One Year After Russia's Invasion, Ukrainians Who Fled To LA Ponder What's Next
The morning of last Feb. 24, Lyubov Belousova awoke in her small town of Hvardiiske and turned on the TV to devastating news: Russia had launched a missile attack against her country.
She ran to the store for emergency groceries. As she shopped, bombs started landing nearby, hitting the military base next to her home. Situated in Ukraine’s southeast, Hvardiiske is home to the 25th Airborne Brigade.
The hours and days that followed were terrifying for Belousova and her husband, Valerii Belousov.
“I was very scared,” she said, speaking in Russian. “I spent the week sleeping in the bathtub and hiding.”
The attack also terrified the couple’s two children across the world in Los Angeles. For Tatiana Tomicki, their daughter, her first thought was bringing her parents to safety here.
“I did a lot of yelling on the phone with my brother, we kept calling them, one after another and trying to convince them,” said Tomicki, who lives in West L.A. “They wouldn’t listen to us, because they were in such a state of shock.”
Luckily, the Belousovs had been to the U.S. in 2015 for their daughter’s wedding and their tourist visas were still valid. Reluctantly, after much persuasion from their children, they agreed to leave Ukraine.
‘I miss everything’
It’s been a crazy, upside down year for the couple: First, they crashed with Tomicki, her husband, and young daughter in the family’s small apartment.
Tomicki posted messages on the Nextdoor app seeking leads on housing for her parents. Among the responses she received was a note from a well-to-do stranger living in New York, she said, who had a large house under construction in Santa Monica with a poolside guest house.
If they didn’t mind the dust, her parents could stay in the guest house rent-free.
“It was a very sweet and generous offer,” said Tomicki. “We couldn’t believe it was real.”
Close to a year later, the Belousovs are still a bit in shock just waking up here in Santa Monica every day. Lyubov finds the humor in it.
“I pretend like I’m somewhere on vacation in Thailand,” she said with a laugh as her daughter translated. “When I open the door there are palm trees, there is a pool, I’m on vacation basically.”
Lyubov said she’s never been to Thailand — but she’s seen the photos.
But as grateful as they are for everything they have here — shelter, safety, the warmth of close family, the kindness of strangers — the Belousovs can’t help but feel like they’re in limbo.
Both in their late 60s, they say it was hard leaving everything they knew: a home, a community, a culture and language of their own.
“I miss everything,” said Valerii, even the simple things, like going to his doctor back home.
‘One Foot Here, One Foot There’
Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced since the war began. By the end of last year, the U.S. government had admitted more than 80,000 Ukrainians into the country on a temporary basis. Many came to Southern California, where a long-established Ukrainian community has provided support like housing and jobs. But for many, the future remains up in the air.
Most of the Ukrainians recently admitted to the U.S. came under what is known as humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay legally for up to two years but provides no other benefits or path to legal status. They may apply for Temporary Protected Status, which lets them work and is renewable but obviously is not a permanent solution.
If they want to stay they must apply for asylum or otherwise try to adjust their immigration status. And unlike people admitted to the U.S. formally as refugees, these newcomers haven’t had the same ready access to case management or social services.
Filling the gap have been community organizations, such as the Ukrainian Culture Center in Hollywood, which has become a hub not only for fundraising and war-relief efforts, but also immigrant aid. The nonprofit center’s board president, Laryssa Reifel, said she estimates thousands of Ukrainians have sought refuge in L.A., based just on requests for help she’s received.
Of those she’s worked with, “I have seen them transition from ‘we just escaped the war’ to this sort of acceptance that they need to figure out how to make it here,” she said.
Reifel said that for younger people especially, it’s tough because unlike previous generations — like her grandparents, who escaped Ukraine during World War II — they’ve grown up with the peace and relative stability of a fledgling democracy. This also makes them appreciate life in the U.S., she said — but they still miss home.
“I think they are saying, ‘OK, this is different, and we want this, we want to earn this,’” Reifel said, “with a fair amount of ‘we’ve left our home behind.’ So one foot here, one foot there.”
Putting Down Roots
About 50 miles inland from the Belousovs, in Brea, a much younger couple has decided to put down roots.
As she waited for her husband to come home from work one recent evening, Sasha Onopriienko brewed a pot of tea in the kitchen of their apartment while their 3-year-old son Alex played video games nearby.
Onopriienko, her husband Maksym Zaiets, and little Alex used to live in Kyiv. When the bombing began, Zaiets was working in neighboring Moldova; Onopriienko and Alex joined him there soon after.
They decided to leave altogether; after several flights, they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last spring, crossing into the U.S. at Calexico.
Zaiets had worked in the U.S. before, fishing in Alaska as a seasonal guest worker. Calling in on his cell phone, he said he was glad to come here: “I’ve wanted to live here from 2018,” he said, adding that he’s eager to start his own business here and is applying for asylum.
But for Onopriienko, it took the war to make her want to leave.
“No,” she stressed. “We had a comfortable life before (the) war.”
But when they call home, they hear about hardship — about hunger and power outages in the dead of winter. They also have little Alex to think about. He’s already started preschool here, and is making friends.
“I think maybe we [will] stay, because of making connections and life here with [the] baby,” Onopriienko said. “Especially with [the] baby.”
Through the Ukrainian Culture Center, the family connected with a generous landlord that let them live rent-free for 6 months. Now, they’re paying rent. Zaiets found work at a medical supplies company through the local Ukrainian community. Onopriienko, who had a beauty salon in Kyiv, will soon go back to school for her cosmetology license.
Little by little, their new life here is taking shape.
‘The Next Step’
At the Belousov’s guest house in Santa Monica, Tatiana Tomicki said she’d like the same for her parents. They’ve applied for Temporary Protected Status so far, but she hopes to sponsor them for green cards, so they can stay permanently.
“I think it is [the] next step,” Tomicki said.
She also hopes to find them a more permanent home soon, as they’re expected to vacate the guest house by next month. Tomicki has talked of moving her parents into the studio apartment that her brother now occupies once he moves out, and the two siblings splitting their parents’ rent.
But for Lyubov and Valerii Belousov, taking big next steps here isn’t easy, not emotionally at least.
Home is still in Ukraine, where their apartment is still standing. Friends check in on it now and then.
Meanwhile, life here as newcomers at their age is hard. It all makes them feel unsettled.
With a deep breath and a sigh, Lyubov began to explain why it’s hard for them to think long-term right now, as her daughter translated.
“She said at this particular moment she can’t make any plans, at all, because she doesn’t know how long the war is going to go for,” Tomicki said. “Maybe it will end tomorrow, maybe it will end in five years — she doesn’t know.”
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