‘We are not on vacation here’ — Ukrainian refugees in Palm Beach find no escape from war back home
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
AS SAFE HOUSES go, it’s hard to beat an oceanfront condo on Palm Beach with a swimming pool and view of the Lake Worth Beach Pier.
But for the two refugees staying there, Lesya Dzygovskaya and her 15-year-old daughter Sasha, it’s no escape from the war ravaging their homeland of Ukraine.
Mother and daughter arrived at Palm Beach International Airport late on the night of March 5, five days after Lesya’s husband Igor shoved them into a packed train car carrying refugees out of Kyiv.
They’re slowly adjusting to the relative peace and quiet of life at The Palmbeacher, the South Ocean Boulevard building where Lesya’s close friend Howard Stewart has opened his modest first-floor condo to them.
But the war still manages to find them. It blinds them of their scenic surroundings, controls their sense of time, consumes their every thought.
“I am crying every morning and every night,’’ Lesya said in an interview, describing her new daily routine of waking up at 4 a.m. to check in with her husband, son and sister in Kyiv.
“We cannot remember what day it is, but we do remember how many days since the war started. Today is Day 13,’’ she said on March 9.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Lesya installed a government-run emergency app on her phone. As air-raid sirens are blaring across the capital, the app sends alerts for Kyiv citizens to seek shelter from impending attacks.
Ever since her arrival in Palm Beach, the app has continued to buzz her phone. It lights up at least 10 times a day, each alert a fresh wave of anxiety about the safety of her family 5,600 miles away in the war zone.
“My husband said, ‘Lesya, turn it off.’ I said, ‘No. I want to know what's going on.’’’
Lesya and Sasha sleep on a foldout couch in the living room, just steps from the community pool, where the window looks out to the ocean. They could care less about their postcard view.
Their hearts are in Kyiv.
“Every moment I am thinking about my family,’’ Lesya, 48, said as she sat on a chair near Stewart’s front patio, paying no attention to the tanned beachgoers carrying surfboards and coolers.
“I told myself I will not enjoy the ocean, I will not enjoy the swimming pool, until the war ends. We are not on vacation here.’’
THIS IS NOT the first time Lesya and her daughter have stayed at The Palmbeacher. They’ve visited Stewart several times over the years, the fruits of a deep friendship that took root in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Stewart, a retired Detroit auto worker with a sense of adventure, decided he wanted to explore Ukraine. He didn’t know the language or anyone there. Through referrals, he wound up hiring Leysa and her sister, Lilia, as translators and tour guides.
He enjoyed the country so much he wound up returning for several more years, hiring the sisters again and again. Before long, their business relationship blossomed into a friendship.
Stewart was welcomed into their family. They went on vacations together to places like Mexico and Guatemala. He attended family birthday parties in Ukraine. One year, they hosted a Jewish New Year celebration for Stewart, even though the sisters are not Jewish.
When Stewart’s sister died in 2011, Lesya insisted he come to Ukraine where her family “took care of me because I was a wreck,’’ he said.
On their many visits to Palm Beach, Lesya and her family brought original artwork — paintings and drawings by Sasha, photographs taken by her mother — that now decorates the condo’s walls and shelves.
“This is more than a friendship,’’ Lesya said. “I’m like his sister.’’’
“She's like my big sister, even though I’m 20 years older,’’ Stewart added with a laugh, pointing out how Lesya isn't shy about scolding him when warranted.
When they were apart — Stewart in Palm Beach, Lesya and her family in Kyiv — they always stayed in touch through phone calls and social media.
One day in February, as the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border was dominating the American news cycle, Stewart picked up the phone and warned Lesya and her family to get out.
“Howard called me and said there’s going to be a war,’’ she said. “But I didn't believe it. This is just to scare the Ukrainians, all those Russian troops near the border. But then it happened.’’
On Feb. 24, 12 days after Sasha celebrated her 15th birthday, Russia invaded.
Lesya said she never witnessed any combat in the ensuing days, but she could hear “sounds I was not familiar with” — the sounds of explosions and gunfire in the distance.
“We didn't really know what to do, whether to hide or how to react,’’ she said.
The basement of the 16-story apartment building where her family lives, in the Dniprovskyi district on the left bank of the Dnieper River, was turned into a bomb shelter.
Eventually, Lesya’s family moved into hallways, which offered better protection since they were enclosed inside multiple walls. Every time a siren went off, she huddled on the floor with Sasha and their Yorkshire Terrier, Jessica.
Her husband Igor, a lawyer, joined the building’s security force. The citizen guards prevented outsiders from entering and kept an eye out for Russian saboteurs, who were going around town marking the sides of buildings with an “X,” a military target. She said Igor has been among those who have sneaked out to erase the marks.
“I didn’t see fighting, but there were ordinary Ukrainians walking around with guns,’’ she said. “I couldn’t believe that this is the 21st century.’’
As the first reports of civilian casualties around the country filtered in, Lesya knew it was time for her family to get out.
But her sister Lilia refused to leave without her daughter, Anastasia, whose visa had expired. And Lesya’s husband and their 23-year-old son, Evgen, insisted on staying to defend their city.
“I asked (Evgen) to come with me but he said, ‘No, mom. I will never leave Kviv. I will stay here,’’’ she said. “I said, ‘You don’t know how to shoot. What will you do?’ He said, ‘Believe me, I will be useful here.’’’
Evgen, who makes a living managing a chain of hamburger restaurants around the city, turned out to be right.
Although eight of his Yudgin Burger restaurants have closed because of the war, he has kept two open for the sole purpose of cooking food for soldiers and the needy. Through donations, he has raised more than $4,000 to purchase and cook fresh food. (Donations can be made via PayPal by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Lesya was torn about leaving her family, but she also realized she had her own important mission: “I will go and try to save our daughter,” she told her husband.
Stewart made a promise: If Lesya and Sasha could get to an airport in a neighboring country, he’d purchase their airline tickets to West Palm Beach.
Igor, knowing how refugees trying to board crowded train cars had been forced to leave their suitcases behind, insisted that his wife and daughter each carry a backpack and nothing more.
At the Kyiv train station, refugees had already started crowding into the cars when mom and daughter arrived. “My husband just pushed us inside,’’ she said.
The cars were so packed, Lesya and Sasha stood for most of the 10-hour ride to Lviv in the western part of the country.
Volunteers in Lyiv helped shuttle them toward the Polish border, where two long lines had formed, one for cars, the other for people on foot.
She said they stood outside in the cold for seven hours. When the line of cars started moving faster than the line of people, they knocked on the door of a vehicle and begged to be let in.
The driver opened his car doors and allowed the mom-and-daughter strangers to squeeze in with his two children. But at the border, the driver was told he had to turn back because he was 58 years old; all Ukrainian men up to the age of 60 had been ordered to stay and defend the country.
His children exited the car with Lesya and Sasha.
Once across the border in Poland, “wonderful” volunteers gave them warm meals and drinks and allowed them to sleep in a warehouse that was converted into a shelter, she said.
She called Stewart in Palm Beach and told him she expected to be at the Krakow airport the next day. But it wound up taking three more days to get there, and when they did (with help from a couple from Norway) their flight was delayed another day.
Eventually, they flew to Amsterdam then to Atlanta and finally to West Palm Beach, where they arrived late on the night of March 5.
Stewart, a bachelor, put them up for their first two nights at the Fairfield Inn and Suites at the east end of the Lake Worth Bridge while he prepared his condo for his two special guests.
Their first day in town, he took them to a Target to get clothes, blankets and other comforts.
It's all been a blur to Lesya and Sasha, who said the adjustment from life in a war zone hasn’t been easy.
“The contrasts started in Krakow,’’ Lesya recalled. “We were walking through the city square and we saw children running and smiling and laughing. We were staring at them. I could never forget that first moment in a peaceful place.‘’
In Florida, the fire alarm went off one night at their hotel, sending the women into a momentary panic.
Sitting outside Stewart’s condo for an interview the other day, Lesya shuddered when a helicopter buzzed above the shoreline. It was presumably patrolling the shoreline for sharks, but the sound momentarily brought her back to Kyiv.
Stewart’s neighbors have been polite and welcoming, although Sasha said she sometimes feels like she’s on display in a zoo.
“They came from a war zone. It’s not easy suddenly being around people,’’ Stewart said. “People have been wonderful but it's been stressful.‘’
Stewart is doing his best to get the women into a comfortable routine. The other day, he took Sasha to the movies (she gave “The Batman” an enthusiastic thumbs up) after dropping Lesya off at the Palm Beach Outlets mall.
One day soon, he plans to take Sasha, a championship skater in Kyiv, shopping for a pair of ice skates.
“She came here years ago with her mother and her father and they stayed with me when she competed in a figure skating competition in Miami where she won two gold medals,’’ Stewart said.
Sasha’s also a talented graphic artist, a passion she started on one of her first visits to Palm Beach years ago. Stewart said he’s hoping to enroll her at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach after spring break.
If she can secure an audition, she plans to share some of the paintings she has made since her arrival in Palm Beach earlier this month.
Mom and daughter also hope to return to the Palm Beach Photographic Centre in downtown West Palm Beach, where they took classes a couple of summers ago while visiting Stewart.
For now, the war continues to consume them, with daily welfare phone calls to relatives in Ukraine. On Sunday, Sasha wished her cousin Anastasia a happy 22nd birthday.
Most conversations end in tears as reality sets in that this latest visit to Florida will most likely be their longest yet.
“They have no idea how long they’ll be here,’’ Stewart said. “It could be a few months. It could be a year. It could be several years.’’
Stewart, who protested the Vietnam War, is protested this latest war in his own unique show of solidarity for his friends: He dyed his beard blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Lesya knows they could have evacuated to any country in Europe, closer to Ukraine. But she knew their best option was with Stewart, her lifelong friend, even if their refuge from the war zone is in a popular vacation destination.
“Howard is my friend for more than 20 years. I trust him. I love him,’’ she said.
“I know we are safe. And it’s far. It's far from the war. ‘’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.