When the Lakers hockey team takes to the ice at Minnehaha Arena, 9-year-old Margo Biestuzheva is hardly distinguishable from the other skaters, all swaddled in helmets and pads. Though the girl with the long blond hair glides effortlessly beside her teammates, her journey to Minneapolis — from war-torn Ukraine, eight years in the making — was anything but smooth.
In the past year, Margo and her mother, Anastasiia Biestuzheva, fled to Poland, then Ireland, before finally reuniting with her father, Igor Rudyi, in Minnesota last fall. They hadn't seen him in person since Margo was just a year old.
On Sept. 25, Igor's birthday, the family shared a tearful reunion at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Aarport. "The best gift for my birthday that I've ever had in all my life," Igor recalled.
"We start a new life from this day," Anastasiia said.
Part of the family's new life in Minnesota includes Margo becoming a hockey player and Anastasiia subsuming the identity of the hockey mom.
On the ice, Margo and her teammates bond over their shared goal — of working together to score as many of them as possible. Beside the rink, the girls' parents form social connections, too. For Anastasiia, the friendly, welcoming group has helped her practice a foreign language and navigate an unfamiliar way of life. "The hockey community show me American culture," she said.
An eight-year wait
When Margo was a year old, Igor left Ukraine for the United States, anticipating that his wife and daughter would join him by the time she was 2. Instead, months went by, then years, as Igor's immigration application was indeterminably delayed.
The family was in touch on a daily basis. Via video, Igor taught tiny Margo how to climb down off a bed and learn the Ukrainian alphabet (the family also spoke Russian together). But Igor's lack of physical presence confused the young girl, who sometimes asked her mother: Why do other kids have a father?
Time passed in a way that felt sometimes inordinately slow, and other times like the blink of an eye. Anastasiia and Margo's requests for visas to visit the U.S. were denied. If Igor returned to Ukraine, he'd forfeit his application, and he was uncertain of how he'd support his family in a place where job prospects seemed bleak.
And so the family waited. And waited some more. "I think, 'Oh, maybe it will be a few months, maybe eight months,'" Anastasiia recalled. "Not eight years."
A change in circumstances arrived early one morning, when Anastasiia's sister called at 5 a.m. and neighbors began knocking on the door of her Kyiv apartment. Russia had invaded, and forces were headed straight for the city.
By evening, Russian troops were on the outskirts of Kyiv. Within days, Anastasiia learned that all the bridges out of Kyiv were about to close: If they were going to flee the city, the time was now. Anastasiia, her mother and Margo crammed into a VW Golf with Anastasiia's sister's family. They took only their two dogs, a little clothing and food.
The weather was unseasonably warm and people had their car windows open. Some honked their horns and belted out Ukrainian anthems. Tanks drove through the streets. "This is the first time when I understand what is war," Anastasiia recalled. "And we cry."
Heading west, traffic was thick. Gas was scarce. People were abandoning their pets at the side of the road. The family's drive to their hometown, the Ukrainian city of Ternopil, which they typically made in six hours, took 16. Later, after a brief stop in Poland, the family (and dogs) flew to Ireland, where they lived for six months.
A tearful reunion
Last April, the United States created its Uniting for Ukraine program to allow Ukrainian citizens to stay in the country for two years. But it came with a caveat: Applicants needed to have a sponsor living in the country, who would pledge financial support.
Igor asked everyone he knew to sponsor his family and reached out to numerous online groups. Finally, a woman he didn't know offered to sponsor Anastasiia and Margo, asking for only one thing in return: a photo of the reunited family.
They turned in their paperwork and, within days, Anastasiia and Margo were approved.
After overcoming more hurdles — visa complications, plane ticket mix-ups, an all-out sprint for a connecting flight — Anastasiia and Margo arrived in Minneapolis. Igor gave them a tour of the city, including a walk through the Sculpture Garden, before bringing them to the tidy two-story he'd rented in south Minneapolis.
Igor says he felt Minneapolis would be a better place for a family than Chicago, where he was previously based. "I live in one place in Chicago about eight years, and I don't know my neighbors — they have no time to speak with you," he said. "We are not living here a lot of time, just a few months, but I know people on this side and that side. I know the postman."
As they settle into their new life, the family often reflects on the bittersweet nature of their circumstances. They are reunited in a safe, comfortable place, while their homeland is mired in death and destruction. Some family and friends have scattered; Anastasiia's mother and sister are still in Ireland. Others, including two of Anastasiia's brothers, have remained in Ukraine, at great risk.
Igor notes the irony of how something as terrible as war — "the worst thing in the world" — finally accomplished what nearly a decade of bureaucracy could not. "This situation helps to unite our family," he said.
Integration on ice
One day last fall, Margo came home from school with a flyer for the Minneapolis Storm, a community-based youth hockey organization, and told her parents she wanted to join.
Margo had learned how to ice skate in Ukraine, but it's not common for girls to play hockey there. What little she knew about the sport came from the Pixar movie "Inside Out," whose protagonist grew up in Minnesota and played hockey on a pond.
Anastasiia reached out to the Storm, which offered to pay Margo's registration fees and outfit her with equipment. Margo took to the game immediately. "On days she has hockey, she wakes up and says, 'I'm ready! We go!'" Anastasiia said.
Margo says her favorite part of hockey is the skating. She's learning the nuances of her new gear, including how skating on bumpy pond ice can dull your blades. ("At the next practice, I was falling because my skates wasn't sharp enough," she said.) When she's off the ice, she hones her skills by rollerblading around the house.
Margo sometimes speaks Russian with one of her coaches, Vladimir Makarov, who came to the U.S. from Bulgaria when he was her age, and can relate to the experience of a child adapting to a new country.
Even those who move to Minnesota from other states, Makarov noted, can find it difficult to get to know people. "Because everyone here knows each other since they were in kindergarten," he said, only slightly exaggerating.
Without a connection to locals, Makarov said, it can take years to get involved in the sorts of groups or activities that help you understand the community and feel like you're a part of it.
Margo's decision to try hockey — "a very deep part of Minnesota culture," as Makarov puts it — fast-tracked the family's immersion. "It's a really unique opportunity for someone new to Minneapolis to dive right into the very essence of Minnesota," he said.
Refuting the old joke that a Minnesotan will give you directions anywhere but to their house, a fellow hockey mom invited the Ukrainian family to spend Thanksgiving with hers. "Hockey mama is a special type of human," Igor quipped.
Embracing Midwestern culture, the trio has taken in a Wild game, watched the movie "The Mighty Ducks," made a pilgrimage to House on the Rock in Wisconsin, and snapped family Christmas photos in matching buffalo-plaid pajamas.
Margo's getting so comfortable in the local language that her parents have noticed that she's using more English words than Ukrainian or Russian. Like the budding pre-teen she is, Margo says to her mother: "If you don't understand me, ask Google to translate you."
And will she be teaching her parents to play hockey?
In response to that question, the whole family laughs.