Two Ukrainian families find refuge in Hartland
|Published: 08-16-2023 6:11 AM
HARTLAND — Iryna Burtolik and Antonina Reznichenko first became friends 15 years ago, while working at a restaurant in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.
Since then, they’ve gotten together nearly every weekend — despite both finding husbands and starting families. Burtolik has two children, Anna and Hlieb, 10 and 11, and Reznichenko has one daughter, Maria, 10.
In February, the friendship helped carry the women and their children to Hartland as refugees, fleeing the ongoing war in Ukraine. Their paths to the Upper Valley, in search of a better future, were marked by the hardship of war, but they have been welcomed into the community since their arrival.
The families currently stay in a “small but comfortable” guest house beside the modern farmhouse-style home of their sponsors Darwin and Linda Eton. Burtolik and Reznichenko sleep in one room, while the three children are in the other. Throughout an interview last month, the Etons’ golden retriever, Sam, poked around curiously. The comfortable atmosphere stands in clear distinction with the challenges they faced before arriving in the Upper Valley.
In Kyiv, Burtolik, 38, was a “project manager for a big IT company,” living a “good, quiet” life. Both her children went to school, and Anna did theater. Her husband died three years ago.
Reznichenko, 37, was an accountant, and her husband built furniture for his own company. But on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, they lost “all (their) lives,” Reznichenko said. Her husband is currently fighting for Ukraine; he writes and sometimes calls — but the connection can often make talking difficult.
When Burtolik felt the first bombs in Kyiv, she woke her sleeping children and rushed into a dark, crowded basement. They shuddered at air raid sirens and explosions, while military members drove armored vehicles and carried guns in the streets. After two weeks, Burtolik decided to leave.
On March 6, 2022, the crowded train station was “like (a) storm around us,” said Burtolik. Taking three or four different trains, Burtolik and her children arrived in Prague two days later. Then Burtolik, through a mutual Ukrainian friend, connected with a volunteer who was willing to provide an apartment. The two-room flat housed them and another refugee family. They lived there for 11 months, especially enjoying the museums of the “beautiful city.”
However, Burtolik and her kids experienced strong anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Prague. She found that many were frustrated with Ukrainians for taking “their jobs” and raising the price of energy. Europe is largely dependent on Russia for natural gas and oil, and sanctions caused prices to skyrocket across the continent. People in Anna and Hlieb’s school also were antagonistic. Burtolik forced her children to continue attending, but didn’t want them to have to face such hostility.
Reznichenko and her daughter’s experience was very similar to the Burtoliks’. After long trips on stifling trains, they eventually arrived at a small German village near the Swiss border, where they stayed for seven months in a two-room apartment with another refugee family.
Much like Burtolik’s experience in Prague, Ukrainian antagonism in Germany was centered on energy prices and the cost of refugees. There were also repeated “parades for Putin” with large groups of demonstrators carrying Russian flags, calling to end German support for Ukraine. Reznichenko recalled that some of Maria’s German classmates even told her that her father, fighting for Ukraine, “had died.” This antagonism was “some, not all people,” said Reznichenko.
Not knowing German made finding work in Germany nearly impossible. The two women initially knew Ukrainian and Russian only, but Czech is close enough to Ukrainian that learning was relatively quick. So, while many in Prague were frustrated with Ukrainians taking jobs, many in Germany were frustrated with Ukrainians not finding jobs immediately.
They both envisioned the United States as “a country of free people (who) perceive me for who I am,” particularly not discriminating against their Ukrainian nationality, Burtolik wrote in an email.
The immigration process began when Reznichenko found Darwin Eton, a 65-year-old former professor of vascular surgery at the University of Chicago, on a Ukrainian website for asylum seekers. Burtolik then messaged him about sponsoring both of their families together. Unable to speak English, they used Google translate to send messages and develop a plan to join the Etons in Vermont.
The two then completed the necessary paperwork through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. And through Biden’s United for Ukraine program, which allows American families to sponsor and support refugee families from Ukraine, their two-year residency was approved in just six days — on Dec. 24, 2022. They are among more than 125,000 Ukrainian refugees the U.S. had accepted as of the one-year anniversary of Biden’s program in April, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. About 100 Ukrainian refugees reside in Vermont, according to the Vermont State Refugee Office.
In late February, both families flew into JFK airport in New York and were met with two waving flags — one Ukrainian and one U.S. Linda Eton picked them up and brought them to a hotel for the night. The welcome set a new tone; they had moved beyond the dark basements, packed trains and national animosity.
Burtolik and Reznichenko both have been feeling like they’re “on vacation” since they got to the Upper Valley. “All the people (are) very kind,” Burtolik said, with Reznichenko enthusiastically nodding.
They have enjoyed going on hikes with their kids, such as Mt. Avalon in the White Mountains. They also have appreciated foraging for mushrooms and keeping a small vegetable garden. They worked for two months at the Village Inn in Woodstock, where Burtolik was a server and Reznichenko a cook’s assistant. After Burtolik injured her knee, she had to stop working. Reznichenko also had to stop to take care of the children.
Nevertheless, they enjoy talking with members of the community and are happy with the patience people show for their English language skills, which they have been learning since arriving in Hartland. They have been reading children’s books and practicing nightly with their hosts. English proficiency has been the only thing holding them back from getting jobs in their respective fields, they said.
The children have enjoyed Hartland Elementary. On their first day, just a week after arriving, they each got books with pictures and names of all their teachers and classmates.
“It was like a yearbook for just the three children,” said Darwin Eton.
Burtolik and Reznichenko have struggled without a car in an area like the Upper Valley. It is difficult for the children to participate in after school activities and for the mothers to commute. Anna in particular would love to return to performing in theater. Fortunately, the two were able to purchase a car through a GoFundMe established for their benefit, Burtolik wrote in an email last week.
The GoFundMe has made nearly $14,000 of its $20,000 goal. The creator, Jennifer Falvey, a Pomfret resident who met Burtolik and Reznichenko while they were working at the Village Inn, did so in order to show that Vermont builds “bridges, not walls,” the description states.
“My family sponsored a Vietnamese family back in the ‘70s so refugees have always had a special place in my heart,” she wrote in an email.
The fundraiser is mainly to pay for a car, but also to cover basic expenses such as clothing, food and utilities — and rent for independent housing in the near future.
The local community and the Vermont Refugee Center have provided the families with support, including a cellphone and health insurance.
“It was so really heartwarming to see that Vermont has a way to help people in need when they’re coming from a war zone,” Darwin said. He’s found that “virtually everyone they meet wants to help out. So, even though it sounds daunting to all of a sudden expand your family by five people, you’re actually not doing it alone.”
With young kids in the house, he said he feels “almost like a young dad again, even though I’m very old.”
Both Burtolik and Reznichenko said they enjoy the higher standard of living in America. Burtolik has found that “good clothes and groceries” are much more available here than in the battle-scarred Ukraine. Ukraine still very much needs support and donations, they said.
Access to education and health care are primary factors for Reznichenko wishing to stay in the U.S., she said, particularly now with hospitals in Ukraine struggling because of the war.
After the war, Reznichenko wants her husband to join them permanently in the U.S. for the “future of (her) children.”
Preserving children’s lives, she said, creates a ripple effect and allows future generations to thrive.
Lukas Dunford can be reached at email@example.com.