By Erin Hassanzadeh

MONTROSE, Minn. (WCCO) — A family staying in Montrose, Minnesota has been through the unimaginable to get to here. Just weeks ago, they were fleeing for their lives, trying to get out of Ukraine and away from the war to come stay with family here, to start new lives after the war forced them to flee.

At 80 years old, Valentina Bardash is starting over. She recently fled Mariupol, Ukraine.

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“We escaped in great fear. The troops bombed everything. Everything is destroyed,” said Bardash. “Literally I took the shirt off my back, some documents and ran away.”

Alina Kokhan describes the life she had and how quickly it was torn to shreds, making it clear that, even if the war ended tomorrow, there would be practically nothing to go back to.

“I want to go home. I really want to go home,” said Kokhan.

After weeks in Mariupol sheltering with 100 others — without heat, running water or electricity — Bardash, her niece Natella Dzhelali, and Kokhan (Dzhelali’s niece) went for it.

“We knew we were either going to die here or we’re going to die in the road escaping,” said Kokhan.

They drove west until their car broke down then hitched a ride to the Moldovan border — moving from Moldova to Romania to Italy to Madrid to Mexico City, then to Tijuana where they walked across into San Diego seeking asylum, then onto Minnesota. All this with two children in tow.

And after all that the work begins.

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“They need to apply for a temporary protection status,” said immigration attorney Nadia Roife with Roife Law Group who is helping them and other families do just that when they arrive here in Minnesota. A process that she said could take months on the shorter end.

Roife and her colleagues set up a free legal clinic at a church in Coon Rapids over the weekend to get paperwork going for Ukranian families trying to start new lives here in Minnesota.

“They’re eager to work,” said Roife.

Dzhelali was a dentist at home, her daughter a surgeon.

“I understand that I may have to study again and I don’t know if it’s possible in my age,” said Dzhelali.

But until they get on their feet, others will have their back.

“We were the lucky ones,” said Dzhelali.

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Roife is aware of roughly 300 to 500 people in Minnesota who need this kind of assistance. She will keep hosting these free legal clinics as long as they’re needed.

Erin Hassanzadeh