‘They’re family now’: California family takes in Crimean couple who risked their lives to get to US

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It wasn’t an easy journey by any means: Crimean nationals Yana and Ilias fled their homeland after fatal threats from the Russian government. 

Ilias, who owns a cafe in Crimea, decided to take on the perilous flight in search of safety with his wife in June, almost four months after Russia invaded Ukraine. While Crimea is technically Russian territory, most Crimeans do not self-identify as Russian. 

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Crimea, the United Nations estimated more than 5,000 Ukrainian civilians died, with no exact count on Ukrainian soldiers. 

More than 5 million, the UN estimates, fled their homes since February.

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To many, those massive numbers might seem like just that — numbers. Ilias and Yana, identified only by their first names for their safety, are two of those numbers. For them, fleeing the region was a life-or-death choice.

With no survival plan, the two made their way to Mexico. 

“We left Crimea urgently. Our lives were threatened and at that point, all we wanted to do was stay alive,” Ilias told Fox News Digital through translator and consultant Rebekah Koffler. “We didn’t have much money. We didn’t have much time to get our belongings together. When we got to Mexico, we began feeling more safe and secure.”

But they weren’t safe for long.

The couple took a 40-hour bus ride to Tijuana to get closer to the U.S. border and ended up sleeping on the street and being robbed their first night. Not wanting to alarm family back in Crimea, they called some friends, who sent them some money that bought them food — finally — on the second day.

They stayed at a hotel for $30 a night, a steep price after being robbed, as they tried daily to get across the border. 

Now desperate, it was time to make a record trek to the U.S. embassy.

“We received a list of philanthropic agencies and charities that could help us. We made a record walk that day: [12 miles], because it was [6 miles] to the embassy and [6 miles] back to the charity agency,” Ilias said. “From that agency, they directed us to another agency within [half-a-mile], and we were hoping to get help there.”

Eventually, CESFOM (the Centro Scalabrini de Formación para Migrantes) along with a good Samaritan identified as Geniya — she herself from Ukraine and residing in Mexico — helped them with shelter and food.

While Ilias and Yana were grateful for the help, they still needed a more permanent solution. Geniya, the good Samaritan, got in touch with Rusty Yunusoff to be their U.S. guarantor. 

Yunusoff encourages Americans to check out ukraine.welcome.us if they’re interested in sponsoring Ukrainian migrants, as well as Uniting for Ukraine at dhs.gov/ukraine. He likened it to match-making for volunteer families.

“This is a vast and enormous empire that colonized most of the Eurasian region that took over the Siberian population that is predominantly Asian, Buddhist and their own culture — but Russia just takes their resources, giving them nothing in return,” Yunusoff told Fox News Digital. “Their very aggressive colonial policies — the Northern Caucasus and many of the nations of Finno-Ugric origin are just vanishing because there’s no support for the languages or culture. Russia is an aggressive, imperialistic force that needs to be stopped, and America’s done a great job.”

After seeing a social media post from Yunusoff, Californians Karena and Nick Salch made the life-changing decision to welcome the young couple into their Corona home.

“We’re people who always help people, basically, but this is the first time we’ve ever had the opportunity to take somebody into our home,” Karena told Fox News Digital. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Ilias and Yana were at the Salch home by 9:30 that night, exhausted from their travels. They told Karena they were going for a walk.

Crimean couple Ilias and Yana at the beach after fleeing from Crimea to California.

Crimean couple Ilias and Yana at the beach after fleeing from Crimea to California.

“We don’t live in a very walkable city, but they were gone for about two hours and 11:30 at night rolls around,” Karena said, adding that she and her family were getting worried.

“When they got back to the house at 11:40 at night — they’d walked with what little money that they had and went down to Walmart and bought us a cake,” she continued. “I didn’t even know how to accept that — that kind of generosity after what they’d been through. To me that just shows who they are, and we’re happy to have them.”

“It’s been two weeks, but they’re family now.”

Ilias has a surprise birthday party with Yana and the Salch family.

Ilias has a surprise birthday party with Yana and the Salch family. (Courtesy of Karena Salch)

The Salch family set up a GoFundMe titled “Help Ilias and Yana!” for the young couple to help them settle and even assist relatives to come stateside, easily searchable on the GoFundMe website.

The young couple has gotten to know the family well: barbecues with extended family, neighbors reaching out with gifts, beach days and even a surprise birthday for Ilias. 

Karena posted a TikTok video of Ilias making sushi on Aug. 11 that since had more than 3.2 million views. It’s captioned: “We took in a Ukrainian refugee couple 2 weeks ago. Ilias owned a restaurant and is a chef. Now we get sushi and other amazing meals every night. They think they’re the lucky ones. But we are the lucky ones.”

“To every American out there, it is mutually beneficial not because you’re going to have a Ukrainian in your home cooking sushi, but for us, I think it gave both of us a renewed purpose for our lives… We can’t just go back to doing nothing,” she told Fox. 

“For anyone taking people into their home, treat them like family.”

Her husband Nick and son Tyler shared that sentiment. 

“From the second they showed up, you see how kind they are, and they went and bought us the cake on the first night,” Nick said. “And it was just like, everything’s going to be OK.”

Crimean couple Ilias and Yana hang out at the lake with their new family.

Crimean couple Ilias and Yana hang out at the lake with their new family. (Courtesy of Karena Salch)

And Tyler: “For me, I’ve been an only child my whole life and it gets really lonely being by myself all the time. It’s been such a huge change in my life with Ilias and Yana now… It’s really awesome to have people around to do stuff with.”

Fox also spoke with Inna Levien of Uniting for Ukraine, the group that assisted Yana and Ilias’s path to safety. She emphasized how much help Americans can give through their hospitality, and wanted to deliver a crucial message about the Ukrainian people in general.

Her message: These folks are hard workers. They might have been put in a horrific situation, but they are not victims. 

“Ukrainians are hard-working people and they would hate to ask or beg for help, because they normally help others, and here they are where they’re in a situation where there’s a lot of risks to their lives where they still would not even ask until they’re desperate,” she said. “So we still find people who are stranded.”

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Crimean couple Ilias and Yana spend time at the beach with the Salch family.

Crimean couple Ilias and Yana spend time at the beach with the Salch family. (Courtesy of Karena Salch)

The new Salch family members have a message for Americans. 

“Americans are so responsive, kind-hearted and just overall good people,” Yana said.

And Ilias: “All we wanted when we were in Crimea was to stay alive. We had no idea that we’d be able to be in such wonderful conditions right now: not only to be alive, but to be in such a good situation.”

For those who would like to help Ilias and Yana, their GoFundMe page is “Help Ilias and Yana!” — easily searchable on the GoFundMe website. For more information on Uniting for Ukraine, go to dhs.gov/ukraine.

Rebekah Koffler, former U.S. intelligence officer at DIA and Fox News Digital consultant, contributed to this reporting. She is the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.” 

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