Christmas is different this year for two Ukrainian families living in Utah.
On a typical holiday, Liudmyla Ivakhina would gather with her family to share a nice meal by the sea in the coastal city of Berdyansk, Ukraine. While the Ivakhins will still celebrate with family, it’ll be in a landlocked state, far from the water.
In April, Liudmyla, her husband and two teenage sons left the ocean behind and moved to Utah.
“We were able to bring a few things, some sand from the sea and shells,” Liudmyla said with a remorseful smile as she remembered her home.
A white flag and 30 checkpoints
It wasn’t a breezy trek to America. It was grueling as they left what Liudmyla calls “a very beautiful place before the war.”
Now, Russian troops occupy the land known as Berdyansk.
Liudmyla said her family didn’t leave without a fight. When Russian troops began moving into the southeastern city in February, Liudmyla’s family was on the front lines, protesting the takeover. They soon were outnumbered.
“Protesters were surrounded by two circles of soldiers who began to shoot at us all who were holding Ukrainian flags,” Liudmyla said.
That was the moment when Liudmyla and her husband Sasha knew it was time to say goodbye and make the journey to Saratoga Springs, where their daughter and son-in-law lived.
First, they had to leave Ukraine, which meant traveling through other Russian-occupied territories to reach Poland. In normal times, the drive usually takes 21 hours to go from Berdyansk to Warsaw.
The Ivakhins wiped their phones of any indication they were Ukrainian patriots. If Russian troops found any proof that they supported Ukraine, Liudmyla said it was unlikely they would have made it to America.
Liudmyla said they carried a white flag with them as they endured the peregrination. The simple white flags were a plea to Russian forces not to use violence because there were children traveling alongside adults.
The family crossed 30 Russian checkpoints. Sasha was strip-searched at one. Liudmyla said the guards wanted to know if he had tattoos that represented the Ukrainian resistance.
They were almost at the last checkpoint when the white flags were disregarded.
“They were bombed by a Russian plane and fired upon by artillery. They jumped out of their cars and hid in ditches to avoid being hit,” Liudmyla told KUER with translation help from a friend Sasha Pechev.
“This happened in spite of the fact that they had white flags and big signs that say ‘children.’”
They made it through the last checkpoint and were greeted by familiar faces — Ukrainians. Relief washed over Liudmyla when she spotted the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
“It was about freedom from [Russian] occupation and it was an amazing feeling,” Liudmyla said.
A safer place
After 10 long days, the Ivakhins reached American soil. While Liudmyla didn’t know what to expect in Utah, she was “pleasantly surprised” by how accepted her family felt.
“We saw Ukrainian flags all over the place,” she said. “And we knew that children would be fine, that they would be welcomed in this environment.”
People the Ivakhins didn’t know rushed to help the family acclimate. Utahns came together to find the family job opportunities, connect them with an English teacher and even cosigned on a house so they could move out of their daughter’s basement. Liudmyla, with gratitude pouring out of her, listed each person by name.
The family’s oldest son, Sasha, has autism and is nonverbal. But he loves to write and draw. Although Sasha misses home, Liudmyla said she can tell Utah is starting to grow on him by his artwork.
“You can feel the love people have for us. They haven’t forgotten us,” she said. “They’ve accompanied us on this journey. We are not alone.”
The Ivakhins won’t congregate by the sea this holiday season, but Liudmyla said they will be celebrating. An American friend of theirs organized a drive so they would have presents to open on Christmas. Liudmyla couldn’t believe the lengths people have gone to give her family a warm holiday.
“This is something that you cannot forget. And this is something I cannot describe,” she said.
Liudmyla is hopeful she will return home to Berdyansk one day. She’s optimistic Ukraine will come out of the war victorious, especially if America provides Ukrainian forces with the necessary artillery to compete with Russia. That feeling is stronger following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House and speech before Congress. The Biden administration announced it would send nearly $2 billion in security aid, including weapons.
But for now, the Ivakhins are building a life in their second home — Utah.
Mixed feelings about Christmas
Odesa, Ukraine is generally decked out in bright lights and Christmas decorations this time of year. The city is jam-packed with events and people spend time caroling. They eat traditional Ukrainian food, like Kutia, attend church and jubilate with friends and family.
That’s how Zulfiana Shakur Khan remembers it, at least. But the Shakur Khan family is celebrating Christmas in Alpine, Utah, this year, a world away from Ukraine’s third largest city.
Zulfiana, her husband, mother and two children escaped Odesa and landed in Utah about two months ago. It wasn’t something they wanted to do, but after a mall near their home was destroyed by Russian missiles, it was something they needed to do.
“What was particularly scary is that we shopped there the day before,” she said, “and now it was all gone. Nothing left.”
The family of four made it to Moldova safely. But they couldn’t fly to America until they found a sponsor family. After two months of scouring Facebook groups and writing countless letters to churches, Zulfiana stumbled upon a site called Welcome Connect. There she found a family in Orem willing to take her family in.
The Shakur Khans hopped on a plane, flew to Chicago and eventually landed in Utah. Zulfiana had reservations, though. Her family was entering an unfamiliar place.
But like Liudmyla, she was pleasantly shocked.
“We feel a lot of love and concern. Something that we weren't even expecting,” Zulfiana said. “We feel very welcome and we see Ukrainian flags all over the place. And that means a lot to us.”
She said the host family has become her second family. And that is who they will spend Christmas with this year. They will carry on the holiday traditions as they did back home. They will cook traditional food, go to church and spend time with family.
But even as the Shakur Khans feel some sense of normalcy, Zulfiana said she can’t forget the Ukrainians defending their country.
“On one hand, we are very happy to celebrate this happy time, especially with new people in a new country,” she said.
“On the other hand, we feel sad that people are dying. There are people, as we celebrate here, still on the front lines, sitting in trenches that are dying for our country so that it can be free.”