Jamie Longo and Eric Ponce paced near the food court of John Glenn International Airport. They carried a bouquet of sunflowers, a homemade Ukrainian flag and signs that said “We love you” and “Welcome home” in Ukrainian, while glancing anxiously down Concourse B.
Home for their friend Alina Lyman is Dnipro, Ukraine, which Lyman, pregnant and alone, reluctantly fled as Russian troops bombed her neighborhood. She knew that if she stayed, she could be killed. Her baby could die. She had to leave.
So now, after a Friday evening flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Columbus, Lyman was about to finish one leg of a long journey that may not end anytime soon. Lyman, 26, left behind her family and the father of her unborn child, and she was about to reunite with her friends in Columbus.
Mothers holding their children’s hands, and travelers on phones rushing to baggage claim glanced at Longo and Ponce, with their signs, flowers and blue and yellow balloons. Longo, whose boyfriend, Trent Adams, accompanied her to the airport, has been studying the language so that she can make her friend feel a little less homesick.
Ponce and Longo, of Columbus, had secured a homestay for Lyman, and put the word out that she would need clothing for herself and support for her baby. She arrived in Columbus with a backpack and a carry-on bag, which was all she was allowed to take with her when she boarded a train to Poland to escape the attacks by Russian troops ravaging her country.
The Whole Foods store where Longo works, and where Lyman worked when she was a student at Columbus State Community College, helped her prepare a care package.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, like many in Ukraine, Lyman’s life was transformed in an unimaginable instant. She could stay in her home, where bombs were falling on neighboring houses, or she could escape to safety. Lyman faced a painful decision, one that meant leaving behind her fiance, Dima Kvitka, who is fighting to defend Ukraine.
Lyman’s friends in Columbus, where she gained U.S. citizenship, wanted to help from afar. They set up a GoFundMe effort that had raised more than $5,675 as of April 23, to help get her to Columbus and into a home. She and her friends are concerned about making sure she has medical care during her pregnancy.
She packed a bag and boarded a train alone in her hometown of Dnipro. Kvitka, 24, stayed behind to fight Russian troops who invaded their country.
Read More: Escape from Ukraine: Friends in Columbus race to help pregnant woman leave Dnipro, a city under attack
The train was crowded with refugees and moved slowly. It was so packed that Lyman had to leave behind her luggage.
“I’m in Poland now!!!” she reported on March 23 via Telegram, a phone app. She stayed at a hostel in Chelm with nothing but an extra shirt and pants. At that point, she needed to figure out her plan to fly to the U.S.
From Poland, she traveled to Berlin where she was able to receive prenatal care and prepare for her trip to Columbus.
On the plane, she was anxious. She didn’t know what to expect when she arrived, who would be waiting for her, or where exactly she would go. Most of all, she worried about her baby after so much traveling.
At the airport, Ponce and Longo waited impatiently, glancing intermittently at the “arrivals” message board and Concourse B. They had last heard from Lyman by text message when she left New Jersey for Columbus.
“She’s broken emotionally, mentally and physically, but she is strong,” Longo said.
And then they could see her walking toward them.
Lyman smiled, and her eyes filled with tears. She slowed, as in disbelief that she had finally arrived, and then walked toward them holding a carry-on bag and a backpack over her shoulder. Longo walked forward and wrapped her arms around Lyman.
The strong face that Lyman wore throughout her journey lifted, revealing an expectant mother who was exhausted and needed to rest. Lyman and Longo held each other closely.
And then Lyman held her face in her hands and wiped her eyes. She placed her hands over her heart and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
She was overwhelmed to find people waiting for her at the airport.
Her friends asked Lyman if she needed anything.
“Just water,” she said.
Ponce, Longo, and Lyman sat at a table near the Starbuck’s. With a weak smile, Lyman began to reflect on her journey and look toward what is to come. Outside, it was the first sunny, 70-degree day Ohio had seen in a long while. Longo said that Lyman will “hit the ground running, wanting to find a job,” secure health insurance, and to restart her life and start her child’s life in the U.S.
Later, in a text message, she apologized for being so emotional at the airport and expressed gratitude for support from friends and strangers in Columbus.
“I was just like in a dream – tired – and couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t talk,” she wrote. “This is a true miracle that I have such people around me now.”
Click here for a photo essay of the reunion at the airport.
This story was written by Jen Clancey, Pol Le and Marcus Nowling. Jack Shuler and Alan Miller contributed. They are part of The Reporting Project in Denison University’s Journalism Program, which is supported, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. [email protected] @JournalismDU