February 26

Two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I went to Spring of Life Church, an evangelical Baptist church in a suburb of Sacramento. The church was packed with Ukrainians for a prayer breakfast, gathered to find solace from leaders and friends.

That’s where I met Dina Samodarov and her father, Volodymyr Androshchuk, who live in Auburn, a Gold Rush town in the Sierra foothills, about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. Since war struck Ukraine earlier this year, millions have fled the country to find safety, and Volodymyr had decided to take a risk, for his grandson and fellow Ukrainians.

Through a friend, Androshchuk, a 65-year-old man with a prosthetic right leg and a jolly demeanor, started to explain to me in Ukrainian that he was going back to his war-torn homeland. But we both knew something was lost in translation, so he called over his daughter, Dina.

“My two brothers are still there with my little nephew … We’re trying to reunite with him,” said Dina, fighting back tears.

The mother of her 3-year-old nephew in Ukraine had died of COVID, and the boy’s father, her brother, was paralyzed. So Dina was arranging for her father, Volodymyr, and her mother, Valentina, to fly back to Eastern Europe to retrieve their grandson, Ben Androshchuk.

“I’m trying to be calm,” Dina explained in those first days of war in Ukraine. “But it’s really hard to believe that it’s happening to my land and to people that I love.”

Volodymyr wasn’t planning only to retrieve his grandson. He planned to stay in Ukraine to help people stuck in the humanitarian crisis. Volodymyr lost his right leg in an accident while working in a factory in Ukraine. He said, as a disabled person, he has connections that can help other disabled people passing through Rivne, his hometown in Western Ukraine.

This plan sounded risky to me. I asked him what gave him the courage.

“Wherever there’s a need, or [it’s] hard to breathe for people as Christian, I want to be there,” Volodymyr said.

People of any faith tradition, including Christianity and Judaism, were persecuted under the USSR, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and many were prevented from getting a higher education and jobs. Some worshiped underground to escape fines and punishment.

In 1990, the United States gave a pathway to those persecuted under the USSR through the Lautenberg Amendment, and many Christians, like Dina and her family, came as refugees to the United States.

The Sacramento metro area is home to one of the largest communities of recently arrived Ukrainians outside Seattle, Chicago and New York, according to a University of Michigan analysis. Samodarov is one of many Ukrainians in the area supporting aid to Ukraine through churches.

March 1

The first week after the invasion, Dina was at home on her phone nonstop, funneling donations to missionaries helping Ukrainians under siege.

“People have been calling me all morning today,” Samodarov said, while babysitting her nephews.

On March 1, the Tuesday after the invasion, Samodarov was out of breath because of the sheer number of things she was juggling. In just a few hours, she would drive her parents to the airport so they could fly to Poland and embark on a journey to rescue their grandson Ben.

“My friend will be picking them up from airport, and giving them shelter for the night,” said Dina. “And then in the morning they will leave to cross the border to Ukraine.”

Volodomyr walks up onto the patio where we’re talking. You wouldn’t guess he’s about to fly to a war zone across the world. I ask him, through Dina, how he’s feeling about his upcoming mission.

“I have to be there, where it’s very bad for people, because that’s where the need is,” he said.

March 11

Two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dina went back to her office for the first time since the start of the war. She co-runs a financial advising business with her husband, Denis Samodarov. But she said it was hard to focus on work.

“[I’m] trying to keep my emotions under control,” said Dina. “It’s really hard to think about something else other than what really is the most important for me at this moment.”

Denis Samodarov is a pastor at a Slavic Baptist church in the area, and he’s Russian. “Russians are crazy,” he said with a laugh.

Denis’s ancestors fled Russia generations ago. He says he grew up in the Republic of Georgia, and then his family moved back to Russia when he was a teenager, after the fall of the Soviet Union. He says people there are brainwashed by the Russian media.

“They will say, ‘Hey, we are protecting our borders and we don’t want the United States to get closer to us,'” he said. “It’s all politics, but media playing a huge role.”

Denis says most Russians in the U.S. came here to free themselves from their homeland. Many of these Russian immigrants, as well as many Slavic people who are from the former Soviet territories, support Ukrainian independence.

“Russians and Ukrainians — it’s like a brother and brother, and sister and sister,” he says, adding the two countries know each others’ history, culture and songs. “But politicians, I guess they choose the wrong path.”

On March 11, Dina heard the good news: Her parents had rescued their grandson Ben, and he was now in Poland. That didn’t mean it would be easy to bring him all the way to the U.S., though.

“Our concern right now is [that] we have this 3-year-old. We’re planning to bring him to the United States somehow, and nobody’s giving the visas anymore,” she said. “So we’re stuck, we’re a little bit stuck now.”

Dina’s mom, Valentina, was in Poland, waiting for her grandson Ben to receive refugee status so that she could fly him back to California. As for Dina’s dad, Volodymyr, he had thrown himself fully into the humanitarian effort in war-torn Ukraine.

March 18

Three weeks into the war in Ukraine, Dina was still glued to her phone. She was watching videos her dad sent of his work in the conflict zone. He was driving food and hygiene products from Poland into Western Ukraine. On his way back to Poland, he was bussing refugees out.

Footage shows him loading boxes into a white van, speaking calmly into the camera. He’s wearing a heavy winter coat and hat. “It’s very organized,” Dina said.

On March 18, I was with Dina when she video-called her dad, at 7:30 p.m. Poland time. He was staying at a shelter in Warsaw. Through Dina’s phone, Volodymyr gave us a tour. I saw what looked like a couple of rooms in a modest apartment, with wooden bunk beds for fewer than a dozen people. Dina explained that he was living with other refugees in that building, but only temporarily. Volodymyr changed location every day or two.

I asked how his grandson Ben was doing with all the changes. He was facing some devastating losses, having just left his dad and his home country and, also recently, lost his mother to COVID. All things considered, Volodymyr said, his young grandson seemed excited about coming to the United States.

“He wants to meet with his cousins. We never met yet,” said Dina. “We have a 4-year-old, too, and he’s 3. So they will play together really well.”

April 3

Finally, on April 3, Ben and his grandma Valentina flew to Tijuana, and Dina met them there to help bring them across the border. Dina says they spent just three and a half hours at the border, and Ben got a one-year visa to live in the U.S.

“God gave us miracle and we crossed in the shortest time,” Dina texted on April 4. “We are so thankful!!!”

Before embarking on their final leg home to the Sacramento area, Dina says they made an important stop for this 3-year-old refugee: an adventure at Disneyland.

As for Ben’s grandpa, Volodymyr, he returned to Northern California on April 15. But he’s not staying away from the war zone for long. He’s planning to return to Ukraine as soon as possible to continue to help with the humanitarian crisis.

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