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'Absolute luck' got this Kansas expat out of Kyiv while Russian troops charged into Ukraine

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Courtesy of Mickey Cesar
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Kansas native Mickey Cesar taught English in Kyiv, Ukraine, until the Russian invasion last month.

Mickey Cesar admits his escape plan from Kyiv, Ukraine, last month was a little ad hoc. But he didn’t think Russian President Vladimir Putin would be insane enough to attempt to take the country by force.

Looking back on it now, Mickey Cesar wishes he had been a little better prepared last month to take flight from his home in Kyiv, Ukraine.

“My friends and I had had many discussions about the buildup, and we all heard the warnings coming from the American government that we should get out," he said. “Most of us saw it as bluster between Putin and the United States."

So, the Kansas expat decided to stay.

Cesar, who went to high school in Lawrence and graduated from the University of Kansas, had been living in Ukraine since 2011, where he taught English in the afternoons and evenings at the STUDY Academy Center in Kyiv.

Cesar told KCUR's Up to Date he planned to wait things out in his Kyiv apartment. He had stockpiled 15 pounds of potatoes, dozens of cans of vegetables, a spare power block for his phone, cigarettes and more. He also taped up the windows and put blankets over them to minimize flying glass in the event of an explosion. Cesar made preparations to sleep in the hallway, away from exposed walls.

“I wish I could say that I would've been smarter,” he said. “Like with an escape plan set, (and a) bag packed and ready to go, like, right by the door.”

Traffic in Kyiv had already gridlocked by the time he woke up on the day the invasion began. He watched online videos of trains packed with people trying to leave and an airport that had already been bombed.

“Just at that time, they announced a curfew that was starting within an hour,” he said. “So I was essentially frozen in place.”

He hunkered down for six days, venturing out during daylight to find food and other essentials, then back home before night, when most of the Russian bombing happened. Despite the knot of logistical problems in Kyiv, Cesar never lost power, heat or internet service.

One snowy morning, he decided to break for the Polish border. Cesar had a bag packed and was prepared to make the four-mile trip to the train station by foot.

“At that point, the government had stopped requiring tickets to be on a train,” he said.

After the walk and 10 hours at the station scouting trains, Cesar bought a ticket to Lviv, in western Ukraine. As he boarded the train just before 9 p.m., an explosion rocked a nearby hotel.

“I ducked down onto the floor of the train, covered my head … then realized that that was over and that the train was undamaged,” Cesar said. “That was the longest five minutes of my life, because I couldn't understand why the (train) driver was waiting. … In my mind I’m screaming, ‘Man, just go!’”

In Lviv, after passing through a train station choked with refugees, he met up with a friend who lived in a nearby village, where he spent the night. That friend’s father, unbeknownst to Cesar at the time, had a connection in the Ukrainian military.

The next morning, the father dropped him off at a military base and, about four hours later, he got into a van with four Ukrainian soldiers.

“They had supplies to deliver to the border crossing, and they took me right to the border crossing,” he said. “Another instance of just absolute luck and good fortune.”

From there, Cesar made his way to Krakow, Poland, and quickly found a ride to Berlin, Germany, where he’s staying with another KU grad.

Though he made it out safely, “it was heartbreaking too,” he said, leaving the country he’s called home for more than a decade.

“I knew from news reports and social media what the borders looked like. … I saw a line of people, almost all women and children — just a huge line of people — and it went on and on and on, maybe more than a mile,” he said.

Now, again, Cesar will wait.

But what he really wants is for all this to be over by summer, so he can return to Kyiv.

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The Kansas City region has long been a place where different ways of life collide. I tell the stories of people living and working where race, culture and ethnicity intersect. I examine racial equity and disparity, highlight the area's ethnic groups and communities of color, and invite all of Kansas City to explore meaningful ways to bond with and embrace cultures different from their own. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
As Up To Date’s associate producer, I construct daily conversations that give our listeners context to the issues of our time. I strive to provide a platform that holds those in power accountable, while also spotlighting the voices of Kansas City’s creatives and visionaries that may otherwise go unheard. Email me at zach@kcur.org.