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COVID-19 Coverage

For an American living in Ukraine, a choice between staying or leaving

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

If Russia invades Ukraine, President Biden has said the U.S. is not planning a military operation to evacuate Americans.

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JOE BIDEN: That's a world war, when Americans and Russians start shooting at one another. We're in a very different world than we've ever been in.

NADWORNY: Biden was speaking with Lester Holt of NBC News last week, and his message to Americans was clear.

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BIDEN: American citizens should leave, should leave now.

NADWORNY: American Meghan Neville has taken that advice to heart. She moved to Ukraine in August of last year to be closer to her boyfriend's family. Then, a couple of weeks ago, she got an email from the U.S. Embassy advising her to leave. They warned that commercial airlines might stop flying to Ukraine soon.

MEGHAN NEVILLE: I remember the day I got it. I was crying all day long. I was so scared.

NADWORNY: Now with tensions ratcheting up and the U.S. State Department ordering most of its staff to leave the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Neville says they figured it was time to go. Earlier today, she and her boyfriend boarded a plane to Warsaw.

NEVILLE: I just got off the plane from Lviv, Ukraine, to Warsaw, Poland. There weren't very many planes leaving, but the ones that were leaving were pretty packed. Ours was completely booked. And we're still trying to book an Airbnb. It's been very stressful - full day of travel. But we made it here. We're happy to - and very relieved to be feeling safe in Warsaw and sad to leave Ukraine.

NADWORNY: We caught up with her again a few hours after she left the airport. Meghan Neville, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

NEVILLE: Absolutely. I'm happy to.

NADWORNY: So first of all, let me just ask you, how are you and your boyfriend doing? Where are you now? Did you find a place to stay?

NEVILLE: Yeah. Well, we just did. We, just minutes ago, finalized our Airbnb booking. We just arrived. It's been a hectic and crazy day of traveling, but we're finally here and feeling a lot better.

NADWORNY: You can take a breath.

NEVILLE: Yep, finally (laughter).

NADWORNY: So you're in Warsaw. How did you make the decision to go? Can you tell me about your thought process?

NEVILLE: Yeah. It was a really difficult decision. We've been hearing so much information from different perspectives. On one hand, Western media, my friends and family back in the states have been urging me almost daily with a barrage of messages saying, you know, please come home. Like, leave Ukraine. We feel scared for you.

And on the other hand, here in Ukraine, it's been almost 100% different. People are saying it's not going to be a big deal. We've had this for eight years now with Russia invading. And some people, even when we've left today, have told us like, oh, be careful in Poland, which is funny (laughter) that they're thinking that we might be more in danger here than they are in Ukraine.

NADWORNY: Wow. What kind of messaging were you getting from the U.S. government, from the U.S. Embassy about the situation in Ukraine?

NEVILLE: Yeah. From the U.S. Embassy, I kept hearing a lot about flights, commercial flights, perhaps no longer being possible to get after a certain point. That was most concerning to me, that they wouldn't necessarily help if Americans decided to stay, that that's their decision, but they're not going to help evacuate Americans. But they would like to, you know, remind us ahead of time and tell all the information they can, but after that, it's up to us.

NADWORNY: You're on your own, yeah.

NEVILLE: Yep.

NADWORNY: You moved to Ukraine for love, right?

NEVILLE: I did. I met my boyfriend actually in Ukraine just on a trip for fun. And we hit it off really well. It's been two years now, and I kind of find Ukraine to be a country of love for me.

NADWORNY: How is your life there?

NEVILLE: I really like it. It was really quick getting a job that I enjoy a lot. And everything's so interesting. There's something new to learn every day. Of course I miss home. I miss maybe warmer weather. But I really like it. It's a beautiful culture.

NADWORNY: I understand you're leaving family behind in Ukraine.

NEVILLE: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Are you worried about their future? And kind of what are they telling you?

NEVILLE: Definitely. I think that's what's been the most difficult for my boyfriend and I. He has a really big family in Ukraine. It's difficult to move them anywhere. And I think they want to stay, too, and they would really like us to stay as well. But they know we need to do the decision that makes sense for us. And they're happy to help us anyway before we went. And we feel worried knowing that they're still there, but we really hope for the best. We're hopeful that this will all just be over soon.

NADWORNY: Why do they want you to stay?

NEVILLE: I think they didn't really feel like there was so much reason to go. They think Western media is overreacting and that it's just as safe there. They live in the west of Ukraine, so it's not like they're right in the war zone.

NADWORNY: What's next for you? Have you had a chance to think about the future? Or is it more like, OK, let's just get through this one day, this one moment?

NEVILLE: Honestly, right now, it is just getting through each - just the next 24 hours. We have been thinking for a while to work remote somewhere, maybe Thailand. And we're hoping to just stay out of Ukraine for maybe a month and watch from afar. But we'd love to return. Honestly, we're hoping to in a few weeks if it's possible and safe by then.

NADWORNY: Well, Meghan Neville, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. And good luck in the next days and weeks.

NEVILLE: Thank you so much for having me, and send good thoughts to Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.