Sebastopol World Friends’ guiding principle is “World Peace, One Friend at a Time”. This is a story of that principle at work in real life.
Sebastopol World Friends board member, Valeria Churma, and her husband Jeff have just recently welcomed a Ukrainian family into their home. It was not a simple journey and SWF connections helped it happen at each step. Vlad and his two 8-year-old daughters arrived in Sebastopol with Val and Jeff on October 12th. They are getting settled and the girls have started school at Parkside School in Sebastopol.
The story of their journey here really starts in 2008. Sebastopol World Friends hosted a delegation from Ukraine during that year sponsored through a U.S. Congressional program called Open World. This program is designed to bring 5 person delegations with a translator and facilitator of promising young adult professionals from former Soviet countries to the United States to experience our ways of doing things in various subject areas. The 2008 group consisted of teachers who experienced various aspects of our educational system. The facilitator for that group, Natasha Shtanko, stayed with Val and Jeff that year and a number of other times in subsequent years with other Open World groups. Val, Jeff, and Natasha formed a life-long bond. Not only was Natasha instrumental in facilitating Open World groups here in the U.S., she also helped organize the Kyiv portion of SWF high-school student and adult trips in 2011 and 2017.
During the 2011 SWF Ukraine trip Natasha introduced us to her new husband, Vlad Uchen. In February 2014 she gave birth to twin girls, Uliana and Polina- a truly miraculous and joyful event as Natasha had had great difficulty with fertility. Many of us on the 2017 SWF trip to Ukraine had the opportunity to meet the girls in Kyiv. It was always a dream of Natasha’s to have the girls spend time in Sebastopol and learn English. Val, Jeff, and Natasha stayed in close contact throughout these years and shared those dreams.
Quite sadly, Natasha developed cancer and died in October 2021. She was a bright spark of life in the lives of all who met her, especially Vlad and the girls.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is a pivotal event in the lives of millions of people. Through sporadic contacts and reports Val and Jeff were able to keep in touch with Vlad. The horror of their day-to-day experience in and out of bomb shelters was heartbreaking.
Through our contacts with the Birko family, founders of Friends of Chyhyryn in Sebastopol’s Ukrainian Sister City, Val and Jeff were able to help facilitate a safe, but harrowing escape from Kyiv, while it was under siege, to the Polish border where they were met by the Birko’s son Ivan who, along with his family in Poland, helped the Uchen family find housing, schools and the other necessities of life as refugees in Poland. Ivan Birko and Vlad had never met before that. It was only because of complex connections to Sebastopol through SWF that it happened.
After much consideration, Vlad and the girls and the Churma’s decided to pursue their official relocation to the U.S. under the Uniting for Ukraine program. Despite some fits and starts with passports, applications, and other details, Val and Jeff flew to Poland on October 5th and on October 12th came back to Sebastopol with Vlad, Uliana, Polina and Brownie, their cat who was with them through their entire journey . We are pleased and proud to welcome them into the Sebastopol World Friends family. Sometime soon there will be an official memorial event to celebrate Natasha’s life. We believe that she would be delighted that her family is now safe in Sebastopol.