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Ukrainian mom escapes war-torn country to son, family in SC

It was a daring and remarkable escape. Iryna Yakovenko miraculously escaped a war zone on foot and by bus. Here's her journey to South Carolina.

FORT MILL, S.C. — A man in Fort Mill is thankful his mother is safe and living with him after she escaped her war-torn country, landing in the Carolinas with only the clothes on her back.

Iryna Yakovenko called Irpin, Ukraine, home. When Russia invaded in late February, her son, Maks, said she was in denial. 

"I just couldn't say goodbye to my life," she said in Ukrainian as Maks translated. 

She worked for the city's water system and felt the need to stay in order to provide clean water to the city she loved, she said. 

"Relatives and friends were saying you have to go," she said. "The first day it started there was a panic. You didn't know what to expect." 

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As the days went on, things only escalated. Irpin was soon taken over by Russian soldiers. 

Yakovenko, who lived in a high-rise building, remembered seeing military drones fly low to the ground and level with her windows.

With her anxiety high -- worried her building could be bombed -- she soon ditched home and stayed with friends who offered her a place to stay on a first story floor, where she felt more protected. 

She would try to safely get to work and home each day until a colleague came to relieve her from her duties so she could seek refuge. 

"He served in the military," she explained. "And he said, immediately, you have to run away right now," she continued as she started to get choked up. 

"So, we just started running through fields and jumping over the fences," she said as her lips trembled, holding back tears. "And we sat somewhere like in trenches, behind the buildings."

A battle was on, just 100 yards away. Scared for her life, she and others stayed quiet and still as they hid from missiles and gunfire. 

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After two hours, things quieted and she got up and ran home. 

The area she had been in was then taken over by the Russians, she said. 

"And now, I call back to those people (her friends) and I still cannot get in touch with them at all," she said as she teared up. 

Her journey to seek refuge had just begun. Over the next few days, she stayed at friends' houses and her church, which eventually loaded buses of refugees and headed out of town. 

It was a race to safety she'll never forget. 

With her anxiety high, she spent time praying, singing and reading Scriptures -- hoping God would get her out alive, she said. 

There were close calls as she explained nearly getting into an accident. Additionally, she said there was the constant fear of being spotted by Russian troops. 

Finally, she made it into Slovakia and traveled for hours until she got to the Poland border, Maks said. 

He had a friend there from the U.S. who was working with refugee response. Thankfully, Yakovenko had a tourist visa and was able to fly out of Warsaw to Charlotte where Maks picked her up. 

"I feel like I'm in heaven," she said, smiling. "I can't believe this reality where there's this peace and happiness and people smiling, compared to war."

She is still nervous about what's ahead. She said getting acclimated to American life will be difficult at her age, and she doesn't know English yet. 

However, there is no language barrier for her heartache when she thinks about how blessed she truly is. 

"I can't really fully rejoice or embrace this because I know many of my friends are still back [there] and suffering," she said, while tears welled up in her eyes. 

RELATED: Ukrainians who can't flee war increasingly face hunger

She's learning the true meaning of home -- being with those she loves and meeting her new 1-year-old grandchild for the first time. 

Maks said his mother will stay in the U.S. for six months, according to her visa, and will apply for asylum. 

In the meantime, she is asking Carolinians and Americans to support those in her country through humanitarian donations while Maks and other Ukrainians in the U.S. are working to send shields and bulletproof vests to those fighting off the Russians. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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