Ukranian native Valentyna Levytsky and Philly resident Sean Moir were married in Kyiv in 2021

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In the six days since East Falls resident Sean Moir shared news of his wife Valentyna Levytsky, and the harrowing conditions she faced caring for her mother in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Russian invasion of that country has not let up.

Because of her mother’s frail health, Levytsky initially resisted fleeing. But last week, Moir had a frank discussion with a friend about the prospects of her safety.

“That conversation scared me to death,” he said, especially since news reports were starting to focus on the encirclement of Kyiv. He spoke to Levytsky via telephone the next morning. “Her brother’s wife in Lviv had also called with the same message: Get out now.”

On March 3, the siblings made preparations to take their ailing mother and leave, plotting a 200-mile course.

That same night, halfway around the world in Philadelphia, Moir defrosted some borscht Levytsky had prepared before going overseas, and invited some friends over to break bread. The beet soup, one of Ukraine’s national dishes, was shared along with prayers and hope for the crucial hours ahead. “It was almost like a sacrament,” Moir said.

At dawn on March 4, the Levytsky family — Valentyna along with her mother, brother, and cat — took some essentials, piled into their car, and left Kyiv, destined for a small town in Western Ukraine near the city of Rivne.

In pre-war times, this trip could be accomplished in just a few hours on a single tank of gas, according to Moir. On this particular Friday morning, the direct route was blocked by the Russian army. Members of the Ukrainian military were directing people to go south instead.

“We later found out that some civilians were indeed killed on that route, so we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave soldiers at the roadblocks,” Moir said.

Levytsky and co. were diverted off of the Zhytomyr highway, named after a city close to Kyiv that has faced increased shelling in the last week, according to Al Jazeera.

A map Moir created to visualize the route Levytsky and her family were following Credit: Courtesy Sean Moir

As they traveled, Moir was tracking their progress, marking the steady southward movements on geotagged devices when phone service cut out. “Usually, I’m asleep at midnight … But that night, there was no sleep,” Moir recounted.

The redirection south meant the group needed to refill their tank nine hours into the trip. After finding a crowded gas station that had fuel to sell, they drove the last six hours to Rivne, and were lucky to spend a quiet night there with family.

The next morning, after bidding farewell to their cat on a nearby farm, the Levytskys moved on to the home of Valentyna’s brother in Lviv, a relatively safe city 60 miles from the Polish border. There, the siblings are looking after their mother in what they’ve acknowledged are her last days, layering personal tragedies upon national ones.

The joy of safely reaching their destination buoyed hopes, but they’re still planning ahead by sketching out additional escape routes in case they’re needed. “If there is any sign of a security deterioration in Lviv, it will be time to get out,” Moir said.

Following his wife’s progress from across the world was nerve wracking, he said, but “the one thing I haven’t felt in the last few days was alone.”

Because of the high-profile situation, Moir has been in contact with all kinds of people, including some he hasn’t talked to in 20 years. He said people from high school are reaching out, asking “Hey, what’s going on?’”

Between the successful drive from central to western Ukraine and tangible support from friends and family, he’s feeling a little more at ease, and grateful his loved ones haven’t faced the worst of the young war.

Said Moir: “​​We’re still hoping for a happy ending for the country.”

Original story, March 2:

Sean Moir lives in East Falls, but his heart is in Kyiv. Moir’s wife, Valentyna Levytsky, is in the Ukrainian capital. which has endured many waves of attacks since the Russian invasion began.

The couple, who were married at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Ukraine last June, flew into the country this January to celebrate Orthodox Christmas. Levytsky stayed to care for her mother, who had fallen ill with late-stage Parkinson’s disease. Then their world changed.

Hopping in a car to flee wasn’t an option Levytsky would entertain. “She was thinking her mom wouldn’t survive such a trip,” Moir told Billy Penn.

Levytsky was born in Western Ukraine, and spent most of her life in Kyiv before moving to Philly and meeting Moir. She works for Le Doyen Studio, remotely dubbing English language films into Ukrainian.

Moir, who works at an IT consulting firm, says his job has been a welcome distraction, at least when it comes to helping the time pass during the day. Nighttime is another story.

“[The] sun rises there at about midnight, our time. So when all this stuff’s going on at night, and the bombs are dropping, and I just can’t sleep until she’s up again in the morning. The Ukrainian dawn.”

Although everything shifted in less than a week, Moir says some degree of normalcy has remained intact the last few days.

“She’s gone out for groceries the last couple days, and she sends me pictures from the grocery store and it was fully stocked with fruits and vegetables and meats and bread,” he said. “I mean, it’s almost as if nothing is going on until you go outside, and you see all the military stuff.”

Amid the chaos, Levytsky was still confident enough to step out and grab coffee from a cafe yesterday morning.

Levytsky and Moir have been using Facebook messenger to stay in touch Credit: Courtesy Sean Moir

The full weight of the assault likely hasn’t yet hit the city, as a Russian military convoy has been approaching Kyiv from the west. As facts on the ground constantly change, Moir and Levytsky stay in touch via Skype and Facebook Messenger.

“We’ve been sending messages all day and all night. So that’s been one of the few blessings to this whole thing,” said Moir. “But the situation is deteriorating by the hour, so I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna have that luxury.”

Moir still feels a pervading sense of helplessness as he believes it would take a “military level medical evacuation” to carry his loved ones to safety.

He went to a rally for Ukraine at the Art Museum a few weeks ago and attended services at the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia last weekend.

“I know there are people marching in the streets, and I appreciate that,” Moir said. “It’s very important to put pressure on the political side. But I think it’s almost equally important to raise our concerns in prayer.”

He hopes to remind people that “this isn’t just something on TV, this is a real event, it’s happening to real people, real people you might even know.”

As for Levytsky, she had a specific message, delivered over text:

“Tell them that Ukraine will never give up. You can’t negotiate with terrorists. Don’t believe a word that comes out of Putin’s dirty mouth. And if you just watch and keep silent,” Levytsky said, “tomorrow they will come for you.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...