SACRAMENTO, Calif. – U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Anastasia Maynich was overcome with emotion when she saw her cousin, Tetiana, and Tetiana’s 11-year old daughter, Sofiia, at Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest, Romania, March 4.
“I was running to them and we just hugged and cried and hugged and cried and just stood there and cried,” she said. “It was extremely emotional.”
Maynich, a Ukrainian native and naturalized American citizen, left the United States last week to help Tetiana and Sofiia, who fled their home amid the war in Ukraine. A traditional National Guard Soldier with the California Army National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade, Maynich took leave from her full-time civilian job as an emergency management specialist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to help her family through the humanitarian crisis in her home country.
Not long after Russian forces invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, Maynich said her cousin knew she had to leave. Tetiana, a police officer at Odessa International Airport, saw a missile land on the military side of the airport and thought about her daughter.
“If anything happens with a Russian takeover, because of where she worked … and because she is very patriotic to her country, she most likely will be executed,” Maynich said of her cousin’s situation.
Tetiana and Sofiia packed what they could. They left Odessa early one morning and headed toward the Moldova border.
“On the Ukrainian side, they were getting shot at,” Maynich said. “The cars were being shot at, so she had to flee that as well.”
Once they were cleared to enter Moldova, Tetiana and Sofiia pushed on to Bucharest and met Maynich at the airport. The 365-mile journey from their home in Ukraine’s third-largest city took four days.
Maynich, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was relieved when she saw them.
“I wasn’t even that emotional when I came back from both deployments,” she said. “I’m just happy they were able to get out safely.”
Maynich grew up with Tetiana in Odessa before emigrating from Ukraine to the United States with her mother and sister when she was a teenager. The pair reconnected in Odessa in 2017 while Maynich served as an interpreter during a Cal Guard State Partnership Program mission.
“It was really great,” Maynich said. “I hadn’t seen her in 17 years.”
The California National Guard and Ukraine have had close ties for 30 years through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which pairs each state’s National Guard with an allied country for mutually beneficial training, sharing best practices and strengthening relationships abroad.
Maynich remains in Romania to help Tetiana and Sofiia navigate life as refugees and begin the process of sponsoring them to come to the United States so they can live with her as long as they need to.
She is serving as a translator for her cousin – Maynich speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English – and providing financial stability at a time when she says few banks in Bucharest are willing to exchange Tetiana’s Ukrainian money for the local currency.
“I’m trying to save two lives, at least, as much as I can,” Maynich said. “That’s literally the only thing I can do at this point.”
When they’re not researching the immigration process or arranging for places to stay, Maynich, Tetiana and Sofiia are going to local refugee meetups to serve as translators and hand out water, calling cards, and other donated items.
“A lot of refugees here are doing the same thing. They don’t speak any English, so I’ve been kind of helping them out with translation and everything,” Maynich said.
An older man she helped arrived with just a backpack. Holding back tears, he told her of horrors he saw while running to catch a bus across the border.
“It’s extremely heart-wrenching,” Maynich said. “It hits home so hard, and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
Even with two deployments to war-torn areas, this is different.
“In [the] Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, we were always on the mission. We were always doing stuff. I have never really experienced what I’m seeing right now,” Maynich said. “This is my family. I love America, but I also love Ukraine because it’s my culture, my heritage.”
NOTE: Tetiana and Sofiia’s last name was withheld for safety amid the ongoing conflict.