Courtesy of Mary Lahuta
Mariia “Mary” Lahuta loves foreign languages and music. In February 2022, she was pursuing both passions as a Ukrainian graduate student studying abroad in Italy when Russia invaded Ukraine, preventing her from returning to her country, her family and plans she’d made to finish school at home.
“I didn’t expect the war,” Mary, 25, tells PEOPLE. “It completely changed all my plans, and all my life.”
A year later, Mary is now married and living in Kentucky with her American husband, whom she met online nearly three years ago.
“My situation is just an exception,” she says, acknowledging the uncertainties of finding love on the internet and the risks of following it overseas. “This is a story with a happy ending, but it could be opposite in another case.”
With a father who works in construction and a mother who’s an elementary school teacher, Mary grew up in Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s biggest cities. At 18, she moved to Kyiv to study music composition at the National Music Academy of Ukraine.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Mary started working on her master’s and went abroad for a semester in Monopoli, Italy, through the Erasmus program. Her plan was to study one semester at the Conservatory of Music Nino Rota and then return to Ukraine.
“But then the war was started,” Mary says. She and her fellow Ukrainian exchange students were allowed to continue their studies in Italy. But when Mary graduated, it still wasn’t safe to go home.
“I didn’t want to return in war,” says Mary, who didn’t have permission to stay in Italy after she finished school.
By then, she’d been practicing Russian and English for two years with an online conversation partner named Mark Yager, an American who lived in Bowling Green, Ky. Because of the uncertainty and violence of a war back home, Mark offered to sponsor her under Uniting for Ukraine, a U.S. immigration and citizenship program for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
With two years of talking and texting — and one in-person visit in Italy — behind them, Mary and Mark began dating not long after she moved to Kentucky. Two days after Valentine’s Day, they married.
“It’s fate,” Mary tells PEOPLE. “I feel like I knew Mark all my life.”
Courtesy of Mary Lahuta
She met Mark, 34, during summer 2020 on a website for Christians who speak Russian.
Looking to improve her English, Mary — who’s also studied French, German and Italian — began video chatting with Mark for about an hour each week, spending 30 minutes conversing in Russian and 30 minutes in English.
“We were very good friends,” says Mark, who teaches English as a second language at a high school in Bowling Green and started learning Russian while teaching English in St. Petersburg at the end of 2016 most of 2017. “It was just always nice talking with Mary. She was just really easy to talk to.”
“I would make mistakes and I would not get things exactly right,” adds Mark of their conversations in Russian. “Mary would be patient and not get frustrated with me.”
Mary liked that Mark respected her and her time, preparing for their talks. He would find articles for them to discuss, often related to her studies. “I valued it very much,” she says. Between video chats, the pair often texted each other, too.
When Mary faced a decision about returning to Ukraine during the war, “Mark offered to help,” she says of his Uniting for Ukraine sponsorship.
Courtesy of Mary Lahuta
Before flying around the world to live with someone she had never met face-to-face, Mark traveled to Italy so they could spend time together in person. During their three-day visit, Mary and Mark picnicked on the coast, went to a church service in Italian, and ate pizza and pasta with her friends.
The more time they spent together, the more they enjoyed being together. “We were more excited about Mary coming to the U.S.,” Mark says. “I think both of us were interested in each other romantically, but we just continued to be friends.”
In August, Mary arrived in Bowling Green and moved into Mark’s home. He gave her an bedroom upstairs and stayed on the first floor.
She says she experienced a bit of culture shock when she first ventured out with Mark. Because she’d always lived in big, pedestrian-friendly cities, Mary grabbed her purse and thought she could buy a few essentials while they went for a walk, she explains. To her surprise, there was nothing but grass, trees and residential homes in his suburban neighborhood.
About two weeks after Mary arrived in Kentucky, friends asked if they were a couple. They talked about it later, and decided they would like to give romance a try. So, they started dating.
Within months they were talking about getting married. Mark was thinking about proposing and shopping for a ring when a friend suggested Mary might want to pick out the piece of jewelry she’d wear for the rest of her life.
In January, the couple went ring shopping together and bought matching gold bands. “She wanted the same ring as me,” Mark says.
On Valentine’s Day, two days before the wedding, Mark wrote his own, more personal wedding vows in her card. “It was a remix of the traditional vows,” he says. “She has my heart and I’ll be with her.”
They exchanged their vows at Eastwood Baptist Church on Feb. 17. Because Mary’s parents and sister were still in Ukraine and couldn’t attend the wedding, Mark’s parents and sister didn’t attend either.
“Mark’s parents wanted to be equal with my parents that can’t be in my wedding. They wanted to support them this way. They say, ‘If Mary’s parents can’t be in wedding, we would not be too,'” Mary says.
“It was support for me,” she adds of their act of solidarity. “I appreciated it.”
With only their Sunday school teachers as witnesses, Mark and Mary wed in a simple ceremony — just what the bride wanted. She wore a classic white dress — tea-length, with three-quarter sleeves — and carried a bouquet of white carnations and baby’s breath.
“It was perfect for me,” she says. “He cares about me, and he loves me, and I feel this.”
The newlyweds honeymooned at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, which is only about 40 minutes from Bowling Green. But they plan to go much further during the course of their marriage.
“We’re excited about seeing the world together,” Mark says.
Courtesy of Mary Lahuta
Perhaps they’ll make their way to Ukraine to visit the family Mary misses. “I tried to help my sister and take her to Italy, but she didn’t want to leave Ukraine,” she says of her younger sibling. “My family doesn’t know English well, and it’s pretty tough for them to leave Ukraine. And they like their home.”
She worries about them — especially if she doesn’t hear from them for a while.
“It can be scary when my family doesn’t reply to me for a long time,” she says. “I see in the news that there are more shootings in Kharkiv … I think it’s a big goal for Russians to destroy this city. It’s pretty dangerous.”
Mary’s parents also declined her offers to help them leave Ukraine.
“They didn’t want to go to another country,” Mary says. “I tried to accept their decision, and respect it, and understand it.”
Still, she urged her parents to pack an emergency suitcase and have it ready with all their important documents and essentials in case they need to leave suddenly. “They don’t want to think about it,” Mary says. “I worried about them.”
And for good reason. According to one estimate, 30,000 civilians have died in Ukraine in the war, though the actual numbers are currently impossible to know.
One of Mary’s professors, she says, died in the early days of the invasion. “She was a famous Ukrainian composer,” she says. “People say that her heart couldn’t hold all the news.”
Now at home in Bowling Green, Mary is a student once again, studying graphic design with a full scholarship at Western Kentucky University. She created a YouTube channel where she shares her original compositions and shares pictures on Instagram.
The newlyweds also created a Vlog to share their travels and daily life together. They enjoy board games, ping pong and pickle ball — and Mark is teaching his wife to play tennis.
“I love that she really loves me and she’s patient with me, and she’s calm and I think she just relaxes me,” Mark tells PEOPLE. “I can have a stressful day and it’s nice to come home to Mary. Mary’s very, very loving.”
Mostly, they’re enjoying life as a married couple. “I like to look up in the morning and see Mark close to me,” Mary says. “We are together.”