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From a War Zone to Safety: How Applied Analytics Student Anna Ustin Evacuated Her Family from Ukraine

Anna Ustin was a month into the spring 2022 semester at the School of Professional Studies (SPS) at Columbia University, pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Analytics, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Anna and her husband Dima have family members in both Ukraine and Russia and at first were not sure how the invasion would progress. But as the situation intensified, Anna quickly realized that she needed to take action to get her family members out of harm’s way in Ukraine and to safety in America.  

The couple reside in Westport, Connecticut, and were recently interviewed for a local Westport blog, 06880. In the story, “From Kyiv To Westport, With Love And Luck,” Anna recounted more about the horrific experience, which has only become more traumatic as the war continues, and her Ukrainian family members attempt to create new lives in a foreign country. 

After the invasion in late February, Anna and Dima urged Dima’s family to move as quickly as they could from Kyiv to the Polish border. Dima’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and their two young children navigated the chaos of the Kyiv evacuation, making their journey over the course of five days. Stalled at the border between Ukraine and Poland, the family gathered their belongings off of a bus and walked the few remaining miles.

Anna Ustin's family travels from Ukraine to the Polish border on a bus, and waits for their flight from Poland to Mexico. 

Dima’s brother Alex stayed in Ukraine temporarily, while Anna rented a Warsaw Airbnb for the rest of the family. They applied for, and were denied, a U.S. tourist visa. Anna then arranged a flight for them from Warsaw to Tijuana, Mexico, and spent days interviewing lawyers who might help her family enter the U.S. She interviewed thirty-five lawyers in the San Diego area to help with Immigration, and has reached out to many friends, colleagues, and former colleagues for help. 

“It is very hard to obtain a visa or a green card on the basis of humanitarian peril if you are outside the country,” says Anna. “A lot of Ukrainians began to arrive at the Tijuana border. Among those who were lucky to cross were then detained by U.S. immigration.” Through Anna’s extensive outreach, the Jewish Family Service of San Diego became her advocate. Anna’s nephew Lev turned six during his time in the shared cell. The birthday remains a grim and upsetting memory for the whole family. Dima’s brother Alex was able to leave Ukraine by walking for many miles to Romania, eventually making it to Budapest from where he was able to fly him to New York. 

Anna and Dima flew to San Diego, not knowing what would happen, but were determined to work with U.S. Immigration and Jewish Family Services to do whatever was needed to release Dima’s mother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew. “My in-laws were detained for twenty-six hours, which was very short compared to other families. Others were detained for two weeks, and were even moved across facilities, to Arizona. I don’t know why my family was released so soon,” she says. “Since we were there to back their release in person—since we are Jewish and were working with the agency—since we were willing to pay for relocation and COVID-19 testing—all of these factors must have helped with the faster processing time.” 

Anna has worked as an analyst at Morgan Stanley for four years, and will graduate from SPS this spring. She hopes to apply her master’s degree to become more involved in portfolio management and continue to grow at the firm. “It has been extremely difficult to navigate this crisis on top of school and work,” she says. Beyond the emotional exhaustion, the effort to bring her family to safety has taken up all her waking hours. The Columbia faculty have been very supportive, she says, noting especially her Managing Human Behavior in the Organization lecturer Young Mi Park

Anna was born in Russia and raised in Kazakhstan, and her mother lives in Russia. Her great-grandmother was born in Ukraine. Anna underscores how tragic the war is in light of the close connection between the two countries. “Russians and Ukrainians are brothers and sisters…If you ask anyone who is actually Russian, they will tell you they are against this. If you pay attention to voices outside the official Russian news sources—if they feel safe—they will say they are shocked…There is only one person who actually desires this.”  

Columbia University has resources and scholarships available for those affected by the Russian war in Ukraine. The Columbia Global Centers has launched the Committee on Forced Migration as a response to the dramatic increase in the number of forced migrants and migration crises around the world. Priorities for Ukrainian students and scholars include protecting people, collecting and preserving data, and fighting disinformation. The Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students is a first-ever Columbia-wide scholarship that supports displaced students from anywhere in the world who are unable to complete their higher education.