The night before his country was invaded, Andrey Gulko went to bed early. He and his family had returned from a business trip to the Netherlands. Back to their house with their own dishes, towels, and comfortable beds. Back to the daily routine. Back to their normal life.
With three children under 10, normal life for the Gulkos was busy. They barely had time to recoup after their trip. Two days went by. It was a Wednesday, and they still hadn’t unpacked.
The first time he awoke was to the phone ringing. It was his neighbor, anxious and worried about the tense situation with Russia.
Still groggy, Andrey put his neighbor off until the morning. There had been rumors for months, but nothing had happened yet. Andrey hung up. He closed his eyes and once again let the waves of weariness pull him back into sleep.
The second time he was jolted awake by the sound of loud blasts and rattling windows. It was 4 a.m. Andrey and his wife looked at each other. It was actually happening.
It was happening now.
In the midst of an international crisis
Andrey and his family, along with millions of other Ukrainians, suddenly found themselves at the center of a crisis that had been escalating for years.
Eight years before, in February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered unmarked troops to invade and annex Crimea, a southern peninsula of Ukraine, in a hostile response to the country’s recent flex of power. A wave of protests and demonstrations broke out across Ukraine. That movement culminated in the Revolution of Dignity. Ukrainians ousted their pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and set up a pro-Western government.
Putin used similar tactics in the Ukrainian region of Donbas. But that effort devolved into a simmering conflict between Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists. Twenty-nine ceasefires failed to hold. For years, the situation remained a stalemate.
As early as spring 2021, Russia began amassing thousands of military personnel and equipment in Crimea and on the border with Ukraine.
Andrey grew up in a village not too far from Kyiv. His father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Thanks to a relative in California, at 15 Andrey attended Thunderbird Adventist Academy in Arizona. He spoke no English. No one there spoke Ukrainian—he learned through immersion.
He then went to Pacific Union College (PUC). While there, Andrey worked at the bike shop in nearby Calistoga, and one of his fondest memories of life at PUC is mountain biking. He even finished in the top three of the Napa Valley Dirt Classic—an annual mountain bike race—on a BMX.
At PUC, Andrey majored in manufacturing and engineering. After graduating in 2004, he decided to return to his homeland. “I felt like it was my patriotic duty to go back to Ukraine and teach Ukrainian farmers to farm better,” he said.
For a year, Andrey worked for one of the big tractor suppliers in Kyiv as a technical instructor. There he met Natalie, an HR manager, who would later become his wife.
The couple has three children: Frosya, 9, Polina, 8, and Grisha, 5. They live in Voron’kiv, a village southeast of Kyiv.
Andrey works for Raven Industries, an American company with its European headquarters in the Netherlands. It designs and manufactures products for precision farming. With its vast arable plains, agriculture plays a vital role in the Ukrainian economy—as reflected even in the colors of the nation’s flag. Considered “the breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine is a major producer of wheat, corn, and sunflower products.
In January, news reports about an impending Russian invasion mounted. Raven Industries sounded the alarm. Andrey readied his team in Ukraine for the worst-case scenario.
Have extra fuel on hand. Keep your car’s gas tank full. Gather together important documents. Pack a suitcase with bare necessities. Be ready for an emergency.
They all did it.
But nobody believed it.
“I myself didn’t believe it,” Andrey said during a recent conversation over Zoom. “I didn’t think it could happen.”
A decision to flee
Even the government assured its people that there was no possibility of war.
But in the wee hours of February 24, war arrived. In a full-scale invasion, Russians moved into Ukraine on the ground from multiple directions. Missiles and airstrikes hit targets across the country.
Andrey’s young son, Grisha, looked out his bedroom window and screamed that the sky was on fire.
Orange lights blazed trails across the sky, their arcs ending in explosions. The missiles Grisha saw and heard were part of Ukraine’s own defense system. But for Grisha, at 5 years old, it was simply terrifying.
Andrey and Natalie quickly dressed their children in warm clothes and tried to keep them calm as they took shelter in their root cellar.
The Gulkos were fortunate to have one—a cool, dry space beneath their garage used to store carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables they grew in their nearby field.
Soon, neighbors, with no place of their own to shelter, joined them. For a few days, they managed to fit six adults and five children in the little room.
Food was scarce for many in the wake of the invasion, but the Gulkos had plenty. “It’s kind of funny. We didn’t understand why our parents preserved food and stored staples,” Andrey said. “But they had lived through shortages.”
Indeed, the Holodomor, a manmade famine of the Stalinist era, killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. The psychological effects of that tragedy were far-reaching. Generations of families ever since have made substantial food storage a priority.
Andrey said he and Natalie carried on the tradition of preserving and having a surplus of food.
Built to preserve food, the cellar now served to protect people.
Temperatures at night were near freezing. It was impossible to keep the cellar either heated or properly ventilated. They made room on the floor for the children to sleep. Adults slept sitting up. Or they didn’t. At most, Andrey slept two hours a night—sometimes only 45 minutes.
“For six days, it was a non-stop adrenaline rush trying to keep everyone safe,” he said.
Daylight marked a temporary lull from the nighttime air raids. They surfaced from the cellar and ventured into the house to cook. Children played outside in the fresh air, reveling in the warm sunlight. Still, the adults kept a wary eye turned toward the sky, on the lookout for warplanes.
But by day six, the kids were sick. They were cold and had runny noses and coughs. Meanwhile, in the north, a 40-mile-long convoy of Russian soldiers inched toward Kyiv. Increasingly, civilians were targets.
That’s when Andrey and Natalie made the choice. They had to leave Ukraine.
The journey west
Andrey and his family were fortunate. Raven colleagues in Bulgaria reached out and offered a place to stay.
So Andrey and his wife piled their three kids, a neighbor’s daughter, and their chocolate lab, Sunny, in a mid-size truck, similar to a Toyota Tacoma. They took along just the essentials and began the journey west.
The Gulkos had to take long routes to avoid areas being bombed or attacked. Many bridges were shut down. The alternate routes took them through small towns and villages. Each one had checkpoints.
After three days of driving, they finally reached the Romanian border. But crossing wasn’t easy. From noon that day until 7:00 the next morning they waited in line.
Many Ukrainian men were being conscripted to stay and fight. But according to Ukrainian law, having three underage children was an exemption. Still, they were nervous. They had a plan B.
Two Raven employees volunteered to make the 14-hour trek to the Romanian border and help Andrey’s family across should he be detained. “The law is one thing,” Andrey said, “people at the border are another.”
Andrey’s family was resolute. They would remain with him if he couldn’t cross.
Finally, they crossed into Romania. ADRA was the very first large support tent to meet fleeing Ukrainians. The second, right behind it, was the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Romania.
The Gulkos didn’t stop, because they had a destination and a vehicle, but many others did, not knowing what their future held.
When they reached their destination in Bulgaria, nine days after the Russian invasion began, Andrey could finally sleep. And he did—off and on for a full two days.
They convinced Natalie’s parents to leave Odessa and stay with them. But after three weeks, they decided to go back. “They are still in Ukraine,” Andrey said. He sighs. Maybe in sadness or frustration. Maybe some envy.
From Bulgaria, the Gulkos drove northwest to the Netherlands. Raven’s HR department began planning for their arrival. They knew what documents were needed and where to register with the EU. They had recommendations for schools. They even met with principals and aided in enrolling their children.
Natalie took a job with an international school, teaching students English.
Their children face a language barrier in the Netherlands. A number of Syrian refugees, as well as immigrants from Poland and Romania, live there. Polina and Frosya go to an international school with 22 students from 16 different countries, including Ukraine.
The Gulkos are grateful for the kindness and generosity of his Raven colleagues and the others who helped them on their journey to the Netherlands.
But it is not home.
An unwavering hope
Russia’s war with Ukraine is a freezing conflict, Andrey says. There won’t be a clear point of victory—with a winner and a loser. He and his wife ask themselves if they really want to go back to Ukraine and risk putting their children through all of it again.
They are blessed and are not in need. They have housing and essentials. They have jobs and the kids are in school.
Still, it’s hard to settle in and make decisions while yearning to return to your homeland. “We try to tell ourselves convincing stories about what it would take, but it’s hard to feed yourself illusions that it will end soon,” Andrey said.
Ukraine’s national flower is the sunflower. Since the invasion, it has symbolized to the world the unwavering spirit and hope of the Ukrainian people.
Sunflowers by day fix their bright yellow faces toward the sun, mirroring its movement until nightfall. In the darkness, sunflowers turn back toward the east and wait expectantly for the first light. The sun will rise again.
It’s a hope the Gulkos have—a hope that one day they can return.
“What’s the best place for kids?” Andrey asked. “There’s no better place than home."
By Laura Gang