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Olathe couple battles ticking clock to relocate Ukrainian family

By BETSY WEBSTER

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    OLATHE, Kansas (KCTV) — An Olathe couple is desperately trying to get their Ukrainian family to the United States after a problem with their travel documents left them stranded in Istanbul.

Karolina and Kevin Markussen have been on the phone non-stop since June 30th. That’s when Karolina’s family embarked on a flight to the United States. They only made it as far as Istanbul before they got stuck due to a gate agent who refused to accept the travel papers they had for one of their family members.

“It’s just punch after punch after punch and it doesn’t stop,” said Karolina Markussen. “It just breaks my heart that they’re not here.”

Now a naturalized American citizen, she married her American-born husband, Kevin, eight years ago. Her parents, grandmother and brother, now 15, continued to live in Ukraine.

The four of them — Dennis, Inna, Elena, and David Lytvynenko — escaped the war in Ukraine four months ago and took shelter in Lithuania, where Dennis was doing construction work, leaving with only what they could fit in two backpacks.

When the U.S. government launched the Uniting for Ukraine program, the Markussens applied to sponsor the Lytvynenkos. Karolina’s grandmother, Elena, didn’t have an international passport, but she got authorization, the Markussens said, and travel papers from the U.S. government. The family did manual labor for two months in Lithuania to earn the $3,000 they needed for airfare.

“We were too happy. My grandmother and my mom was crying of happy,” said David via FaceTime.

The Markussens said the family called airlines to be sure the documents Elena Lytvynenko had would be enough and got the green light.

Karolina’s family would be arriving by July 4th. They bought Independence Day trinkets and t-shirts and prepared for an American-style barbeque.

The Lytvynenkos boarded a Turkish Air flight to Chicago through Istanbul on June 30th. Their papers were accepted at the gate in Lithuania, but when they switched planes in Turkey, on the same airline, a gate agent refused to let her on, saying her papers weren’t enough.

“Not the Border Patrol, not any security, a person who checks the tickets before you get on the plane,” Karoline Markussen emphasized.

“I’ve called the USCIS, which is the immigration agency, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, gotten bounced around, attempted to contact the US Embassy over there,” said Kevin Markussen. “And of course, Turkish Airlines. Their customer service was lacking.”

The Ukrainian Embassy in Istanbul told it would take until October to get Elena a passport. They couldn’t wait that long. They were accepted into Uniting for Ukraine program in May. There is a 90-day window. Because they spent two months working to pay for the expenses, the last day they are authorized to leave is August 7th.

On Wednesday, they learned the passport offices had re-opened in Ukraine, so Karolina’s mother and grandma went back. They flew to Vienna then took buses the rest of the way. The trip took two days. They applied Friday morning.

“They don’t know if it’s going to be done on time because their program expires on August 7th,” Karolina Markussen said.

“At this point, they don’t have a home. They don’t have an apartment in Lithuania. They can’t safely go back to their home in Dnipro because the shelling is now starting in earnest over there. They’re really just floating until we can get them through this,” said Kevin Markussen.

He started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the growing expenses but also hopes it will connect them with someone who can help get them here.

Karolina Markussen blew a kiss at her brother over FaceTime before she ended the call. Her husband squeezed her hand and rubbed her knee as the tears welled up in her eyes.

“I don’t have enough tears to cry anymore,” she said.

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