Ukrainian family relocates to Vermont as fighting at home sees first anniversary

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-25-2023 1:24 PM

NORTH THETFORD — Three weeks ago, the Uladovskyi family landed in the United States among skyscrapers, their wheels touching down at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

But flying from Poland, they were bound for the countryside.

Just before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of their home country of Ukraine, the family of four was hoping to find refuge in Vermont.

They arrived at their host Leif LaWhite’s house in North Thetford at midnight on a Monday. Staring down mountains of paperwork, the next day the Uladovskyis had to hit the ground running.

Dzhesika Uladovska, 26, her cousin Ivanka Tarakhomyn, 27, and Dzhesika’s husband have spent days filling out applications for Medicaid, drivers licenses and car insurance. They’ve had to find doctors and dentists and get COVID vaccinations.

“Imagine doing all the paperwork you’ve filled out in your entire life in just a few days,” LaWhite said. By Wednesday of that week, Dzhesika’s daughter Kirianna, 8, who goes by Kira, began life as a third grader at Thetford Elementary School.

The turnaround in the United States was fast, but the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have dragged on for the Uladovskyis. Before arriving in Vermont, the family had been living on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, for about a year. They fled Ukraine 10 days after the war started. “We didn’t think it would go on so long,” Uladovska said.

Uladovska, trained as an architect in Ukraine, found work at Poland in a distribution warehouse. Tarakhomyn, a middle school physics and astronomy teacher, took up waitressing.

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They would frequently travel to volunteer at the Ukrainian border and used some of their earnings to send supplies back home to friends and family. Medication as simple as aspirin is in short supply there.

In Warsaw, the Uladovskyis were out of the thick of things, but explosions just across the border kept the family on edge. Kira was also bullied at school for being Ukrainian, Uladovska said.

The Uladovskyis felt especially unsafe their last few months in Poland. They knew it was time to leave.

LaWhite, along with his wife, Donna Steinberg, a psychologist, were put in touch with the Uladovskyis through a program called Welcome Connect, which helps to match refugees to hosts in the United States. The matching platform expedites the process of Uniting for Ukraine, the federal refugee resettlement provider.

“I have a big house and a small family,” LaWhite said. “I’ve long thought we should sponsor refugees from war.”

The Uldayovskis searched for close to two months before making contact with the LaWhites. LaWhite had signed up in early November, and found the Uladovskyis shortly thereafter.

The Uladovskyis and the LaWhites, including their son Andre, a 10th grader at Thetford Academy, exchanged messages back and forth for a few weeks before sealing the deal.

“After the dating game, we needed to make it official with the U.S. government,” LaWhite said. It took only a few weeks, and it could have taken just a few days if not for a typo in the forms, he added.

“I’d never thought that the U.S. immigration services could act so quickly,” he said.

It took around a month for the Uldayovskis to shutter their apartment and pack up their life in Poland. When they left for good, they brought little with them.

Uladovska made sure that Kira, who would be beginning school in a Vermont winter, had warm clothes. But for herself she packed the bare minimum. She’s been alternating between the same two pairs of black pants since she arrived.

“They brought so little that we could bring a family of four and all their belongings from New York to Vermont in one trip,” LaWhite said.

Still, the family sacrificed valuable space in their small suitcases to Rosen Cherry Liqueur Chocolates for the LaWhites.

The gifts were decided upon after much back and forth between Uladovska and Tarakhomyn, who were anxious about what their hosts might want.

“I worry about things, but Dzhesika takes the cake for worrying,” Tarakhomyn said.

Chocolate, the pair decided, was a safe bet.

When needed, Ursula Rudd, LaWhite’s neighbor, translates for the family, who each speak Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. Rudd’s parents fled from Poland to the U.S. during World War II.

Two nights a week the Uladovskyis take English lessons at Vermont Adult Education in White River Junction. They supplement their studies by watching American movies, like Twilight and A Bug’s Life.

Kira, at school every day during the week, is at an advantage. Her English gets markedly better every day, LaWhite said. Sarah Atherton, Kira’s teacher, communicates by projecting Google Translate up on the classroom board.

Kira and her family visited with the staff at Thetford Elementary the day before her classes started. Atherton handed her a bundle of letters from her classmates, reading “Welcome Kira,” in Ukrainian — a few even in the Ukrainian alphabet.

“We’re so grateful for how she has been treated at school,” Uladovska said. Next week, during a school vacation, Kira’s friend Molly is scheduled to come visit.

“Tuesday,” LaWhite said, tapping his forehead, motioning to himself to remember the playdate.

A plea from LaWhite on the Thetford ListServ brought the family a donated car, which Uladovska’s husband spends hours tinkering with each day. Sometimes they meet up with other Ukrainian refugees in the Upper Valley, like at a Super Bowl party earlier in the month in Lebanon.

Otherwise, as the paperwork begins to dwindle, the family has set off to look for employment. Under U.S. law, when Ukrainian refugees arrive in the country, they’re immediately eligible to work.

The Uladovskyis felt uncomfortable talking about the life they had left behind in Ukraine, and as the war rages on, what they’re hearing from their family and friends back home.

But since arriving, Uladovska said she hasn’t felt any pressure to explain.

“Not only do we feel so welcome here,” she said, “but we feel like people are understanding of what we’ve been going through.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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