HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — Steven Brown sits in a camping chair in his new apartment in Highlands Ranch. It's one of two pieces of furniture in the room. His voice echoes off the empty walls and bare floors.
Brown and his 13-year-old son, Gena, also have their separate beds and now look to fill the apartment with all the necessities. Just about everything they own was left at their apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Their trip to eastern Europe started in late June 2021. They decided it was a good time to for Gena to learn about his family on his mother’s side, from Russia, so they sold their home and belongings in Colorado to travel. Due to visa restrictions in Russia and the pandemic, they decided an apartment in Kyiv with a school nearby would give Gena the experience of cultural broadening they were looking for.
Brown retired from the military in 2007 as a Russian linguist. He has an engineering degree from Memphis State University, an Air Force Institute of Technology degree in operations research and a third degree from the University of Colorado Boulder in Russian studies. He is well versed in the culture and customs of eastern Europe. While most people in Ukraine had been hearing the rumors, no one believed Russia and Vladimir Putin would attack. That idea changed for Brown.
“Well, I had probably, two weeks prior, we had bought airline tickets out. And within four hours of our buying the airline tickets, the news had totally flipped-flopped," Brown recalled. "So, we canceled the airline tickets and that process happened a couple of times."
"But then KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) stopped flying. So they kind of got pulled out from under us, and then Lufthansa followed suit and stopped flying. And then, it became impossible to get out on the airline. By the time I knew that, I bought bus tickets, and that was on the 22nd of February. It became more clear something was going to happen."
On February 24, he woke up to explosions in Kyiv.
“The bombs were first and I got up and… I… it was a moment of panic, and I went to check the news, and I didn't even need to check the news because I already knew what was happening. These were clearly explosions and loud explosions. Although they were -- they were not close to me. But so the air raid siren probably started half an hour later," Brown said.
The surreal feeling kicked in with the haunting sound of the air raid sirens screaming throughout Kyiv. Brown and his son were on the 20th floor of their apartment building. There are no stairs, so the only way out is the elevator.
Brown was concerned Putin would knock out the power grid and they would be stuck in the building with no way out. At that point, they grabbed their packed suitcases, left their apartment and all their belongings and walked an hour to the bus station, hoping the busses would still be running and their purchased tickets would be accepted.
Their tickets were for a midnight ride that would take five hours from Kyiv to Warsaw, Poland, and it was barely 6:00 in the morning. Brown had Ukrainian money worth $2,200 that he wanted to exchange, and they needed to have proof of a COVID test before boarding the bus. Because everything was closed, neither of those tasks got done. When they arrived at the bus station, they learned their bus was delayed to the next day.
“And we said, oh boy, by the following day, the Russians will have the city circled. And we aren't going anywhere. So that was our thought. And we just got hit with a 13-hour -- well, 13 hours from when we got the notification was when our bus was supposed to go out the next morning," Brown said.
Thirteen hours at the bus station didn’t sound appealing, so they walked the hour back to their apartment hoping the elevators wouldn’t become a trap.
“The next morning, at 4:30, there was a very loud explosion much louder than day one. It was clearly closer and seemed bigger. I felt the shockwave from that one," Brown said.
They made their way back to the bus station, this time making use of the rail system, which was underground and packed with people taking cover from the bombing.
Once they arrived, Brown checked the board where the bus schedule was and their bus wasn’t listed.
“My heart kind of sank. I'm like, oh my gosh, our bus isn't on the board. So what else could we do? We just walked outside and waited and sure enough, it showed up,” he said.
They pushed themselves onto the bus and started the long journey to the boarder with Poland. It took eight hours just to get to the edge of Kyiv. “It was like zombie apocalypse,” said Brown.
Between the traffic, stopping for gas, border crossing and an eight-hour no movement order enacted by the Ukrainian military between midnight and 8:00 a.m., the trip to took 37 hours. Under normal conditions, the 491-mile trip would take 10 hours. The bus trip was filled with babies crying and wives sobbing as they said good-bye to their Ukrainian husbands, who stayed behind to fight.
Once in Poland, it was like another world for Brown and his son.
“Polish people were beyond amazing. I mean, normally, the Ukrainian’s would require visas to get in. But they weren't checking visas. They weren't checking COVID. Anything. We were never asked about a COVID test that we were never -- they were welcoming everybody with open arms. And it was just amazing to see. There were people with big boxes of food, just walking on our bus handing, diapers, food, taking care of everybody. So it was really, really awesome," said Brown.
Their stay in Warsaw was long enough for a bite to eat and a nap at the hotel. The flight to Chicago from Warsaw left early the next morning and the father-son team was on it. They landed in Chicago at 7:00 p.m. and tried to sleep in the airport because the flight to Denver was early the next morning. Sleep didn’t come easy.
“We tried. We tried. He didn't. He was up all night. Because it wasn't night for us. We were still jet lagged. And that wasn't night for us. I tried to lay down, but I really couldn't sleep," Brown said.
He guesses he slept two or three hours in their 100-hour journey.
Four days, four hours after walking out of their apartment in Kyiv, Brown and Gena landed in Denver. The A-line from the airport, the light rail and one last bus ride for the duo placed them in a room at the Hilton. A three-day stay there afforded Brown enough time to find an apartment, purchase a car and enroll Gena in school.
Their time back in Colorado, while short, has not felt welcoming, oddly enough. They were hoping they could find some furniture at a good price, but that has proven unsuccessful. The apartment they’re in has asked for a two-month advance, money they could use for clothing and furniture.
“It's been a mix of good and bad. Certainly, there's this wave of relief and dreamlike quality of no bombs falling. We’re safe. For my son, having been here before he has friends. I still have some friends here. So, things have been good in that regard. But as far as showing up here, with just the clothes on our back. It really hasn't -- I mean, we showed up at our hotel, we got stuck in a room with no (working) shower. Right. And after 100 hours, the first thing I wanted, wasn't sleep, it was a shower,” said Brown.
He added: “I know Ukraine's a long ways away from here. But … and maybe people just don't feel it here. But it was such a stark contrast between the people of Poland, who were just opening their homes and pouring out and giving things and everybody was so concerned and caring. ‘Are you alright? Do you need anything?' To get back here to where people, they don't care? So it -- just the stark contrast between the two really, you know, makes it really hit home. Kind of makes it disheartening. And my son has felt the same thing. So yeah, that has not felt very welcoming."
It's an experience Gena has also spent time reflecting on as he starts at a new school.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me to be able to be part of a conflict and realize what kind of situations there are in other parts of the world,” he said. “It was a 100 hours of non-stop traveling and discomfort, we were packed in seats most of the time. Most of the nights we were sleeping on buses, planes, airports. We had a lot of action going on during the trip that was -- quite a daring escape."
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Full Episodes of Next with Kyle Clark