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For weeks, Mayrna Sokolovska has watched from afar as Russian artillery, gunfire, and airstrikes devastate her home country of Ukraine.
“I still cannot believe it,” Sokolovska told Fox News from her home of Beverly Hills, Calif. “Everything, where I grew up — all my homeland — is just burnt out [and] destroyed.”
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Many of the images Sokolovska sees of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, now in its fourth week, come from her 24-year-old brother Roman, a soldier with the Ukrainian military. She says he texts her videos from the front lines showing hollowed-out buildings, destroyed tanks and the bodies of dead soldiers lining the streets.
She also received regular updates during video chats with her cousin and best friend, Anna Bilonozhko, who lived in Kyiv with her 6-year-old son, Mark. The two women grew up together in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and she says their tight bond remained strong even after Sokolovska moved to the United States in 2008.
“She picked up the phone and I see it in her eyes,” Sokolovska said, describing how the war had been affected her cousin. “I told her, ‘you have to leave now.’”
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While her brother must remain in Ukraine because of a Presidential decree forbidding military-aged males from leaving the country, she says she became determined to bring Bilonozhko and her son to her home in Beverly Hills. Sokolovska said she was also motivated by her own history. Her father was killed in an explosion as he walked home from work in May of 2014, one month after Russian soldiers first invaded Ukraine.
“I cannot lose her,” Sokolovska said. “She’s the closest human on this earth for me.”
Sokolovska said she first secured a driver to take the pair to Kyiv’s central train station so they could get to Poland by rail. She said that journey took two days, as the vehicle slowly navigated around the Ukrainian capital to avoid bombed-out or blocked bridges and roadways.
When they finally got on the train to Poland, Sokolovska said she flew from Los Angeles to Warsaw and met them at a bus station.
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Over the next week, Sokolovska says they traveled to four more European countries trying to get visas to the United States but were unsuccessful. She says they eventually obtained a visa from the Mexican Embassy in Budapest.
“We went through lots of countries during this journey,” Sokolovska said. “I told her, ‘don’t give up.’”
After two more flights and long hours in passport control, the trio finally arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border between Tijuana and San Diego. That’s where Sokolovska says Bilonozhko applied for – and received — entry to the U.S. for herself and her son under temporary humanitarian parole.
“She’s [a] hero for me,” Bilonozhko said of her cousin while fighting back tears. “It’s amazing, you know. It’s like a dream…I just smile.”
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“I was just scared and crying…for him, for my life… it was terrible, ” Bilonozhko continued, as she described trying to calm down her son while they were still in Kyiv, as the sounds of planes rumbled overhead and explosions rattled the walls and windows.
Sokolovska hopes other American citizens with family in Ukraine will also look into bringing their loved ones to the U.S. if they have the means to do so.
“If they have the ability to do it, just do it,” said Sokolovska.
If not, Bilonozhko encourages people who can to donate clothing, food, and other items for those fleeing or still in Ukraine, which includes her parents, who she has not been able to reach for over a week. Many of her family remain in the war-torn Donetsk region.
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“I’m so thankful they’re safe,” Sokolovska said. “Every time when I see them… I want to cry because like, you know, it’s hard to see them. We went through a lot.”
“I hope to return to my home, to my country, but not now,” Bilonozhko said. “Now, it is impossible.”
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Fox News’s Christina Coleman contributed to this report.