Alaska News

‘Gut wrenching’: Alaskans with roots in Ukraine grapple with war in their homeland

Vicky Shestopalov began to weep when she learned Wednesday night that Russia had invaded the country where she was born along with many others in her home community of Delta Junction.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” Shestopalov said.

The 34-year-old mother of five came to Delta Junction as an infant in 1995 with her parents, fleeing religious persecution in Ukraine. They were among some of the first refugees to settle in the community that now holds hundreds of Ukrainian-born people.

The area around Delta — its flat, wide-open fields and climate familiar to Slavic people — holds one of the highest per capita concentrations of Ukrainians in the country.

Now members of the community are watching, gathering together and praying for Ukraine, Shestopalov said.

“It’s gut wrenching,” she said. “It almost feels like a death in the family is about to occur.”

Shestopalov’s relatives live in Kyiv — the nation’s capital — and Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine close to the border with Russia. Despite an ongoing assault from Russian forces against both places, her relatives have decided to stay put.

“None of my family has fled. They don’t have really anywhere to go,” she said Thursday. “They’re not afraid. They said that they’re just praying and they know they’re going to be OK.”

The situation, especially around Kyiv, was growing more dire as of Friday afternoon in Alaska as Russian forces bore down on the capital.

And around Alaska, people with ties to Ukraine watched with sadness, horror and heartbreak as the invasion unfolded.

Some weren’t ready to talk publicly about the invasion, like a businesswoman who said she had family on both sides and wanted to remain neutral or a deli worker who said her family was staying in touch with relatives in western Ukraine, readying for an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the east.

Others declined to speak to reporters out of fear for their relatives’ safety back home.

As the invasion began Wednesday evening Alaska time, Anchorage resident Tetyana Robbins was at Bible study at New Chance Church in Anchorage, where many members have family in Ukraine. A flood of text messages from Ukrainian family members began streaming in.

“We all just stared at each other. Like, ‘what?’” she said. “You look at any Ukrainian person, and you know that they are worrying about someone right now.”

The church, where services are held in the Russian language, held a prayer service for Ukraine Friday.

Robbins, 48, was born in Kharkiv. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 after meeting Alaskan Mike Robbins online and falling in love. Much of her family and former school mates remained back in the city that is just 30 miles away from the Russian border.

“Sometimes I just cry,” she said. “Just to see the damage done — I can’t even imagine.”

When the shelling began, Robbins’ family hid in shelters, making it difficult to reach them to make sure they were safe.

“It’s something I would never like to experience again because it was a dead silence,” Robbins said.

Her nephew, who lived in Kyiv with his wife and 2-year-old child, fled by car to Poland when the city came under fire, leaving most of their possessions behind. In Poland, refugees face uncertainty and fear, Robbins said, prompting the Ukrainian community in Alaska to begin raising funds to assist them and those who remain back in Ukraine, huddled in bomb shelters where food and supplies could behind to run out as the attacks continue.

“As a community, we’re trying to think what to do,” she said. “A next step would probably be asking if our governor here in Alaska would be willing to take in some Ukrainian refugees,” she said.

The day after he left Kyiv, Robbins’ nephew received a video capturing an airstrike that damaged the street where he had lived.

“They don’t have a country anymore. They don’t have anything,” Robbins said.

At the Word of Life Church in Wasilla, where about a third of the roughly 200 congregants are from Ukraine, twice daily prayer vigils were being held.

The large Ukrainian community in Mat-Su worships at several churches in the area, said Word of Life Church secretary Yana Sinyawski. Some are taking to social media to urge prayer and express grief.

“They do have families over there, or even siblings,” Sinyawski said.

There were at least 1,400 foreign-born Ukrainians in Alaska as of the most recent population data in 2015, according to state demographer Eric Sandberg. That included 500 in Mat-Su, 300 in the Delta area and 200 in Anchorage, with others scattered around the state.

The refugee resettlement program in Alaska traces its roots back to the arrival of families from the former Soviet Union, many from Ukraine, fleeing religious persecution in their home country.

Initially, refugees began moving to Alaska in the 1990s independent of a refugee resettlement program. That prompted the federal government to reach out to set up a refugee resettlement service, according to Issa Spatrisano, Alaska state refugee coordinator.

Migrants from Ukraine have gravitated to places like Delta Junction, because it is similar to some of the villages in Ukraine, with access to farmland and established faith-based communities.

“It reminds them a little bit of home,” said Spatrisano.

Shestopalov’s family sold their belongings and left first to Italy for several months before they were accepted by the U.S. The family moved to Florida, then to Seattle, before finding the community of Delta Junction, a place that “felt more like home than any other place,” Shestopalov said.

“Alaska feels more like Europe,” she explained. “Families drew in more families and we love our life here.”

In the 2017-2020 fiscal years, Ukrainians were the largest arrival groups resettled in Alaska. Now, the Alaska resettlement program run by Catholic Social Services serves around 100 Ukrainians who are in their first five years in the U.S., making up a fifth of the program’s caseload.

Those people with roots in Ukraine are now concerned for friends and family, said Spatrisano. And some of them were also in the process of helping other family members come to the U.S. as refugees before the war broke out. That process will now likely stall since the months-long screening process will be put on hold.

But in the long run, Spatrisano said this crisis could lead to a larger number of refugees from Ukraine, some of whom could end up in Alaska.

“Any conflict in that region is ultimately going to lead to (a) higher refugee number,” she said. “Which is ultimately in the long run likely to lead to resettlement needed to our state, because there are going to be families here that are going to want to have their families come to where they are.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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