Ukrainian Family's Daring Escape and How They Found Refuge with a Family in Utah

The DeMilles of Cedar Hills feel like the Kalmazans, who they took in after they left Ukraine in early March, are now family. "Love is the greatest language of all," says matriarch Michelle DeMille

Yurii Kalmazan, Albina Smykovska, and their daughters .Photo: Niki Chan Wylie

In the yard of a spacious property in the Utah mountains, with a backyard pool and squealing children swimming, the war in Ukraine over 5,700 miles away feels very distant. There are no Russian bombs dropping nearby and the memories are fading of the attacks five months ago which shattered the peaceful lives of Yurii Kalmazan, his wife Albina Smykovska, and their two young daughters.

Fearful for their lives, the family escaped Ukraine on March 2, leaving behind their livelihood, their animals, and friends and family. They made stops in 8 countries in 9 days before finding this new home south of Salt Lake City with a large family of strangers that welcomed them as their own.

"If it was not for the people who have showed us so much kindness, we would be stuck in the sadness of what's happening in Ukraine," Yurii, 45, tells PEOPLE through an interpreter in this week's issue. "They've helped us continue to live."

Their days are now filled with hope as they learn English and create a life in America, where they've been embraced by the surrounding community, including the DeMilles, who opened the doors of their home to the family. "Yes, we feel lucky," says Albina, 32. "But it's more of a miracle."

On February 24, Yurii and Albina woke suddenly at 5 a.m. as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. "We could hear the airplanes flying overhead," says Yurii. "That's how it started." Huddled in their three-bedroom apartment as bombs fell, "we didn't know what to do," says Albina, 32.

The couple packed one small suitcase with clothes and personal documents, gathered their daughters Zlata, now 9, and Zoriana, now 4, as well as their two huskies, Dana and Fifa, and cat Vasya into their Suzuki SX4 and headed to a relative's house outside the city.

"We thought we'd spend three days there, and everything's going to be over," Albina says. "But five days passed, and everything was getting worse."

Yurii, Albina and their daughters Facetiming with Albina's mother in Ukraine.Niki Chan Wylie

Yurii says his aunt in Salt Lake City urged him to leave: "She kept saying, 'Just get your stuff together and come here,'" Yurii recalls. "Russian paratroopers were closing in nearby, but we had everything in Kyiv: our friends, our families, our business, our home. It was a hard choice."

On March 2, they said a tearful goodbye to their dogs and cat, which they left with Albina's stepsister (they have since learned that one ran away after being frightened by an explosion), packed the car and drove to the border with Moldova.

While Ukraine requires men to stay and fight, it will grant men with three or more children exemptions from military service. Once Yurii proved he was the father of four children (he has two sons from previous relationships, one in Texas and another in Germany) they were all allowed to cross.

Albina Googled options for entering the U.S. without a visa as they journeyed through Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic. Yurii's aunt bought them plane tickets to Mexico, with no guarantee they'd be allowed entry in the U.S. Says Albina: "It was a shot in the dark."

By the time the family reached Mexico on March 10, they had spent 9 days traveling through eight other countries. "I didn't sleep for three days straight," remembers Yurii.

Thankfully, the gamble paid off. On March 11, they were among the first Ukrainian refugees allowed from Tijuana into California, where they met Yurii's aunt. "When we crossed the border, the joy and relief came," Albina says. "We cried and cried. Until then we couldn't let ourselves hope."

Zlata and Zoriana have learned to swim in the DeMilles's pool.Niki Chan Wyllie

Then came another stroke of luck—or, rather, "a big miracle," as Yurii says. During their journey north while staying overnight with the aunt's friend in Las Vegas, their host's next door neighbor and fellow member of the same Mormon church happened to be the brother of Michelle DeMille.

He said his sister and her family in Cedar Hills, Utah, were willing to open their home to a refugee family, a much better option than staying in the aunt's small apartment.

When the Kalmazans arrived at the door of Michelle DeMille and her husband, Reece, on March 13, the two families were strangers, and their communication was limited to translations through Google.

For more on the DeMilles and the Kalmazans, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

But the DeMilles, who have seven children, the youngest of whom just graduated from high school, and six grandchildren, quickly folded their new guests into their large circle.

"Love is the greatest language of all. I knew if God wanted them to be in our house, it would work out," says Michelle, 52. "We cooked together, we ate together. Now they are our family."

Until the end of April, the Kalmazans lived in Michelle's 7-bedroom home before moving next door to her mother's house, on the same property, and living in an apartment there. Zlata enrolled in third grade in a school attended by one of Michelle's grandchildren. Zoriana just finished pre-school and both sisters are quickly picking up English.

Albina has showered the family with her cooking and baking, including borscht, Easter breads, and crepes, and looks at Michelle as a second mom. In the garden she's planted sunflowers, the flower of Ukraine. And when Michelle's mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, Albina cared for her.

"We have a very special bond," says Michelle of her relationship with Albina.

Swimming at the DeMilles' backyard pool.Niki Chan Wylie

Each morning, the family FaceTimes Albina's mother, who stayed in Kyiv. Not long ago the girls asked when they could visit their grandmother again. "That was one of the hardest things to explain," says Albina.

And there is sadness in knowing what they've left behind. "There's constant guilt," says Yurii. "We're safe, but there are still people in basements hiding."

Yet there are many new joys in their American lives. The girls are learning to swim in the DeMilles' backyard pool, taught by some of the DeMille children. "Zlata told our daughter, 'I need swim lessons. I swim like a dog.' She meant she could only dog-paddle," says Michelle.

Before moving into their apartment, neighbors surprised the family by fully furnishing it and even paying for a new family portrait (including Yurii's son from Texas), which hangs in their living room. In June, raffle profits from the Cedar Hills fun run went to the Kalmazans, who wore their home-country colors while riding in a parade afterward.

"You can't describe the amount of help we've received. You can't believe it's possible," Albina says.

But for the Kalmazans, being on the receiving end of so much charity is not familiar or always comfortable. "Back home we were in a financial situation where we could help people around us. Now we are the ones being helped, which is a weird feeling," says Albina, who owned and operated a Kyiv water filtration company with Yurii.

She and her husband both have college degrees (Albina's in ecology and Yurii's in economics), but while Yurii just received a work permit and a social security number, and now has a job in construction, Albina is still waiting.

While the Kalmazans miss their family and friends, they intend to plant their own roots in Cedar Hills. "We miss what Ukraine was before," Albina says. "Now it is another place, a place with war." Says Yurii: "America—it's our new home."

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