Ukrainian refugees begin a new life in America
While Olesya Diachuk recounts her family's journey from war-torn Ukraine to Samantha Richardson's tranquil guesthouse near Oswego Lake, sonn Daniel rests his chin on his father's shoulder as his eyes begin to shut.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the mother and son remained at their home in a village near Chernivtsi in the southwestern portion of the country for months while Vitalii drove semi-trucks in Poland. Since they reunited in the Czech Republic city of Prague on their way to the United States, Vitalii and Daniel haven't left each other's side. Even when Vitalii walked away to make a quick call at the Prague airport, Daniel followed.
"He really loves him, but doesn't let go of him because of when he left to go work outside Ukraine. He missed him and said, 'This is the last time we let daddy go work outside the country,'" Olesya said.
Although the Diachuks said they have felt lonely and homesick during their brief time in the United States, they are grateful to be safe and for the Ukrainian Bible Church Pathway to God for its work helping them travel from Tijuana, Mexico, to Oregon.
Lake Oswego residents Richardson, Angela Moneyhan, Melissa Hooper and Jessica Flaa have provided them with a place to stay and further support since they arrived.
"There's so much pain and suffering and war going on over there, but on the other side we're experiencing a lot of love and compassion and help from people we don't even know," Vitalii said. "You don't beat evil with evil, but (you beat) evil with good."
A twist of fate
If he had resided in Ukraine when Russian troops began bombarding his country, Vitalii would have been required to fight. Instead — by what Olesya described as a "miracle of God" — Vitalii was working in Poland as a truck driver at the time. Vitalii had previously held a gig as a gardener at a cherry farm, but found the work to be financially unsustainable — which is what led him across the western border.
So while her husband was in another country, Olesya woke up to ubiquitous news reports about the invasion on Feb. 24.
A pharmacy technician, she told herself she had to go to work because people would need medicine. That day, she said lines packed the store with people trying to buy as much as they could.
Living in a rural area that was less at risk of attack, Olesya got off work at 10 p.m. and then went into town — located near a military facility — to pick up her pregnant sister and return her to her village. Olesya's sister wound up giving birth on March 5. Oleysa bought a loaf of bread that night too, not knowing from where her next food source would come.
"There was traffic everywhere and every gas station was full," she said. "On day one there was already traffic, people from the east were running west escaping toward Poland and the Romanian border."
Olesya continued to work in the pharmacy — with sirens regularly providing background noise — for two months.
"I couldn't just drop and leave because I knew people were in need," she said.
Meanwhile, Vitalii considered returning to Ukraine but the couple agreed he should remain in Poland so he could maintain a stable source of income and potentially support both sides of their families. The couple has five siblings each and men of working age weren't allowed to leave Ukraine.
"I wanted to come back right away. I talked to my wife and she said stay there at least to be a financial support," Vitalii said. "We don't know what's going to happen. If the Russians would advance to where we lived, without a doubt I would go back and fight."
After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged women and children to flee, Olesya and Daniel set off to reunite with Vitalii in Prague. Olesya traveled for four days across the Romanian border before traversing through Hungary and then reaching Prague. Upon their reunion, they hugged, thanked God and kissed each other.
Church steps in to help
At that point, they paid for a ticket to travel to Mexico City and then Tijuana. Then the Ukrainian church stepped in to help.
Vitaliy Bozhduga, an Oregon City resident and member of the Ukrainian Bible Church Pathway to God, emigrated from Ukraine to the United States 12 years ago. Seeing his country of origin devastated compelled him to dedicate much of the past few months to assisting refugees.
"When all this is on the news, it rips your heart," he said.
Since the Russian attacks, he and churches in Washington, Oregon and California have provided support to thousands of Ukrainians in search of a new home. One of their goals was to help refugees avoid being taken advantage of by people charging exorbitant prices to get them to the United States. They formed a volunteer group at the Tijuana airport and picked up Ukrainians to take them to hubs in the area, like gymnasiums, to give them food, water, clothing and help them organize their trip to the U.S. Bozhduga was there for 10 days.
"And then the Mexican government provided us with a school bus. And every hour the school bus was busing refugees to the border," Bozhduga said, adding that the U.S. government opened up a special lane for Ukrainian refugees at the border.
On the other side of the border, the church relied on local families to take in refugees.
Bozhduga's wife is Melissa Hooper's nanny, and when Hooper heard about Bozhduga's trip to Mexico she wanted to help in any way she could. Hooper's friends, Moneyhan and Flaa, joined her.
Moneyhan knew her mom, Richardson, had the guesthouse available and asked her if she would let the Diachuks stay there temporarily. Richardson agreed.
"I've been really saddened and heartbroken by the state of the world today, also in our own country, and to be able to help a family and see them physically here and know they have a future and are safe, I'm grateful for them. It makes my heart happy," Richardson said.
Meanwhile, the group got the family free access to an eye doctor and dentist. They also helped get Daniel enrolled in elementary school. Despite the language barrier, Daniel recently reported making a friend and also was anxious to get back to school after staying home sick for a couple of days. Neighbors have also dropped off carloads of clothing and supplies.
"Everywhere we ask, everyone is like 'Yes,'" a teary-eyed Flaa said. "It's so humbling to think about this community that has come in and put their arms around these families."
Living in limbo
Although their journey to the United States has concluded, the Diachuks' efforts to resume a stable life hase not. They have one-year humanitarian parole status and are awaiting approval for the work permit they filed so they can support themselves while they're here. Being able to work is key because, while the church can find them housing, the families can't yet afford to pay for it.
"Other families I've talked to, most of them say it's weird a country would take refugees in and not allow them to go to work," Bozhduga said. "These families do want to work. They don't want to sit at home all day long."
Lake Oswego residents have started a GoFundMe page to help the Ukrainians as they acclimate to life here. The page, which can be found at bit.ly/3Py3SWY, has raised over $11,000 toward the goal of $30,000.
Meanwhile, the Diachuks talk to their family in Ukraine and see their faces daily, via the Viber app. Olesya notes that her dad and sister are volunteers for an organization that delivers supplies to war-stricken areas like Kyiv and Odessa.
They miss their kin and eagerly await a reunion. However, with life uncertain here and even more so back home, they don't know when — or even where — that will be.
"If everything were to be well and good, we do want to go back. We do miss our families," Vitalii said. "But if it gets worse, maybe more of our family will come here and that will be another way out. We don't think it's going to end anytime soon."
Editor's note: Bozhduga provided translation for this story
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