LOCAL NEWS

Utah sisters coordinate intense, incredible rescue of Ukrainian families into Poland

Mar 19, 2022, 7:44 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2022, 11:25 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Three Utah siblings are grateful for the incredible rescue of their family members from Ukraine, and they are thanking the Utahns who pulled together from around the world to make it happen.

It may have been over a decade since he left Ukraine, but Jonathon Faber — who goes by Jon or his Ukrainian name Yuri — still feels very close to his original home country.

Jon was adopted, along with his two younger siblings, from a Ukrainian orphanage by a Bountiful couple when he was 16. Two of his older sisters have kept in close contact with Jon and they talk weekly.

When the war broke out in Ukraine, all Jon could think about was what would happen to Anya and Elena.

Looking at the sweet faces of his nieces and nephews in photos on his phone, Jon couldn’t imagine the reality of what his sisters and their kids were facing.

Elena and her husband Sasha have three children, ages three months to nine years old. Anya has a 13-year-old daughter. All of them lived in Dnipro.

“Hearing the stories and the news of the kids being locked in a basement, in a bomb shelter, with no food and no water, and having things like bombs and rockets explode above them, and just living in that fear, is just something that [Sasha] didn’t want his kids to live,” Jon said.

Sasha asked if Jon could help.

“‘Could you get my family out?’” Sasha asked Jon. “‘Because ultimately, the war has been spreading so fast, and it’s only a matter of time until it gets here.’”

Of course Jon said yes, but didn’t quite know where to turn. Anya and Elena don’t speak English and had never been outside of the Dnipro area.

Jon’s adopted mother made a post on Facebook, which caught the attention of his mom’s neighbor, Emily Leger.

“They became just our main focus,” Emily said. “We wanted to save those little children and that family, and bring them to safety.”

It just so happened that Emily’s sister and brother-in-law had moved to Paris three months ago for a job.

Anne-Marie Cales Lewis, watching the war unfold just a few countries away, was already planning a trip to Poland to volunteer at the border.

Then, Emily gave Anne-Marie a call.

“I said, ‘Well I’ve got a rescue operation mission for you instead, if you’re up for it,’” Emily recalled.

Anne-Marie was immediately on board, and the two, along with Jon’s adopted brothers, joined forces to figure how to get Anya, Elena, and their four children out safely.

Where they lived in Dnipro is 13 hours and practically across the whole country from Lviv, the city they’d need to travel to in order to cross the border into Poland.

Emily described how they began several group chats to brainstorm, reached out to any contacts they could think of, and researched options on social media.

“Every minute, literally, it was, ‘Jon, what’s happening next? K, where can we go? Let’s get Igor on the ground. What about this bus? Let’s get this Facebook group. Let’s call this person. Let’s do this,’” Emily recounted.

“We started to look through Facebook groups for transport for different buses that were leaving. We started vetting people who were offering buses,” Anne-Marie explained.

After finding a bus from Dnipro to Lviv, coordinated by a reputable person, Jon said Sasha told him the family made the decision to board the bus the next morning. Sasha had to say goodbye to his wife and children to stay behind and fight for the Ukrainian military.

After the final decision, Anne-Marie had to move quickly.

“I got on a plane to Warsaw the very next day,” she said.

Her husband was on a work trip and couldn’t fly out fast enough, but his co-worker living in Germany named Ken Hanada was able to leave on a moment’s notice. Ken met Anne-Marie in the Warsaw airport.

The two introduced themselves to each other, then immediately began planning how to rescue the sisters from an already jam-packed border crossing.

Anne-Marie and Ken rented two cars and secured hotel rooms. They went grocery shopping to pick up items that the two women and their children may need.

“We got the very last two rental cars in the Warsaw airport, by the way, got to the hotel rooms, laid out all of these items for them,” Anne-Marie explained.

What would have been a 13-hour road trip for Anya and Elena and the kids, turned into 36 hours.

“When they first got on the bus, I could not sleep for two days,” Jon said, with tears in his eyes. “Because I felt the responsibility that I’m the one that found the bus, and it’s my job to make sure they’re safe.”

He checked in with Elena and Anya every hour to make sure they were on the right path, and that nothing had happened. Jon explained that the buses took a roundabout way to Lviv, potentially to skirt military checkpoints and dangerous areas.

His sisters made it to Lviv, then boarded another bus headed for Poland. While the drive to the border is only about an hour, Jon said the wait at the border to cross over took six hours.

Anne-Marie and Ken were waiting on the other side.

At 1:30 a.m., after spending more than 40 hours on two different buses with four children to keep occupied, Anya and Elena arrived in Poland, exhausted. Jon said Elena held her three-month-old baby in her arms for the entire trip.

(Courtesy: Anne-Marie Cales Lewis)

Anne-Marie and Ken watched people unloading from the bus, and immediately spotted Anya and Elena.

“We hugged them, and we shuffled them into our cars,” she said. “And we took them back to the hotel and said, ‘Shower, relax, rest, sleep in. You’re safe now. It’s okay.’”

The next morning, they awoke to the news that Dnipro had been bombed.

“We literally got them out just in time, and I think that they’re being watched over,” Anne-Marie expressed. “It was a wonderful thing to be part of.”

(Courtesy: Anne-Marie Cales Lewis)

Anne-Marie and Ken talked to Anya and Elena over Google Translate, which, aside from some hilarious mix-ups, worked pretty well for communication.

Next came securing flights to Paris, which proved to be tough because Anya and Elena only have hand-written paper Ukrainian ID cards, not biometric passports needed for international travel.

They ended up working with the Hungarian airline “Wizz Air” and bought tickets. Ken said his goodbyes and headed back to Germany, while Anne-Marie and the others were bound for France.

At customs in Paris, the hand-written ID cards again became an issue and border security pulled everyone aside to question them.

Anne-Marie said she called Jon and translated to him on the phone, and he translated to Anya and Elena.

“I said, ‘Here’s the situation: I’m an American. They’re my friends; I’m helping them. They left their husband behind, he’s fighting in the war, he’s in the Ukrainian military,’” Anne-Marie recounted. She got choked up as she continued, “And all of a sudden, this solemn feeling of respect came over these policemen. They tapped their chest over heart and said, ‘Bon courage. Bon courage.’ And they let us out.”

Bon courage, she explained, is a phrase that expresses well wishes and means, “Go with courage.”

(Courtesy: Anne-Marie Cales Lewis)

After clearing that final hurdle, Anne-Marie took the six new refugees back to the couple’s tiny, two-room flat. The eight are living there with two cats, making it work as they figure out the next steps.

Jon is relieved and grateful.

“Huge thanks to Anne-Marie for going to help people she never met before in her life, just trying to help, and it’s just so amazing for that,” he expressed.

(Courtesy: Anne-Marie Cales Lewis)

While he wants Anya and Elena to join him and his two other siblings in the U.S., Jon said current immigration laws make that impossible. He indicated the process could take from two to 15 years.

The plan, for now, is to try to get the two sisters and their kids to Canada.

But at least for the moment, they have a safe place to stay, thanks to complete strangers who made it their mission to get Anya and Elena to safety.

“The kids are just these darling, beautiful, happy little children, which I think is really a huge testament to the mothers and how well they’ve been keeping it together in spite of the horrific fears and fright that they must be feeling,” Anne-Marie said, adding, “So, I’m proud of them. I’m proud of them. And I’m honored to be their new friend.”

Emily and Anne-Marie are documenting the journey on this Instagram page.

They’re also taking donations on this webpage* to help Anya, Elena and the four children as they find a new home.


*KSL TV does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

(KSL TV)...
Lauren Steinbrecher

SLC airport reports few delays for post-Thanksgiving travel

Major U.S. cities were hit with severe weather Sunday, leading to hundreds of flight delays and cancellations on one of the year's busiest travel days.
11 hours ago
(Mountain Green Fire Protection District)...
Josh Ellis

Pilot walks away from Morgan County plane crash

Authorities say a pilot "miraculously" walked away from a plane crash in Morgan County.
11 hours ago
Salt Lake city Fire at the vacant home. (KSL-TV)...
Michael Houck

Firefighters extinguish fire at vacant Salt Lake City house

First responders took down a fire at a vacant and boarded-up house Sunday evening. 
1 day ago
Trent Anderson and his 27-year-old horse, Duncan during the parade before the car hit them....
Shelby Lofton

EXCLUSIVE: Car crashes through barricades, hits horse and rider during Christmas parade

A man and his horse are recovering after being hit by an alleged DUI driver during a Spanish Fork Christmas Parade Saturday night.
1 day ago
A trailer rollover blocks two left lanes of I-15. (Utah Department of Transportation)...
Michael Houck

Trailer rollover blocks portion of I-15, suspect in police custody

A person is in custody after attempting to flee the scene of a car crash involving a trailer Saturday afternoon, police say.
1 day ago
Massive blue ice sculptures with a starry sky....
Brooke Williams

Ice castles are constructed by hand one icicle at a time

Cold temperatures means construction on the Ice Castles at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center has officially begun, and it's coming together one icicle at a time.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Utah sisters coordinate intense, incredible rescue of Ukrainian families into Poland