From Kyiv to Madison, friends repay kindness

MADISON, Wis. — Snizhana Bykova had a happy, successful life in Kyiv before the Russian invasion of Ukraine turned her world upside down. Now, she is starting over in southern Wisconsin.

The Ukrainian mother of two escaped the war with her children, 18-year-old Daniil and 9-year-old Arina, and is resettling in Dane County.

“I thought, we are in danger,” Bykova said. “Many people didn’t believe me. I had many open talks with many of my friends who said, ‘It’s impossible. Russia will never do it,’ but deep inside, I knew I should be prepared.”

Bykova and her children fled Ukraine with the help of their American friends, Anne and Jeff Munson of Fitchburg. The two families met nearly 20 years ago when the Munsons adopted children in Ukraine.

“Snizhana’s husband Vitaliy was our Ukrainian interpreter,” Anne Munson said. “We were very much in a foreign country with not a lot of English speakers around us. Then Vitaliy comes and he speaks English better than us. He listened to American music. He made us feel safe. I thought, ‘This is going to be great.'”

The Munsons adopted their sons, 19-year-old Alexander and 18-year-old Jacob, from Ukrainian orphanages in 2004. They returned to Ukraine in 2010 to adopt two more children, 15-year-old Eric and 13-year-old Katia.

When they got to Kyiv, the Munsons stayed with Snizhana and Vitaliy in their small apartment.

“We told them, ‘We’ll only be here a couple of days,'” Jeff Munson said. “Forty-five days later, we were still there waiting for the adoption to go through.”

“They gave up their bedroom and slept on the couch,” Anne Munson said. “That’s just what Ukrainians do. They give up their heart.”

When rumors of a Russian invasion intensified, the Munsons decided to repay the kindness that was extended to them. They made plans to help their Ukrainian friends come to the United States.

“Snizhana is the real hero in all of this,” Anne Munson said. “It’s very easy to say, ‘What can you do?’ She had to execute it.”

Before the Russian invasion began on February 24, Bykova gathered her personal documents.

“I had a little suitcase,” she said. “I collected all the documents, medical records of my kids, my diplomas, my apartment ownership, et cetera.”

Bykova had a B-1 tourist visa for the United States that was valid until 2027 from a prior trip to visit friends in the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s not possible to go from Ukraine directly to the United States,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult to know when to make the decision to go, run, escape.”

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service announced in late February that all Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 were prohibited from leaving the country. Vitaliy had to stay behind. Daniil was granted permission to leave the country even though he’s 18 due to a military-issued medical waiver.

Less than two days before the invasion began, Vitaliy, Snizhana and their children abandoned their apartment in Kyiv and headed west. They drove 10 hours to a small cottage in the mountains.
After several days, they crossed the border in Romania.

“We decided to go through Romania because there were not that many people on the border at that time,” Bykova said. “We were carrying everything we owned. Just one suitcase with simple T-shirts and jeans.”

The family said goodbye to Vitaliy at the Romanian border. At this point, they are still able to communicate with him. Vitaliy is in western Ukraine helping with the growing humanitarian crisis.

The Munsons, meanwhile, purchased airline tickets to get Snizhana and her children to the United States.

“We flew from Bucharest to Paris and from Paris to Chicago,” Bykova said. “I’m so thankful to the Air France people. They gave us three seats for each of us so we could lay down and rest. I didn’t sleep for a week.”

The Bykov family arrived in Madison on March 6. Nine people are currently living under one roof at the Munson home in Fitchburg.

“We have a nice big king-sized bed, and thanks to the Munsons, we’re eating and sleeping,” Bykova said. “We are here and we are safe, but we are Ukrainians and we need to figure out what to do next. My motivation was to save my kids. As a mom, this is the main thing I should do in my life. I did it.”

A GoFundMe has been established to help the Bykov family; click here to learn more.