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‘We had to do it’: How this 76-year-old aunt escaped Ukraine and made it to Salt Lake City

Kyiv resident Natasha Goviazhenko and Salt Lake City’s Jacke Corbett at the U.S. border in Tijuana moments after Goviazhenko crossed onto U.S. soil.
courtesy Jacke Corbett
Kyiv resident Natasha Goviazhenko and Salt Lake City’s Jacke Corbett at the U.S. border in Tijuana moments after Goviazhenko crossed onto U.S. soil.

Renowned artist Galina Perova and her friend Jacke Corbett have returned from Poland. They journeyed to Warsaw to help Perova’s 76-year-old aunt Natasha Goviazhenko and other relatives who had fled war-torn Ukraine. Their plan was to bring them back to the U.S. — and they’ve mostly succeeded — but only after navigating a slew of bureaucratic hurdles.

“It was very emotional. I think all of us just bucked up because we knew we had to do it,” Corbett said. “I'm not a person that's easily driven to tears, but I did get driven to tears on several occasions.”

Goviazhenko’s daughter-in-law and grandson decided to stay in Poland. But her granddaughter is now in Washington D.C., and Aunt Natasha herself just arrived in Salt Lake City alongside Corbett after an arduous trip that spanned Warsaw to Paris and finally across the U.S.-Mexico border.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Why did you have to go through Tijuana?

Jacke Corbett: It was really our only option. When we first got to Warsaw, we immediately contacted the [U.S.] embassy. When you call, you get nothing, basically. So, we went over there in person with our passports. The gentleman opened the door; we showed him my passport. He goes, 'what do you want?' We said, 'we're trying to help our aunt.' He basically said, 'get an appointment' and shut the door. Galina knocked again and said, 'no, we want some better answers.' And this time he just handed us a card to call the ambassador services. We called and they're 200 days out to get a visa to come to the United States — and that's a visitor visa.

PM: How did you hatch the plan to fly to Mexico City and then forge the Tijuana border?

JC: Somewhere along the way, I had heard that they had been letting a few people over the border there, a few Ukrainians. I knew that you could fly out of Europe to Mexico without a visa or actually, it's very easy to get. In my mind, the only way I really thought we could get in is being able to walk over the border.

PM: What was that experience like?

JC: Well, it is a long, long flight. It’s 12 hours to Mexico City from Paris. We stayed overnight there, and the next morning got up. That was another four-hour flight to get into Tijuana. Then just getting in an Uber and going to the border. First, we stood in the regular line for regular people to go across the border. That was probably at least a half a mile long. We stood in that, we got up to the front. I showed him my visa — they're fine, and I showed them hers and they're like, 'Oh, then you have to go to that other line.' So we had to go over and get in another line where all the Ukrainians were, and this line did not move at all. Nothing. It was just people piled in there. From the time we started standing in line at about 10:30 in the morning on Sunday, and she came out of there at 5:30 in the morning on Monday morning. So about 19 hours.

PM: What was it like when you saw Natasha emerge onto American soil?

JC: It was very, very relieving. It was almost surreal in a way because it had been such a fight, and I was so absolutely exhausted and I knew that she had to be far more exhausted than I am. Though she is a pretty hearty little lady.

PM: I have tears welling up right now. Were tears shed?

JC: Well, Pamela, I'm not a big tear shedder, but I was very, very happy and relieved that we had pulled it off, but also incredibly exhausted and cold.

PM: How is Aunt Natasha doing?

JC: She's obviously tired. She's been resting quite a bit. But she's like the little energizer bunny. She likes to keep busy. She's already been mopping floors, just trying to do little things that she can.

PM: Speaking of help, you pulled this off. How are you doing?

JC: I'm still a little tired, too, but I'm gradually catching up. I'm glad it's behind us. I'm glad to be back in Utah.

In the interest of disclosure, Pamela McCall assisted Perova and Corbett with an offer for Perova’s family to go to her sister’s in Canada if they couldn’t get into the U.S. The family dog traveled with Natasha Goviazhenko granddaughter to Washington D.C. McCall also helped by finding a veterinarian in the U.S. who spoke Polish and was able to translate veterinarian papers from Warsaw into English.

KUER's Associate Producer Leah Treidler contributed to this article.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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