Ukrainian finds refuge on valley island | News, Sports, Jobs
As an exchange student at King Kekaulike High School 18 years ago, Vladlena Bugay never thought her ties to Maui would save her from the war in Ukraine.
Bugay, formerly known as Vladlena Chopa in 2004 while attending Upcountry High School as a junior, has found refuge with her former exchange program hosts, whom she attends and has stayed in touch with for years.
Retired judge Barclay MacDonald and his wife Kathleen of Kula are home to Bugay and her family, all from Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
Seeing signs of a possible Russian invasion late last year, Barclay MacDonald floated the idea of taking Bugay’s family to Maui for a vacation in December. He admits he wasn’t sure a real war would break out, but the signals were there. At the time, his wife felt everything would be fine, and so did Bugay.
“In our hearts, in the hearts of my entire family, we were very sure and believed that nothing would happen.” Bugay said earlier this week.
She noted that threats from Russia are not new and that the conflict with Russia has been ongoing since 2014, when it annexed the Crimean peninsula off Ukraine’s south-east coast.
“Now we understand that Kathy and Barclay literally saved us.” she said from the MacDonald house earlier this week.
The MacDonalds are also relieved to have Bugay and her family with them.
Barclay McDonald, knowing the long history of Russian occupation and massacre in Eastern Europe, particularly under Joseph Stalin, said he and his wife did so “realistic fear of having to watch helplessly the violent destruction of Vlada and her family.”
“It was too much for us to let it happen” he said, noting that he had told the family they would at least cover the cost from Ukraine to Maui.
“To see that almost exactly this murderous story is now being forced upon Ukraine, but that Vlada and her family are completely safe with us on Maui and the many friends and supporters they have on Maui is a spectacular relief.” he said.
Bugay, her mother, Olena Chopa, and her 5-year-old daughter, Milana, arrived on Maui on January 29.
“There was a tense situation with all the threats in our country, but it was very safe and we just lived our normal lives, vacationing and making plans for (the) future.” She said.
Later, her father Igor Chopa and her husband Sergiy Bugay followed. They were originally supposed to take a month’s vacation from work. Igor Chopa is a manager of a car repair shop and Sergiy Bugay works in a seaport as a manager in a commercial department.
Travel was more complicated for the men, who set out days before the February 24 invasion. Faced with the closure of airspace over Ukraine, they took the bus instead and luckily crossed the border from Ukraine into Moldova before the state of emergency kicked in.
They passed through several European countries and took a plane from Istanbul to San Francisco, where they arrived on Maui on February 27, avoiding the start of the invasion by only a few days.
“It was a miracle” said Vladlena Bugay.
For the first three days, she and her family watched the war from afar “Were in deep shock” and still are.
“We were desperately hoping that this was a mistake or a nightmare and that we would soon wake up and hear that everything is fine.” She said. “During the long 10 days of the war we had hoped that the invasion would stop and we will still return to our homes as planned.”
“We left our homes as tourists, each with one (suitcase) with a deep belief that we would return to our homes, jobs and normal, safe lives.” She added.
Her normal life meant running her travel agency, Aloha Travel. The name is a reference to her stay in Hawaii.
But even if the war ended today, tourism wouldn’t come back for a while, she said.
As the war continues beyond two weeks, she said that she and her family have done so “we cried all our tears” and keep in touch with friends and family.
“We are very afraid for them” She said.
“Every morning we wake up here to the news of how the day was in our hometown and pray that everyone is safe.” she later added. “My in-laws are here now. My grandparents are here now. Some of our friends had to leave the country to save their children from the constant sound of missiles, (sirens) and mortal danger.”
In between they kept in touch with friends and relatives, the Bugays and the MacDonalds catching up.
Since Vladlena Bugay’s time on Maui, the two families have grown close and visited one another.
Vladlena Bugay first came to Maui through FLEX, or the Future Leaders Exchange Program, a highly competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the US Department of State.
It grew out of the conviction of former US Senator Bill Bradley “The best way to ensure lasting peace and mutual understanding between the US and the countries of Eurasia is to give young people the opportunity to learn firsthand about the US and Americans, and Americans about their countries to teach.” according to its website.
The MacDonalds volunteered to be an exchange student and eventually took in 15-year-old Vladlena Bugay, who was visiting King Kekaulike for nine months.
She took acting classes and remembers that the teacher at the time was thrilled to have an exchange student from Ukraine. So the teacher chose a piece that reflected the general European space. Vladlena Bugay even sang a song in Russian when the students put on a performance for the parents.
While visiting the school, she said students were curious and asked her about her life in Ukraine.
Barclay MacDonald said it was a learning experience for both families.
“We had no idea where Ukraine was and had to look it up on a map,” he said. “Vlada and her family had no idea where Maui was and were looking for it in the Caribbean when Vlada’s mother Olena discovered it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
“They were stunned and seriously considered sending their 15-year-old daughter to such a strange place all by herself where they would have no control over what happened to her.” he remembered.
He pointed out that at that time in Ukraine almost nobody had a PC or an Internet connection. Even a phone call seemed prohibitively expensive, he added.
“Vlada’s stay went very well for all of us” he said.
The families continue to enjoy each other’s company on Maui, but Vladlena Bugay said they’re having trouble deciding what to do next. Do they have to get jobs? Do you have to register Milana at school?
“We don’t know how long we’re going to say here on Maui”, she said, adding that there are so many questions but no answers.
But she said “We know we’re safe and that’s the most important thing.”
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected]