Valley News – The Ukrainian family is relocating to Vermont as the fight at home marks its first anniversary

NORTH THETFORD – Three weeks ago, the Uladovskyi family landed among skyscrapers in the United States, their bikes landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

But they flew to the country from Poland.

As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of their native Ukraine, the family of four hoped to find sanctuary in Vermont.

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

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

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

The turnaround in the United States was quick, but the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine dragged on for the Uladovskyis. Before arriving in Vermont, the family had lived on the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland, for about a year. They fled Ukraine ten days after the war began. “We didn’t think it would take that long,” Uladovska said.

Uladovska, who trained as an architect in Ukraine, found work in Poland in a distribution warehouse. Tarakhomyn, a middle school physics and astronomy teacher, started out as a waitress.

They traveled frequently to volunteer at the Ukrainian border and used part of their income to send supplies home to friends and family. Medicines as simple as aspirin are scarce there.

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In Warsaw, the Uladovskyis were out of the loop, but explosions just across the border kept the family in suspense. Kira was also bullied at school because she was Ukrainian, Uladovska said.

The Uladovskyis have felt particularly insecure in Poland in recent months. They knew it was time to go.

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

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

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

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

“After the dating game, we had to make it official with the US government,” LaWhite said. It only took a few weeks, and it could have only taken a few days if there hadn’t been a typo in the forms, he added.

“I never thought US immigration officials could act so quickly,” he said.

It took about a month for the Uldayovskis to close their apartment and give up their lives in Poland. When they left forever, they brought little with them.

Uladovska made sure that Kira, who would be going to school one winter in Vermont, had warm clothes. But for herself she packed the essentials. Ever since her arrival, she’s alternated between the same two black pants.

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

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

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

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

Chocolate, the couple 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 Poland for the United States during World War II.

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

Kira, who is at school every day of the week, has an advantage. Her English is getting better every day, LaWhite said. Sarah Atherton, Kira’s teacher, communicates by projecting Google Translate onto the classroom board.

Kira and her family visited the staff at Thetford Elementary the day before their classes started. Atherton handed her a bundle of letters from her classmates that said “Welcome Kira” in Ukrainian – some even in the Ukrainian alphabet.

“We are so grateful for how she was treated at school,” Uladovska said. Next week, during the school holidays, Kira’s friend Molly is due to visit.

“Tuesday,” LaWhite said, tapping his forehead and motioning himself to remember the game date.

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

Otherwise, as the paperwork begins to dwindle, the family has gone in search of employment. Under US law, Ukrainian refugees who arrive in the country are immediately eligible to work.

The Uladovskyis were uncomfortable speaking about the life they left behind in Ukraine, and as the war rages on, what they are hearing from 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 understand what we’re going through.”

Frances Mize is a member of the Report for America Corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.