About a week before war erupted in her home country of Ukraine, Irina Segreevna Vasiliuk got a message from her friend Lucian Kugler.
The two had met during the summer of 2017 at the BSA’s Camp Fiesta Island in San Diego. Lucian, an Eagle Scout, was there as part of Troop 319’s contingent. Irina, a Ukrainian Scout, was serving on camp staff.
They became friends and stayed in touch. So Irina wasn’t shocked to see a message from Lucian last month — until she read what he had said.
“He was first to tell me about the severity of the war,” Irina tells Bryan on Scouting. “He was serious about it before I realized how bad the situation was. He pushed me to leave Ukraine since the beginning.”
Over the next two weeks, working with the resources available — mostly computers and phones — Lucian and Mike Timm, Troop 319 assistant Scoutmaster and past committee chair, helped Irina flee her home in Kyiv and find safety out of the war zone.
Lucian and Mike’s persistence, calm demeanor and resourcefulness worked. Irina is now safe in Warsaw, Poland.
“I was not surprised that they could find an opportunity to help me,” Irina says. “Even from the other side of the planet.”
How they met
Some of the friendships you make in Scouting last well after the closing campfire has gone cold.
In 2017, Lucian and Troop 319 (of the Verdugo Hills Council) attended summer camp at Camp Fiesta Island.
Irina, who had traveled to the U.S. as part of a BSA program to bring international Scouts to America to serve on summer camp staff, says she felt connected to Troop 319 right away.
“It didn’t feel like a job to work with the troop. It was so much fun being with them,” she says. “They showed me some games, and I showed them some, too. It’s become a symbol of our friendship with Troop 319.”
She met Lucian that summer, but the two became even closer in 2019 when Irina was on staff at Mataguay Scout Ranch in Santa Ysabel, Calif.
“I was the oldest Scout on the crew and have a strong interest in politics and history,” Lucian says. “Some younger Scouts asked questions like, ‘Is there TV in Ukraine?’ Questions like she came from Mars.”
Lucian and Irina remember talking about politics, playing cards and telling jokes, cementing their friendship.
“It’s his interest in history that made us friends,” Irina says. “He knew some historical moments and was interested in our culture, so he was always near, with a lot of questions and a lot of stories. When I had questions and stories, he would be kind and answer and listen to them.”
On the brink of war
Irina and Lucian stayed in touch long before the invasion of Ukraine, but as the Russian military began to line up along the Ukrainian border, the pace of their conversation quickened.
“I kept texting her updates, trying to predict what would happen,” Lucian says. “Once it happened, I felt a combination of fear, anger, sadness and stress. I knew I had to help her in any way I could.”
Irina spent the first nine days of the war in Kyiv at her apartment, where she lived alone.
“I had to leave my home because of fear,” she says. “It’s not easy to be alone when you hear explosions every day and night, and the person I talked to most was on the other side of the world.”
That other person, Lucian, began working with Mike Timm to uncover solutions. Knowing they had to do something, they each worked their Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn networks, desperate to track down any leads they could find among the thousands of contacts they had developed over the years.
“Technology itself connects us, and we have the ability to make a difference anywhere in the world,” Mike says. “Even in a war zone.”
They refused an offer from a group charging tens of thousands of dollars to help people flee, suddenly stopped hearing from a trucker who had promised to help Ukrainians escape and never got a response from an Israeli group assisting with evacuations.
“It all started with the notion of ‘Do Your Best.’ We have a friend in a war zone halfway across the world. Can we help her? Yes, we can — or at least we can try,” Mike says. “That’s our calling as citizens and leaders. That’s what Scouting is all about. Being there to help.”
Lucian called and texted Irina during each failed attempt, trying to keep her spirits high.
“There were times where she wanted to talk about the situation and times she wanted to talk about anything besides the situation,” Lucian says. “We talked about her getting on a train to leave but she, understandably, was afraid. The idea of traveling alone across a country holding all your valuables through fully armed regions while being bombed is terrifying.”
An escape plan
Eventually, Lucian and Mike worked together to pinpoint Irina’s exact location, the safest route out of the country and a place for her to stay once she escaped.
“We set up housing and arranged for her to be picked up from Warsaw after taking a hellish train ride out of the country to Poland,” Lucian says.
The morning Irina left, she saw explosions from her apartment building. The bridge the train crossed out of Kyiv was destroyed two days after Irina left.
The train ride took 36 hours. The train was so full that Irina stood for most of the trip, and there was no food or water available.
“I stayed up all night tracking her location, waiting for potential texts that could be huge changes,” Lucian says. “I was stressed and tired. But all that aside, I have zero right to complain in comparison to what Irina probably felt during this experience.”
As for Irina, she hopes to leave Warsaw soon. Lucian and Mike are trying to help her gain entry to the United States to apply for asylum.
“And once again, our perseverance is being tested by the process,” Lucian says. “I’m just glad she has to worry about paperwork and applications, not bombs and bullets.”
Irina says she welcomes the help and says the opportunity to return to the U.S. “seems more unreal than ever.”
“But if I can get to my friends, they will get a river of gratitude,” she says. “Something that no language can possibly express.”
Scouting skills at work
Lucian says the crisis Irina is facing “is a situation unlike anything I could have prepared for.”
“There were no knots to tie, no plants to identify, no popcorn to sell,” he says. “It was a pure test of leadership, patience and how true I could stick to the Scout slogan: Do a Good Turn Daily.”
But he knew he couldn’t just sit by and watch the war on TV — not when a friend needed help.
“The reason I’m sharing this story is I hope that I inspire someone, even if it’s just one person, to try and do the same and help,” he says.
Every statistic that makes a headline on the news is not a number but a real person.
“They laugh, cry, love and fear just like you and me. If your conscience is telling you to help someone in need, do it,” Lucian says. “You don’t need the excuse of having a friend or family member in trouble. Just do it. Whether it’s donating, volunteering or helping a friend, just do something to make a difference.”
Thanks to Andrew Sisolak, Scout Executive of the Verdugo Hills Council, for the tip.