Kansas woman embarks on risky journey to retrieve sister’s children from Ukraine

By: - March 9, 2022 9:00 am

Oksana Seitz, whose family lives in Ukraine, visits a sunflower field near Lawrence in 2019. On Tuesday, she headed to Romania in hopes of bringing her sister’s two children back to the United States. (Submitted by Dustin Ochs to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Oksana Seitz left Kansas on Tuesday with plans to travel to Romania and return with her Ukrainian sister’s two children by persuading embassy officials to expedite visas or, if necessary, taking the kids to Mexico and slipping across the U.S. border on foot.

The daring journey signifies the risks Ukrainian immigrants are willing to take to help family in their war-torn homeland, and the sea of confusing paperwork Seitz must navigate without guarantee of expediency.

“I’m scared. I’m devastated. And I will do anything to bring these children back,” Seitz said in an interview as she prepared to board a plane. “I need all the help that I can get. And of course I’m scared of what is happening to my country, to my friends, my relatives.”

Seitz, who is now a U.S. citizen, came from Ukraine to Kansas in 1998 in hopes of providing better opportunities for her daughter. She now lives in Emporia, and her daughter is studying to become a surgical nurse.

Seitz’s mother and sister still live in Mykolaiv, a city near the Black Sea that is under siege by the Russians.

Her sister, a nurse, must remain because she is needed at the hospital at all times. Her brother-in-law has been drafted into active duty.

The 79-year-old mother brought the sister’s 11- and 15-year-old children to Romania, where she plans to turn them over to Seitz and then go back to her home in Mykolaiv.

“I need to help my family,” Seitz said. “If I cannot save my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law, at least I’m trying to save my niece and nephew.”

Seitz’s plan was to head to the U.S. embassy in Bucharest and figure out how to take guardianship of the children and secure travel visas, if possible. Her boyfriend of more than five years, Dustin Ochs, has been in contact with authorities there and plans catch a flight to meet up with Seitz in a few days.

The advance legwork indicates a massive administrative backlog as millions try to flee Ukraine. Ochs said one official told him the visa process could take up to 567 days. Another said the first available date would be August, but that they may qualify for an emergency expedition.

If that doesn’t work out, the couple plans to fly the kids into Mexico with the understanding that there is no visa requirement to enter the country, then present paperwork at the U.S. border showing she has guardianship of the children.

If that doesn’t work, they will “try to walk across the border,” with a couple of places in mind, Ochs said.

Seitz said she understands there are risks to this plan.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” she said. “I try to do everything legal. I don’t want to do anything illegal. I don’t understand why, during this hard time for Ukraine, the United States does not accept refugees, at least for kids. There need to be some exceptions for innocent kids.”

The office of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is working on behalf of Kansans trying to get out of Ukraine or to assist family members with travel challenges in the war-torn country, including Seitz. Kansans encountering similar difficulties can reach out to Moran’s office at [email protected].

Moran’s office could be of assistance with visas, passports, communication with the U.S. Department of State or consulates and embassies.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.