forced to “work her magic” with a secret weapon — a $100 bill. By Friday morning, all exits from Odesa had been closed as male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 were expected to stay and fight, and women were tasked with making Molotov cocktails, preparing the streets and digging trenches.

A man driving a small Mercedes bus had two tickets available, and Burgess, Katya, Anastasia, Bogdan and their Pomeranian dog were able to squeeze into the seats. The kids sat on their parents’ laps for 12 hours, and as they were finally leaving the city, they saw Russian Iskander missiles and tanks.

“It’s like the first time a person sees a combine. You know they’re big, but when you see it up close, it’s like ‘Wow, that’s big!’ Well, it was like that when we saw that,” Burgess said. “They were massive… That was the one thing we saw that kind of made your heart really jump.”

On Feb. 25 at about 5:30 a.m., the family was dumped out of their bus in a tiny village near the Romanian border, and they made their way to the city of Izmail for a brief rest at a hostel before hopping in another taxi at 10:30 a.m.

As lines of cars attempted to leave the country with wait times as high as a day, businesses were set up to extort would-be refugees who were willing to pay for a faster trip across the border. They blocked traffic every half a mile or so and forced “fast lane” drivers to fork over the money, but luckily, the taxis already had arrangements that allowed them to pass through unencumbered.

By 12:30, they had reached the border, and Burgess Barr grabbed his passport after reading that President Joe Biden said European countries would accept American citizens fleeing the country — because of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliances and their borders with Ukraine, Poland and Romania have been the two most popular destinations thus far.

Although the border agents pulled Burgess Barr aside by himself, he refused to cross without his family in tow.

“As soon as he saw that U.S.A., that was it. It didn’t matter. We got escorted straight in, and we waited our time there, maybe four or five hours going through the checkpoint,” he said.

Nonetheless, a few holdups nearly derailed the entire journey. Burgess Barr plans to adopt both children in the future, but because they are minors, they would, in most cases, not be able to leave the country without the written permission of both of their biological parents.

In addition, Katya is a nurse, and Burgess was worried she would be required to stay due to her professional background. He had no plans to leave any of them and said he would have stayed along the border and tried to sneak over had they been denied initial entry — a task he admitted has become next to impossible due to the airtight security.

“We were really nervous about that and had our money ready to go to pay off people, and when we got there, the guy kind of understood that it wasn’t all in order. And this is a guy with an M16,” Burgess said. “For those three hours when you’re waiting in purgatory, you’re thinking about a million things, and the pressure is super high. He realized what was going on, saw that we were legitimate and just said ‘I’m not taking your money. Go, just go.'”

At long last, a barge carried them into the promised land of Romania, and once they got off, they saw television cameras, reporters and aid workers, and water, milk, soda, sandwiches, candy, pizza, free coats, hand wipes and masks were all abundant.

Bogdan, who had never left Ukraine in his short life, couldn’t believe how generous the people of Romania were.

An old connection comes in handy

Burgess’s parents Carrie and Paul Barr, as it turns out, had sponsored an exchange student from the southeastern Romanian city of Braila through the Marshalltown Rotary Club, and when her family heard of their plight, they welcomed them into their home.

“This is why we have foreign exchange programs and why we try to develop friendships around the world. Thanks to our connections and the people that we’ve been able to meet and travel with, we have friends everywhere in the world,” Carrie Barr said. “So we care what happens everywhere in the world, and we would open our homes too. And we have opened our homes to people from all over the world … the minute we have trouble, we have offers of help from everywhere, and we are tremendously grateful for that.”

Language barriers have been tricky — Romanian bears little resemblance to Ukrainian — but most people in the country speak English fluently, including Burgess and Katya’s hosts.

The family of four, their grandma and a cat made room for Burgess and Katya’s family of four — plus their dog — and even gave up beds to provide them a place to sleep, with the father of the Romanian family taking a spot on the floor.

“That’s quite genuine generosity where you’re giving up more than just your food and picking up the check. You’re sleeping on the floor in order for somebody you’ve never met to have a bed,” Burgess said. “It’s not like we’re friends. But we will be.”

Soon after they arrived, Katya got sick, so they have since relocated to a hotel. When he heard someone rearranging a bed on an upper level, Burgess jumped and thought bombs were going off somewhere nearby.

“It makes me think about the people who actually fight the war. Like, if that’s how shaken I get, what’s it like for those guys?” he asked.

The mayor of Braila is in the process of making arrangements to allow Ukrainians to stay for free for up to six months.

It’s not politics, it’s survival

While Burgess and Katya are relieved to be staying in a Braila hotel away from the devastation across Ukraine, she is still concerned about her family members in Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, who are both located in the central region of the country, especially her 25-year-old brother who will be required to serve in the armed forces.

Burgess Barr is frustrated with Putin for his misleading statements on whether or not he would invade Ukraine and his pledge to “denazify” the country despite the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.

Still, even as most Americans follow the conflict through television news and written dispatches and argue from afar what role the U.S. should play in resolving it, for the people on the ground level, survival is the only endgame. Burgess recalled a conversation he and Katya had on that Thursday morning as she was insistent that they get back to work and carry on with their normal lives.

“I’m saying ‘Katya, we have one job now. Our only job for the next little bit of time is to live.’ It’s our job: to stay alive and keep the kids alive. That’s the only thing that matters,” he said. “Why Putin is coming, what his plans are, how they react, it’s not our concern. Our concern is just to live as a family … it’s not about right or left. It’s not about politics anymore. It’s about survival.”

Carrie Barr has been glued to her TV and phone checking for the latest reports out of Ukraine, but her biggest hope is still that her son and his family are safe.

“You pay very close attention to everything you can about what’s actually happening, so in that way, I just follow every nuance of what’s happening, I guess, much more closely than I would otherwise,” she said. “Wherever you go, mothers just want their children to be healthy and happy, and that’s all we’ve tried to provide for our children. And we know that’s what every other mother is trying to do around the world.”

Stories of resilience and courage against seemingly impossible odds have emerged from all over Ukraine in the last few days, and both Zelenskyy and his onetime political rival, former President Petro Poroshenko, have taken up arms in the streets of the capital city of Kyiv.

At this point, Burgess and Katya are still optimistic about the prospects of someday returning to Odesa, but leaving behind a business and a way of life they cherished is a difficult pill to swallow.

“We’ve bought apartments there that we don’t know if they exist anymore, but our life is there. We’ll have to rebuild a lot. We don’t know if things have been looted,” Burgess said. “We just absolutely don’t know if the Army has taken the doors off the places in order to sleep at night and then what they do to your stuff, who knows. Or if it’s just fine, or if it got hit by a missile. There’s just too many things. I don’t even think about it.”

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